Thursday, October 31, 2013

redskins on the rippling fields of racism

A columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press contacted me about the whole Redskins name controversy in light of the protest against it which will take place next week when RGIII and his compadres play the Minnesota Vikings. Basically, he asked if the name was offensive or not. In response I got up on my high horse, dug in the spurs, and gave it free rein to bolt over the rippling fields of racism.

Damn straight the Redskins name is offensive. It's racially loaded at best and thoroughly racist at worst; it is degrading and dehumanizing both in the imagery it depends on and in the type of "savage" behavior it allows fans to engage in--and seemingly forgives. 

I'm not abusing Indian peoples,
I'm abusing white privilege
Though fans argue that the name honors Native people, what it really honors is the fans' (or more generally Americans') idea of what they wish, think, and believe Indian people were (not what Indian people are). Images like the "Redskins" and other mascots generally place Native people in the past, the one that the rest of America moved away from and embalms the idea of Indianness as a relic of a bygone age. Such images propagate the notion that Native people are only Native if they look and live like they did 150 years ago--forgetting, of course, that 300 years before 150 years ago, which is to say 450 years ago, those people looked and dressed differently than they did after European contact, which is to say that change in material life is constant even as the bedrock of cultural ethics is sustained. 

Worse still, those mascot images ignore who Native people are today and how they may be affected by being treated as objects of the past rather than as people who live down the street, shop at the grocery store, teach at universities, work in state and tribal governments, own coffee shops and art galleries, write for newspapers, star in movies, raise their kids, play for the Boston Red Sox (as Jacoby Ellsbury, who is Navajo, does), or serve as US Ambassador to Libya (as Chris Stevens, who was Chinook, did before he was assassinated in the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi). Why don't teams like the Redskins ever think about having their mascot enter the field in a suit and tie or in blue jeans and a t-shirt that proclaims "Native Pride"? Answering my own question, it's because the reality of Native life today does not accord with the fantasy that American culture has constructed of Indian people. While Native people know they are NOT relics, when it uses such imagery the larger society tells itself that the Indians it wants to believe in are relics. It's time that the larger society listens to the stories that Native people tell of their experiences in the world today, rather than listening to those same old mascot stories about headdresses, tomahawk chops, and tom-tom hey-how-are-ya drumming that puts Native people in the rearview mirror every time the Redskins play. Or the Braves. Or the Indians. Or...well, you get the point.

While many (most? all?) Native people feel this imagery is dehumanizing and rightly worry about the effect such images have on the members of their communities, we need to also consider that it dehumanizes those who use and defend the name. I believe any time any of us act in a manner that is derogatory towards a person or a people, we diminish our own humanity--we dehumanize ourselves. Even if our societies and the institutions those societies produce are often pessimistic and hold that racism is part and parcel of the human condition, I believe people are optimistic and want to learn about--and from--others. Back in the 1970s when NASA sent the  two Voyager spacecraft out into the universe, they put a record on each one in which people from all over the Earth offered words of welcome in their various languages to extraterrestrials that may or may not exist and may or may not ever intercept the record. But hopeful humans expressed a desire to hear from them. That idea of reaching out to others, with curious interest and a desire to say hello and break bread with strangers defines much of our humanity. In her wonderful book Dwellings, the Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan points out that a Chinese person on the record asks of the aliens, "Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have the time." That statement perfectly captures what I mean by the optimism of our humanity.

Hey, where are their feathers and tomahawks?
Oh, that's right we don't want the aliens to think we're xenophobes.
A racial epithet (and make no mistake, Redskin is an epithet) affects the humanity of both those it is aimed at and those who make use of the word, even if that use is a seemingly innocent part of the spectacle of a big Sunday afternoon (or Thursday night) football game. Racism and the tolerance of racism diminishes everyone.

America, fuck yeah!
After I sent the above message to him, the columnist got back to me and asked what name the team should adopt when they finally detach from their blinkered love of the bigoted image. As he suggested the Washington Do Nothings, I knew he was comfortable with irony, so I offered this:

The Washington Monuments might be interesting and appropriate given the locale, dull to some degree, but there's definitely some interesting things they could do mascot-wise with the giant phallus imagery of the Washington Monument. It certainly would project a dauntingly macho image to their opponents, though sideline and half-time performances would likely not be appropriate for family viewing--but then neither is the continuing use of racist imagery.