As usual, there was a lot of talk leading up to the Super Bowl this past Sunday, and much of the talk had nothing to do with the game itself; after all, many people watch for the advertisements. As usual, there was plenty of controversy, ranging from Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of Israel’s SodaStream, to Coca-Cola’s multilingual ad, to the interracial couple selling Cheerios. Polarizing ads come with the territory and generate good publicity. There is one controversy, though, that should give us all pause: the name of the Washington, D.C. football team, the Redskins, which the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians have begun a campaign to protest. Ideally, that word should not even be printable; it’s a racial slur akin to the n-word, just as offensive and hurtful to those to whom it supposedly refers.
There are still a few cringe-worthy, brand-related images and names that exist despite their outdated and highly inflammatory content. However, few national football teams have racial slurs emblazoned on their jerseys. The very fact that a mostly non-American-Indian football team has appropriated an entire culture as its mascot should be uncomfortable to many students here at the University. If courses here have taught us anything, it’s that belittling another culture and reducing it to a symbol is one of the worst forms of racism.
Throughout United States history, advocates for civil rights have drawn attention to the incredible power that words have to harm people. Some activists within affected communities have sought to reappropriate derogatory terms, to “take back” the words others have used to describe them and transform them into terms of empowerment.
I do not agree with this principle. I think it only reinforces stereotypes and sends the wrong message to people who do not belong to the community to which the word refers. The fact is, though, that no one who self-identifies as American-Indian has sought to take back or reclaim the word “redskin”; there is no movement, national or otherwise, to embrace the term or any other slurs relating to the American-Indian community. No one consents to the label, and worse, many major organizations who represent American-Indian interests have been campaigning against the use of this word for decades, citing evidence that the use of the word negatively impacts American Indians.
This winter break, I had the opportunity to conduct research for my thesis in Rome. I had never been to Italy before, and while most of my experiences there were positive, I found that, for some reason, several Italians I met did not seem to understand the offensiveness of the n-word.
I spent a day with a friend of a friend who was my age, a student majoring in history at a university in Florence. At one point, he was explaining the symbolism behind the shield of Pope Benedict XVI, which has a crude rendering of an African woman on it. He explained that Italians use the word “morros” to describe people of African descent, and then, thinking that I hadn’t quite gotten the picture yet, he broke out two derogatory terms in English. I told him that those words were highly offensive and carried severely negative connotations; he responded that Italians did not consider their own term to be offensive, so why shouldn’t he use them? He continued to explain the other symbols on the pope’s shield as if nothing had happened. The point is, not everyone realizes the meaning behind these words or acknowledges their offensiveness, but that does not erase their context or mitigate their impact. Just because football fans do not confront the racist context of the Washington, D.C. mascot on a daily basis does not mean that that context does not exist, or that it does not need to be addressed.
As the Resolution on the Washington, D.C. Football Team Name put before The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights notes, there is a strong precedent when it comes to discontinuing the use of pejorative names and images in athletics. According to the resolution, several other teams have changed their names, mascots, images, or behaviors to address concerns, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association has instituted and enforced a general policy that punishes teams for continuing to use such offensive names, mascots, images, or behaviors. The resolution argues that none of these changes has produced a harmful effect on the teams or their brand-related franchises. This problem should be dealt with in the same way that people have acted to address other acts of racism and prejudice: responsibly and determinedly, with fervor and commitment to make up for the impact of prior inaction and prevent further damage.
We do not live in a post-racial or post-racist society; we grapple with many of the same challenges that have historically compelled people to advocate for improved consideration of civil and human rights. The United States has taken significant steps to address issues of prejudice and racism, and it still has a long way to go. Frankly, though, it has long been remiss in addressing the concerns of the people whose ancestors lived on this soil long before this country was founded. We cannot undo the acts of genocide or the effects of systematic, long-term degradation, violence, and cultural erasure. The very least we can do under the circumstances is stop using outdated offensive terminology, and call on others to do the same.
Right now, several organizations are conducting campaigns to call on decision-makers to take a stand and to pressure the Washington, D.C. football team franchise to change its name. If you want to take action, you can easily sign an online petition (changethemascot.org), call your local congresspeople, or better yet, call up one of the organizations taking action and ask them how you can help, and talk about the issue with those around you. This is a troubling legacy we have inherited from previous generations, and it behooves us to act so that we don’t bequeath hate to future generations.
Alperstein is a member of the class of 2014.