The day after the Super Bowl, I went to a visitation service for my great uncle Barney Brewington, who had passed away days before. For various reasons, I don’t know the Brewington side of my family as well as I should, so it was good to see so many of them.
Something about the convergence of the Super Bowl and a gathering of my Indian relatives got me thinking about the Washington Redskins. Before the Panthers franchise started, that’s who most folks around here pulled for. Joe Gibbs was a saint. Art Monk was my favorite wide receiver.
In recent years, a growing movement has called on the Washington Redskins franchise to change their name. The name “Redskins,” they say, is racist.
Before I go on, let me be clear: just because a sports team name is accused of being racist does not make the players, coaches, and generations of fans tied to that team accused racists. So let’s not get emotional about this.
For the sake of this column, it doesn’t matter whether or not the Redskins name is racist. But it is incredibly stupid and insensitive.
The name describes an entire race of people, not based on their history, culture, or tradition, but based solely on their skin color. Imagine the New England Pale-faced or the Atlanta Ebonyskins. Most of us would find those names awful, right?
Indians are not just one race — they make up 500 nations, each with a unique culture and history. Some survived European and American contact. But most were crippled through disease, conquest, and broken treaties. Traditions were lost, tongues forgotten, and many of these nations have done the best they could to re-forge a set of traditions. They go by many names: Cherokee, Navajo, Seminole, Choctaw, Ojibwe, Lakota, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Coharie. They call themselves Native American, and they call themselves Indian.
But none call themselves “Redskins.”
So here’s a simple test for determining whether a team sports name is appropriate. If your team is named after a nation of people, it’s probably okay. For example, Florida State Seminoles is okay because it’s named for a people with a unique culture and history. Ditto for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. However, anything that relies on gross generalizations about a people, whether foul or flattering, probably is inappropriate.
The name Redskins is another symptom of America’s collective amnesia, its unconscious attempt to ignore or forget America’s original sin — its treatment of Native peoples. A name change would be a small move to correcting that.
Who knows, if the Redskins decide to change their name, perhaps their luck will turn around and they’ll start earning winning seasons again.