Why the ‘Redskins’ is a Racist Name
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For quite some time now there has been a sizable controversy surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins with numerous Native American groups and individuals, along with a range of supporters, decrying the club’s name and iconography as hopelessly racist and discriminatory. Perhaps predictably that chorus has been met with some pretty staunch counter protests from those who argue that the team’s name and logo, which features a stereotypical Native American in profile, are not racist at all but serve to, in some way, honour America’s Indian population. Though I’ve spoken at length about issues related to this topic, particularly the use of ‘red face’ in films like the Lone Ranger, I’ve yet to speak on this subject at length because it was my hope that the sheer amount of upset shown by the team’s detractors might lead to some voluntary change. Unfortunately that has yet to occur and, if my twitter feed is anything to go by, many of those who are willing to defend the club’s name and iconography are becoming increasingly defensive about the issue. For that reason I felt now was an appropriate time to give some historic context to a discussion that has become, for some at least, increasingly divisive and bitter. If you are one of those listeners who feels that the use of the name is fine then all I ask is that you hear me out to the end and know that if you still have an issue with what I’m saying that I would be happy to have a constructive conversation with you about this matter on twitter. I have no doubt that the vast majority of those people who defend the name and club are good and noble people but I have seen quite a lot of misinformation and inaccurate history drifting about to support some of their arguments and that is something that has to be addressed.
So let’s start with the name itself and the argument that it somehow originated historically among Native Americans, thus making its modern day use appropriate or excusable. The historic record is a deeply flawed and incomplete thing which relies largely upon written documents. The problem is that written documents were historically produced by only a small portion of the population with some groups represented in the historic record only through the words, and by proxy, the perspective, of others. Native Americans, for example, were a mostly non-literate set of cultures until the comparatively recent past and, as a result, did not produce the type of records upon which most modern historians rely. When relevant written records were created they were typically produced by outsiders who viewed those peoples through a lens shaped by their own particular social and cultural experiences, most of which were quite different to those experienced by the peoples they were describing. Sometimes this led to obvious biases and discrepancies appearing in the written record –obvious cases of bigotry and unfair documentary treatment– but in other cases it created a whole range of much subtler issues which constantly plague historians using written sources. When historians attempt to understand the history of Native Americans they primary rely upon materials written by outsiders which employ outsider perspectives. When European or European American observers were not about, written records, even deeply flawed and prejudiced ones, were not produced at all and all of this creates huge blind spots. Even when records do exist, Native Americans are very often viewed through a European American lens and when it comes to the issue of race that is a really important that must be considered.
Although it might not seem like it, race is not, historically speaking, the ever-present force that many of us assume it to be. Human beings have probably used prejudice of one kind or another since before the birth of recorded history, but the concept or race and racism are comparatively new. The modern construct of race probably dates back to the late fifteenth century with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In essence, Spanish authorities rejected the idea that Jewish individuals could truly become Christian, implying that there was always something inherently different about them, and that is the essence of the concept of race – at least one group perceives a core difference in another group which cannot be removed by renouncement or the adoption of new ways or customs. Skin colour had nothing to do with it; it was a symptom, not a disease. Race was and is about something else, an almost indescribable essence that is attributed to, or imposed upon, another group which is sometimes, though not always, denoted by some external physical marker. In our modern world skin colour has become such a ubiquitous marker that it is almost impossible for some people to separate it from the concept. But separate it we must.
The use of skin colour to impose fictitious distinctions upon our species is not a particularly natural thing to do. We don’t, after all, separate people into separate categories based upon the colour of their eyes but in the early modern period, roughly the fifteenth to the late eighteenth century, the use of skin colour as an indicator of some other, deeper difference started to evolve among Europeans. Probably the most obvious example being the way in which people from Africa, who tended to have very dark skin, had certain negative values and assumptions imposed upon them. Africans suffered terribly in the context of racism’s evolution but the imposition of a particular skin colour onto Native Americans was a more gradual and inconsistent process. That might sound like an odd statement –the imposition of skin colour onto Native Americans– but it really isn’t when you understand the historic context. You see, for a long time Europeans believed that Native Americans possessed the same skin colour as themselves and that it darkened in adulthood due to their use of various ointments. Historian Alden T. Vaughan has written at length on that subject and he points out that it was only over the course of a long period of time that Europeans gradually came to identify the Indians as possessing a different skin colour. Quite when that occurred is a matter that is up for debate, as is the point when Native Americans came to be viewed as a race by Europeans – that is to a say a people who possessed a certain immutable quality. Right into the nineteenth century and beyond they were seen as a people who, if removed from their surroundings, culture, and parents, could effectively be turned into something else. Consider that education was held back from African Americans for a long time; Native Americans, on the other hand, often had European-style education imposed upon them. Sometimes it was wanted, but often it was used as a method of deliberately eradicating Native American culture. To put that another way, though there was no consensus on the issue, many believed that being an Indian was a state of mind rather than a fact of biology.
Many others, however, did not and the phrase ‘red skin’ fitted that more reductive view of race. On the one hand Native Americans were seen as a cultural group and were attacked along lines that were designed to eradicate their society and sense of self; on the other they were seen as a racial group, that latter label empowering European Americans to take a particularly brutal, uncompromising stance against them. The ‘red skin’ label was not one that was organically applied to Native Americans or adopted by them naturally; it evolved over a period of time reflecting the growing importance of race, as a concept, among Europeans and European Americans. That Native Americans ever had to use the label did not reflect some natural recognition, for want of a better expression, on their part regarding its appropriateness but rather their willingness or need to speak in terms that could be understood with the colonising peoples they had to deal with. ‘Red Skin’ is, then, a product of the colonial experience, a label applied to a broad range of people to denote a particular way of thinking which came into being among Europeans. Its continued use today must be seen in that context because I have seen people claim that it was a label which came about through Native American use. It was not, it was a label which evolved to accommodate an increasingly racialized European and European American view of the world which was imposed upon a broad range of peoples who only gradually developed a sense of a collective identity in response to it.
Ok, so a theoretical critic of this lecture might then say that that is all well and good but that their particular use of the phrase, or its use in the context of a sports team, has nothing to do with that historic context, that it has simply become an accepted and widely used phrase to describe an admittedly broad group of peoples. The problem with that argument is that whilst, to that individual, it might appear innocent enough and hardly worthy of the outcry it has generated, the phrase continues to be mired its own history and that prevents it from become the innocent label some people clearly wish that it was. That theoretical defender of the label might not have anything against any Native Americans, they might have no desire to cause offence or upset, but if that is their intention it is incumbent upon them to recognise that they are defending or using a label that is betraying their otherwise good nature. Whether such a theoretical person admits it or not, the phrase is rooted in the history of colonialism and the long term process by which non-Indians defined what it was, or was not, to be an Indian. Native Americans do not, after all, have red skin. It is a fictitious label used to paint a large number of different cultural groups the same proverbial colour and its continued use today perpetuates that process.
As does, I believe, the team’s logo, particularly when used in conjunction with the team’s name. We should remember that there is a phenomenal amount of variety in the physical form and that many Native Americans do not fit the stereotypical portrait that is often used to depict them. Like the use of the phrase ‘Redskins’, it helps to impose upon a broad and varied group a type of physical ideal which, for a variety of reasons, can be damaging to those who do not match it. That might sound like a comparatively trivial point but consider that the logo fits into a broader pattern of non-Indians defining what it is to be an Indian, both in physical and cultural terms. That logo is a stereotype, an outsider’s imaginary idealisation of the physical attributes that came to mind when they were tasked with its creation. By perpetuating that logo, those ideas are being disseminated, passed on to others in such a way as they become an ingrained part of our cultural dialogue. It is not that the designer of that logo was responsible for the creation of the stereotype, but they did help to perpetuate it. The logo must be seen in the context of those fans who wear a sort of approximation of Plains Indian dress when they support their team. That dress, even if accurate, is not a toy for non-Indians to play with. Native Americans should use or not use that type of clothing as they see fit; they should define themselves, or not define themselves, through dress as they deem appropriate. It is not up to non-Indians to define an idealised image of what it is to a Native American. When Ted Nugent said that he was ‘more Indian than most Indians’ he was telling us much, much more about how some non-Indians view Native Americans than what it is to actually be a Native American. He was measuring himself against an imaginary yardstick, defined and perpetuated by outsiders for outsiders. Hunting with a bow and arrow does not make one more or less Indian, but by declaring that to be a relevant measure he was saying that, in his view, the idealised Indian is one who can be characterised by male hunters from centuries past, not, say, female activists concerned about how modern racial and gendered imagery impacts their lives and the prospects of their children. We should remember that race is not really about skin colour. It’s about power and the one thing that the ‘Redskins’ controversy has shown is that Native Americans have little of it compared to those people who would impose their view of what it is to be an Indian upon the world. Many Native Americans have protested vehemently against the name in the past few years but they cannot force a change on those people who are unwilling to let the name go.
That’s something that should be remembered by those who insist that they are honouring Native Americans by keeping the name and logo unchanged. Though I believe that the majority of people who say that do have good intentions, they must accept that they have the lion’s share of the power in that relationship, that they are a part of the group who has the final say on whether or not the name stays or disappears. Native Americans can protest and exert pressure, but little more. The decision not to allow it to be trademarked was a victory, but only a symbolic one; the name remains the same and, indeed, the club’s owner and supporters appear to be doubling down on the team’s iconography.
That leads me to my final point, the idea that those who support the name and logo, etc, are honouring the Indians. Though I accept that most people who make that defence sincerely believe that to be true I would ask them to consider that when the people you say you are honouring are telling you that it is disrespectful, you are not honouring them. You are forcing your idea of what it is to honour those people onto them and that, fundamentally, is disrespectful. You cannot force your own construct of honour on another group of people if they reject it. If you continue to do so you must accept that you are categorically not honouring them but imposing something onto them, which is precisely the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. If you insist upon continuing you must accept that what you are doing is meant to satisfy your own personal needs, not theirs. The recent deluge of criticisms from Native Americans over the name amount to a mass rejection of that title and insisting that you are paying respect by using it is to ignore, and thus imply the unimportance of, that very same group you say you are honouring. You do not honour people by forcing a label upon them which they have rejected as offensive or derogatory. It is not a matter of principle to keep the name; it is a matter of principle to denounce it.
The phrase ‘Red Skin’ is one that grew out of a historic process that saw European and European Americans come to increasingly view the world around them in racial terms. It was not a natural label that was organically coined or adopted by Native Americans but was the result of a long process which dehumanised and homogenised Native American cultures and communities in the non-Indian imagination. Its use today cannot be separated from that heritage nor easily defended – the phrase was never consciously meant to honour or respect the peoples to which it was applied. It was and is a label which defines a broad collection of peoples by the standards of outsiders and its continued use and defence has to be seen in that context.