Monday, June 23, 2014

What's In a Name? Ask the Washington Redskins.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."  --Atticus Finch, from “To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee

What’s in a name?

Names define us as human beings, individually and collectively.  No name, no identity. No clear understanding of who we are in the world.  When a baby is born the first act of the new parents is to name that child, give them a clear moniker by which they will be known from that day forward.  Names matter.  A lot. To imagine otherwise, that a name is “just” a name, a mere word or a harmless descriptor seems to me either incredibly naive or incredibly tone deaf. 

Which brings me to the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, based in our nation’s capitol.  The Redskins are under increasing pressure from Native Americans, politicians, journalists, NFL players and even some fans to change their name for one simple reason.  “Redskin” is an offensive, derogatory and racist term to large numbers of Native Americans, who see it as an ugly stereotype at best, hate speech at worst. 

Last week this debate intensified when the United States Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the team’s five trademark registrations, ruling that these violated the Lanham Act, a 1946 federal law prohibiting trademarks that “may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs.”  In other words the term “Redskin” and the symbols connected to it are insulting to Native Americans. 

But apparently Redskins’ ownership won’t budge on this issue.  In a widely quoted USA Today article from a year ago, team owner Dan Snyder said, "We will never change the name of the team....It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps." 

I’m not sure why Snyder and so many others still ignore the hurtful and nasty reality of “Redskin” as a mean and even cruel term to Native Americans. Is it about the money, profits associated with that pro team?  Is it about tradition? This is just who we are, always have been, always will be!   Is it a backlash against so called “political correctness”? Folks just need to get over it. It is just a name, right? 

Yet would anyone cheer the use of other racial or ethnic terms or skin colors to name a sports team? Can you or I imagine cheering for the Baton Rouge Brownskins or the Seattle Yellowskins? How about the Jacksonville Jews or the Boston Micks, a term derisive to Irish folks like me?  I hope not. That’s not just acceptable.  So why is it ok to give a social pass to names which insult a whole group of Americans?

It’s not just the NFL which needs to look at this issue. Hundreds of high school, college and pro teams across the U.S. still use Native American names and mascots.  Go to an Atlanta Braves game and you get to do the tomahawk chop.  Check out the image of “Chief Wahoo”, the logo for baseball’s Cleveland Indians.  And yes, I know that when many of these team names were adopted long, long ago, it may not have been done in a spirit of insult.  I get that. 

But it is 2014.  America has changed.  What once passed as “normal” and socially acceptable racial and ethnic stereotypes: these are now taboo, and rightfully so.  Why this last holdout? This final hanging on to a so-called “right” to names which so clearly are viewed by fellow Americans as painful? There are 566 Native American tribes in the U.S. with 5.2 million members. Don’t they deserve some respect and dignity too? 

As a person of faith, one of the most important spiritual ideals my religion teaches is empathy: the ability to put one’s self in the shoes of another person and by doing so to see life through their experience.  This is what I know.  If I was talking to a Native American friend, would I ever look them right in the eye and call them a “redskin” to their face, especially if I knew it would insult them? Would you?  I’d like to think not.

So why is it still ok to use language which so clearly is experienced as harmful by others?  It’s not up to the government to solve this problem.  It is up to you and me and sports fans to be the ones who call for a change.  A large group of our fellow neighbors and citizens asks that we as a society no longer use imagery or names which they experience as racist and hurtful.  For me, it is that simple.  It is that clear.

What’s in a name? Everything.

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