WASHINGTON, D.C. — This is the last Slate article that will refer to the Washington NFL team as the Redskins.
For decades, American Indian activists and others have been asking, urging and haranguing the Washington Redskins to ditch their nickname, calling it a racist slur and an insult to Indians. They have collected historical and cultural examples of the use of redskin as a pejorative and twice sued to void the Redskins trademark, arguing that the name cannot be legally protected because it’s a slur. (A ruling on the second suit is expected soon; the first failed for technical reasons.) A group in the House of Representatives also recently introduced a bill to void the trademark. The team has been criticized from every different direction, by every kind of person. More than 20 years ago, Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, no politically correct squish, urged the team to abandon the name. Today, the mayor of Washington, D.C. — the mayor! — goes out of his way to avoid saying the team’s name.
Why, then, has nothing changed? Because the choice of the team’s name belongs to one person, Washington owner Daniel Snyder. He has brushed off the controversy with arm waves at “tradition,” “competitiveness” and “honor.” He recently told USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” Earlier this year, some Redskins flunky was assigned the job of locating high school teams around the country called Redskins, and found 70 of them, which proved very little except that the Redskins are capable of spreading a bad example to the young. (A Google search of “Redskins” “nickname” and “high school” turns up story after story of schools dropping the nickname.) And this May, the team pathetically trotted out a guy named Chief Dodson to explain that his people were “quote honored” by the Redskins name. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell cited Dodson’s support in a letter to the Congressional Native American Caucus, apparently not realizing that the supposedly Redskins-loving Dodson wasn’t a real chief.
Snyder is a dismal failure as an owner, a megalomaniacal bully, and a frivolous litigant, but I doubt he is a bigot. I’m a lifelong fan of the team, and Snyder and his players should be justly proud of the way their team bridges black and white Washington. So I don’t think Snyder’s lying to us or to himself when he sees only the bright side of the name.
And though Redskins critics are reluctant to admit it, the name is a subtle case. It is not an open-and-shut outrage like the still-used nickname “Savages.” The word redskin has a relatively innocent history. As Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard has shown, European settlers in the 18th century seem to have adopted the term from Native Americans, who used “red skin” to describe themselves, and it was generally a descriptor, not an insult. Over time, it became a more ambiguous, and less benign term, sometimes used as a slur. When Washington owner George Preston Marshall — who was admittedly a racist, refusing to integrate his team until 1962 — chose the name in the 1930s, he was almost certainly trying to invoke Indian bravery and toughness, not to impugn Indians.
But time passes, the world changes, and all of a sudden a well-intentioned symbol is an embarrassment. Here’s a quick thought experiment: Would any team, naming itself today, choose “Redskins” or adopt the team’s Indian-head logo? Of course it wouldn’t.
At the time the team was named, America was barely a generation past the Indian Wars, and at the beginning of the golden age of the Western. American Indians were powerful symbolically, but had a limited role in American public life. The 80 years since have witnessed the triumph of the civil rights movement and a powerful effort by American Indians to reclaim their identity and win self-determination.
Americans think differently about race and the language of race than we did 80 years ago. We now live in a world, for instance, in which it’s absolutely unacceptable for an NFL player to utter a racial slur. Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok. It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others. In public discourse, we no longer talk about groups based on their physical traits: No one would ever refer to Asians as yellow-skinned. This is why the majority of teams with Indian nicknames have dropped them over the past 40 years.
So while the name Redskins is only a bit offensive, it’s extremely tacky and dated — like an old aunt who still talks about “colored people” or limps her wrist to suggest someone’s gay.
Slate is far from the first to take a stand against the nickname. Why are we joining Washington City Paper and writer Gregg Easterbrook and writers from the Buffalo News and the Philadelphia Daily News? We’re a national, general-interest magazine, not The Washington Post or ESPN. Our coverage is sporadic, and I doubt that Dan Snyder or Roger Goodell have Google alerts for our NFL stories. When we stop using the name Redskins, hardly anyone will notice. But it will also represent no great sacrifice for us to stop using the word — it’s easy enough to substitute “Washington” or “Washington’s NFL team.” (To be clear, though we’re striking the word from our vocabulary, we will not bowdlerize quotes — if a public official utters the nickname in a newsworthy speech, we will not strike the word Redskins.)
Changing how you talk changes how you think. The adoption of the term “African-American” — replacing “Negro” and “colored” — in the aftermath of the civil rights movement brought a welcome symmetry with Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans, groups defined by geographic origin rather than by race or color. Replacing “same-sex marriage” with “marriage equality” helped make gay marriage a universal cause rather than a special pleading. If Slate can do a small part to change the way people talk about the team, that will be enough.
Close readers of Slate know that we are owned by The Washington Post Co., which just sold the Washington Post newspaper, the market-maker in Redskins coverage. Slate and the Washington Post newspaper have always been editorially independent, and what we’ve decided has no bearing on the newspaper, which still refers to the Redskins. Speaking as a Post subscriber, I wish they would change. The Post is — along with ESPN and the other NFL broadcasters — one of the only institutions that could bring genuine pressure on Snyder to drop the name. But it’s only fair to acknowledge that it’s a much more difficult decision for the newspaper than it is for us, given that covering Dan Snyder’s team is essential to the Post’s editorial mission.
And what should replace Redskins? A D.C. city councilmember cleverly proposed “Redtails,” the nickname of the Tuskegee Airmen. It nods at the city’s African-American heritage, and would allow Snyder to keep a feather in the logo. If he doesn’t like that, he could call them the Snyders, a name that would sate even his ego. But here’s my choice: If the team’s star quarterback works out as well as Snyder hopes, there’s a perfect name that would allow the team to keep the feathers and the ferocity: the Washington Griffins.
Plotz is Editor of Slate.
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