October 18, 2013

Redskins, Blackskins, Brownskins, Whiteskins: Race and Team Mascots

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman 

This is a busy and stressful time to be President of the United States: The government was until recently shutdown, he’s facing an impasse with Congressional Republicans, the on-going violence in Syria (not to mention the rest of the Middle East), the recent commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the early snags of the Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare), and the naming of the new chief of the Federal Reserve. Despite all of this, President Obama found time recently to weigh in on a matter that many Americans are probably more familiar with than most of these other current events: The Washington Redskins football team mascot.  

Recently, President Obama said that if he was the owner of the Washington Redskins he would consider changing their name and logo. The President’s remarks come at a time when there is increasing pressure to replace the mascot of the football team in our nation’s capital. Recognizing that the mascot is deeply offensive to many individuals (even the dictionary defines “redskin” as offensive), President Obama has sided with those who feel that nostalgia should not trump “the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”  The controversial use of Native American mascots in sports has been around for decades. As early as the 1970s, universities began changing their names from Indians, Warriors, Chiefs, and Redskins to names that were not deemed racist or disparaging to groups of people.       

Last year, the University of North Dakota actually took this measure for the third time. The Fighting Sioux nickname was first retired in 2010 following pressure from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In 2011 state lawmakers passed a bill requiring that the Fighting Sioux be used as the mascot of the university. Later that year, the law was repealed in a special IMAG3332legislative session but that ruling was put on hold when enough petitions were collected to put the matter to a state vote. In June 2012, two-thirds of North Dakota voters (in what was a relatively large voter turnout) favored getting ride of the mascot for good, and a few days later the state’s Board of Higher Education quickly voted to retire the mascot.

The timeline in North Dakota reflects the emotions involved in this issue. Advocates of the continued use of Native American mascots express deep emotional ties to the tradition and history that these names hold for them. Such advocates argue that they are honoring Native Americans, not disparaging them, and that they are using these images in respectful and meaningful ways. (Here are some examples of political cartoons depicting the problems with Native American mascots).

The intensity of emotions that this conflict produces was captured in the documentary, In Whose Honor, which details the controversy surrounding Chief Illiniwek, the mascot of the University of Illinois. Chief Illiniwek was the official mascot since 1926 but in 2007, after a twenty-year struggle, the University finally retired the mascot.

 

If you listen to the discourse coming from the ardent supporters of Native American mascots it is all based on a collective individualism of emotion: we love our mascot, we feel connected to it, it is part of who we are. There is even a deep sense of entitlement in these proclamations: Because we feel this way, no one should be allowed to take it away from us. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it ignores the daily reality that others are living. In other words, these arguments are based solely on the emotions of the supporters and not the actual lived experiences of those who are being affected.   

This point was emphasized in March 2007 when the American Sociological Association issued a statement advocating for the discontinuation of Native American nicknames, logos, and mascots in sports. In addition to pointing out that many Native American individuals and groups vehemently oppose the use of their names and images as sport mascots, the statement also made the following important but often overlooked points:  

Social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport reflect and reinforce misleading stereotypes of Native Americans in both past and contemporary times; harm Native American people in psychological, educational, and social ways; and undermine education about the lives of Native American peoples.

I am not sure if the supporters of the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs, or any of the other professional or amateur teams that still have Native American mascots understand this point. Those opposed to the use of these mascots are not solely basing their objections on emotions. It’s not just that they may feel sad that these mascots are being used; rather, their opposition is based on actual, measured effects: Depressed self-esteem, a lowered sense of community worth, and reduced aspirations for achievements among Native American students. 

One of the great benefits of studying sociology is that it has the potential to make us more empathetic. Once we learn about the plight of others and realize that not everyone is afforded the same opportunities and privileges, we may feel more compelled to take the perspective of others into greater consideration. The issue surrounding Native American mascots such as the Washington Redskins is asking us to do just that: Consider what it must feel like for Native Americans to continually see offensive renderings of their name used for enjoyment and entertainment. We would never allow mascots named Blackskins, Brownskins, or even Whiteskins. So why do we still allow Redskins?

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Comments

Could anything be more silly? Are white people white? Are black people black? Nope!! Case closed.

TOUGHskins; THINskins; and AMERIkins.

What's really silly is that polls have been done for years. Correlation is not causation.

Meanings of words have been changed by fractious factions of minorities. The change of consciousness can sometimes be(often is) the case that it's highly divisive under the guise of sensitivity. We are over-sensitive about everything to where it diminishes our cohesion as a society (Machiavvelli and Sun-Tzu etc have written about using this to divide and conquer strong nations).

Is it any wonder that very small minorities of people's concerns were focused on until the mountains arose out of the molehills.

Great societies and metals are base upon blends/meltings/and some relinquishment of identity to evolve grow and change into unity....not divisiveness... Please stop adding to it.

Let's grow TOUGHskins; not highlight our THINskins and become AMERIkins.

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