The Name is the Message

By October 20, 2014No Comments

By John Tateishi

In March, Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL franchise Washington Redskins, announced that he was creating the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation to “provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities.”

A noble gesture indeed, if it weren’t so transparent and offensive.

Besieged by criticism from native tribes over the use of the name “Redskins,” a word American Indians find demeaning and offensive, Snyder apparently hopes to buy the good will of at least some tribes through his foundation, which exists to show that the team and its owner are sensitive to Native Americans and do, in fact, care about their well-being.

And with a twist of the knife to ensure his message of defiance is clear, Snyder purposely includes the word “Redskins” in the name of this new foundation. It would be like someone creating a foundation for the Japanese American community and naming it the American Jap Foundation.

When asked about the pressures to change the name of the team in a recent interview, Snyder said, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple.”

Snyder owns the team and can do with it practically whatever he wants, but he’s got to be pretty stupid to think that this issue will go away if he just remains obstinate. A name change is inevitable, no matter how much he thinks he can charm the tribes with his demonstration of good will through a foundation whose name offends Native Americans to the core.

Supporting Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to Congress stating that the “name has . . . from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context. . . . the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

It’s difficult to know if Goodell actually believes this nonsense or if, knowing that the word is a racial slur, he’s simply a front man for the owners and will do their bidding, no matter the cost to his integrity. Or perhaps he’s no different than Snyder in thinking that, in spite of their protests, using a disparaging word to describe a Native American isn’t being racist.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Once you’re told that the R-word is a racial slur and offensive to Native Americans, you apologize and make a conscious decision not to use the word anymore unless, of course, you’re blind to your own racism.

What a person thinks and feels is his own business so long as he keeps it private if it’s offensive to others, but in a race-conscious society where it is no longer OK to use racially derogatory language in public, it’s troubling that the owner of a public sporting franchise would continue to use a racial epithet for his team’s name and that the team’s fans aren’t demanding a name change.

In a New York Times(ITAL) Op-Ed piece, author David Treuer of the Ojibwe Nation states “the pity that Mr. Snyder seems to feel for Indians and our plight is intimately connected with age-old ideas and images — strength, bravery, a warrior spirit, noble savagery — all of which are conjured by the cartoonish use of Indian names and mascots . . . . To pay tribute only to brave warriors and pitiful reservations is to engage in a fantasy that erases the lives of real Indians for whom the racial slur ‘redskins’ is intolerable.”

The national JACL issued a statement on this matter in the April 1-7 DC Digest. Originally issued as a press release from the Chicago office and authored by Midwest Director Bill Yoshino, the statement navigates an interesting circumstance of Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert portraying a stereotypical Asian character announcing his newly created “Ching-Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” a clearly satirical vehicle aimed at pointing out the absurdity of Snyder’s foundation.

Yoshino’s statement, however, takes exception with the way in which Colbert chooses to make his statement.

“Much of ‘The Colbert Report’s’ humor is based on the premise of the outrageous character played by Stephen Colbert, a caricature of a racist, sexist, over-the-top right-wing conservative media personality. Yet too often, the guise of humor and satire are used to absolve individuals of all responsibility when their humor misses its mark and becomes offensive.

“The JACL objects to Colbert’s use of racist jokes to make a larger point about bigotry and ignorance. There is much to criticize around Dan Snyder’s racial insensitivity and the enormous amount of privilege he wields in actively perpetuating the use of a racial slur. However, there is nothing clever or humorous about resorting to tired, racist stereotypes that target another marginalized group in order to make this point.”

I don’t watch Colbert’s program but have liked what little I’ve seen of him elsewhere, which surprises me all the more that his satire of Snyder would resort to the use of a searing stereotype that offends Asian Americans.

As Yoshino puts it, when the humor misses its mark, it becomes offensive in itself.

And when an NFL franchise owner refuses to accept that he’s insulting Native Americans, it’s time to pressure him into changing the name. As Treuer states, “The name will change. Either the NFL will make Mr. Snyder change the name, or we will.”

John Tateishi is a former JACL National Director.

Originally published on May 2, 2014