How to stop defending DC’s terrible NFL mascotBaltimore Post-Examiner

How to stop defending DC’s terrible NFL mascot

For as long as you can remember, you’ve cheered for DC’s NFL team. You’ve talked about them constantly – by name. You’ve given them money. There are pictures of you wearing their jersey all over the internet.

Before, this just meant you were a football fan. But today, this means that you’re a racist?

You don’t have to agree with these people to recognize that they’re in a legitimately terrible situation. Realizing that you’ve been unwittingly doing something wrong can be confusing, embarrassing, and even infuriating. The rising tide of outrage against Washington’s football mascot seems like a bait-and-switch to fans who never heard much criticism before. Most of the name’s defenders are people who just grew up cheering for the team that dad cheers for. Or they started paying attention in 1991, when Mark Rypien led DC to the Superbowl. Or they got used to pulling for the home team at the local sports bar.

No wonder they’re so defensive!

If you’re one of the still sizeable faction of Americans who still back DC’s NFL brand, I get you. And I don’t think you’re a terrible person. But I do think it’s time to change your mind.

Misunderstanding racism

At the root of the controversy, there’s a basic misunderstanding of what it means to support a racist mascot – and what racism means in general.

Americans are used to thinking of racism as bigotry – as personal, intentional hatred and disrespect. That’s what our most vivid collective memories of racism look like: plantation owners raping their slaves, cops racial profiling, basketball team owners ranting in disgust about black fans.

What we are not used to thinking about is racism without bigotry. Everything we hate about racism – the way that it singles people out, handicaps them, dehumanizes them, and attacks them, all on the basis of their race – these things can persist without villainous bigots sneering and plotting.

That’s because the legacy of bigots can persist long after they’re gone.

Polls won in blood

In the case of Native Americans, the problem with DC’s football team began long before “Redskin” was even a word.

It began when Europeans invaded their land, displaced them from their homes, and perpetrated mass murders often falling well within the realm of genocide. The original sin came when Native Americans lost their voice in America.

That’s why it’s horrifically beside the point to insist that a majority of Americans – you know, the ones who are alive because their ancestors weren’t wiped out – are okay with the name. Would the native population in 1492 have been okay with DC’s team name? Who knows! But ordinarily, we don’t justify polls on the grounds that, even though many of the respondents were murdered, maybe the outcome might have been the same.

Are you a bigot who’d be willing to shoot a Native American with a musket and steal the stretch of prairie where he raised his children? Probably not! But when you start gloating about ESPN’s polling numbers, you’re enjoying the unfair, racist advantage that bigots on the frontier won for you long ago.

Invisible suffering

Another example of how racism shapes the debate over DC’s team name comes from our perception of the stakes among Native Americans.

A common refrain among defenders of the mascot – aggressively promoted by Dan Snyder’s PR machine – is that Native Americans actually support it. They see the name as a tribute and a memorial to their heritage, and as a celebration of their power and bravery.

Of course, this is mostly untrue, as demonstrated by the most rigorous and credible polling we have. But one thing racism prevents us from seeing is that Snyder’s argument is mostly beside the point.

Think about this: suppose you wore the team jersey in the presence of three close Native American friends. Two of them think it’s pretty cool that you’ve shown an appreciation for their culture. But one of them is deeply upset by it. He explains to you that he doesn’t like the way you’re drawing attention to the color of his skin, and adds that his great, great grandfather was killed because of a bounty on his head that used the team’s name.

Would you keep wearing the jersey? And tell your friend that he just doesn’t understand what the team name really means? And that he’s outnumbered two-to-one by Native Americans who are okay with it?

Or would you just stop wearing it, and maybe find another way to show your appreciation for Native American culture that someone you care about doesn’t find hurtful and insulting?

The solution here isn’t just obvious – it’s natural. It’s how most people would respond to the situation if it were a real, personal problem instead of an abstract national debate. It’s just a basic principle of human decency that we should avoid unnecessarily hurting people when we can. This isn’t about being politically correct or enforcing controversial leftist ideals about racial justice. It’s just about being a humane, functional adult.

But again, we run into the same issue as with polls: there just aren’t many Native Americans around anymore. So the issue doesn’t feel real and personal. We can ignore it, or arrive at the wrong conclusion about it, and we probably won’t ever run into any of the people our decision affects. The bigots of America’s past forced Native Americans out of our lives, and that impacts how we think about them.

Racism without bigotry

That’s what it means to be a racist in the debate over DC’s team name.

It isn’t about malice against Native Americans, or hate, or even disrespect – certainly not in the ordinary sense of those words.

More often, it’s about enjoying advantages we didn’t even know we had. Or failing to appreciate the real, personal stakes for victims we’ve never met.

In that sense, the racism surrounding DC’s team name resembles much of the racism in America today. Sure, interpersonal bigotry still plagues our society, and we shouldn’t downplay its role in the injustices visited upon racial minorities every day. But some of the biggest problems of racism are systematic and institutional. We may not have enslaved black Americans, but we profit directly from the uneven economic playing field slave owners built at their expense. We may not have not have supported deporting Americans of Mexican ancestry, but our families enjoyed the jobs taken from them.

We aren’t born with an exhaustive command of history or some comprehensive understanding of what the rest of the world is going through.  That’s why the beginning of wisdom means recognizing how little we actually know.

For the partisans of DC’s mascot, wisdom begins with acknowledging that maybe we didn’t know enough about the name when we were using it all those years. The crime isn’t in admitting ignorance. The crime is to deny it.


Photo courtesy Confrontational Media

About the author

Carl Beijer

Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs. Contact the author.

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