The “Redskins” Controversy May Not Now Seem to Be a Life and Death Issue, but, from a Cultural and Historical Perspective, It Is Fundamentally Just That Sort of Issue

Even if the name “Redskins” is offensive, one can at least argue that the image featured in the team logo is rather dignified.

Redskins Logo

The same cannot be said for the Cleveland Indians mascot’s appearance or name– Chief Wahoo:

Chief Wahoo

Interestingly, Chief Wahoo’s skin color less resembles that of a Native American than that of a very pale White guy who drank a little too much beer and nodded off in the bleachers on a sunny afternoon.

Not surprisingly, the organization at the forefront of the effort to change team names that perpetuate stereotypes has produced a logo that looks more like the Washington Redskins’ logo than the Cleveland Indians’ logo:

 

Anti-Stereotype Badge

In response to the growing contention over this issue, the Atlanta Braves have significantly modified their logo while maintaining the team name:

Old Braves Logo

has become

New Braves Logo

St. John’s University’s athletic teams used to be known as the Redmen. For six decades, their logo featured “Chief Blackjack,” who was finally “retired” in 1987. (One might feel compelled to ask, “Retired to where?,” but one suspects that someone with more impulsive irony than sensitivity—or common sense–might answer, “To the reservation,” which really would not be helpful.):

Chief Blackjack

St. Johns is now among a fairly long list of colleges and universities that have “retired” team nicknames and mascots with Native American associations:

Adams State University (Indians)

Arkansas State University (Indians)

Carthage College (Redmen)

Colgate University (Red Raiders)

University of the Cumberlands (Indians)

Dartmouth College (Indians)

Dickinson State University (Savages)

Eastern Michigan University (Hurons)

Eastern Washington University (Savages)

Hartwick College (Warriors)

the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Fighting Illini)

Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Indians)

University of Louisiana at Monroe (Indians)

McMurry University (Indians)

Margquette University (Warriors)

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (Mohawks)

University of Massachusetts (Redmen)

Miami University (Redskins)

Midwestern State University (Indians)

the University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux)

Northeastern State University (OK, Redmen)

Oklahoma City University (Chiefs)

Quinnipiac University (Braves)

Saint Bonaventure University (Brown Braves/Squaws)

Seattle University (Chieftains)

Seneca College (Braves)

Simpson College (Redmen and Lady Reds)

Southeast Missouri State (Indians and Otahkians)

Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Savages)

Southern Nazarene University (Redskins)

Springfield College (Chiefs)

Stanford University (Indians)

Stonehill College (Chieftains)

Syracuse University (Saltine Warrior)

the University of West Georgia (Braves)

College of William and Mary (Indians).

 

Colleges and universities whose athletics teams still have nicknames with Native American associations include:

Alcorn State University (Braves)

Bacone College (Warriors: originally a college for Native Americans)

Bradley University (Braves)

Central Michigan University (Chippewas)

Chowan University (Braves)

Florida State University (Seminoles: supported by the Seminole Tribe of Florida and some members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, two of three federally recognized Seminole tribes)

University of Hawaii at Manoa (Rainbow Warriors)

Mississippi College (Choctaws)

Ottawa University (Braves)

San Diego State University (Aztecs)

University of North Carolina at Pembroke (Braves: originally a college for Native Americans)

University of Utah (Utes)

 

There is, however, a much, much longer list of high schools that still have team nicknames and mascots with Native American associations, and it is available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sports_team_names_and_mascots_derived_from

_indigenous_peoples

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In 2002, an intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado, consisting largely of Native American and Latino students, responded to the controversy over Native American team names, logos, and mascots by adopting the nickname “The Fighting Whities” and developing this logo:

Fightin Whities

To no one’s surprise—though, as usual, many media commentators feigned great surprise–this ploy excited as much outrage as mirth, provoking complaints that the irony was so obvious as to be itself insensitive (yes, that is often the case with irony) and was therefore somehow the equivalent of the stereotyping that was its target (proving once again that people making fundamentally stupid observations can often express their opinions rather articulately).

But to truly appreciate this issue from a Native American perspective, one might have to imagine going back to the Jim Crow period in the Deep South and then imagine one of the Historical Black Colleges there adopting this team nickname and logo. In fact, one would not have to go into the Deep South because much the same reaction would have resulted in almost any part of the country if an African-American institution had done such a thing.

And one probably does not even have to step back into the past.

For about a decade or so as the end of the twentieth century approached, it seemed as if we had made just enough progress that even most racists knew that it was no longer acceptable to express racist opinions. But over the last decade, we have clearly regressed. Racists now believe that it is acceptable to say all sorts of racially charged and racially insensitive things if one simply pre-empts any criticism by claiming that anyone who complains about even very obvious racism is actually “race-obsessed” and the “real racist.”

Indeed, since just about everyone else seems to be trying to get into the higher education “business” these days—from textbook companies to technology firms to magazine and newspaper publishers to hedge-fund managers—perhaps this nickname and logo could be resurrected if the Klan, the Aryan Nation, or some allied group decided to invest in a college. (Such a group recently tried to take over a small town in North Dakota, and there are literally hundreds of very small colleges on the verge of financial dissolution; so this is quite not as preposterous a supposition as it might initially seem.)

So, let’s imagine some of the programs and courses that such a college might offer. The baccalaureate offerings would, of course, all have to be B.S. degrees—perhaps in Race Studies, with courses such as Racial Purity: Myths, Inconvenient and Otherwise—or, Your Myths Are Our Facts; or Propaganda Studies, with courses such as How to Develop Websites That Make Hate Attractive to the Unthinking; or perhaps an Interdisciplinary Honors program, with courses such as Tattoos like Burning Crosses: Personalized Hate Messaging for the Deaf and the Inarticulate.

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None of this could, however, possibly be any more ridiculously offensive as a brand of toothpaste that was developed in Hong Kong in the 1930s and has remained one of the most popular brands in Asia—so popular, in fact, that in the mid-1980’s Colgate-Palmolive bought a controlling stake in the company that produces the toothpaste and has retained its very profitable ownership of the brand ever since.

The brand was long called Darkie toothpaste, and its marketing exploited the imagery of Minstrel shows long after those shows became widely regarded as culturally abhorrent in the United States and elsewhere:

Darkie Toothpaste

In the 1990s, Colgate-Palmolive finally responded to persistent expressions of outrage from multiple quarters and changed the name of the toothpaste to Darlie and created a new advertising campaign featuring a more “racially ambiguous” man”:

Darlie Toothpaste

But the Chinese name for the toothpaste still means “Black People Toothpaste.”

Perhaps the apologists for the use of “Redskins” as a team name will argue that people of African descent should feel complimented that they are so widely admired for having fine teeth.

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An Ironic but Completely Unamusing Postscript on the Nature, Value and Limits of Irony:

Irony is generally a very powerful weapon, but ultimately it has its limits. It requires that a significant portion of one’s audience is capable of recognizing it and appreciating it. Against impenetrable, hateful ignorance that somehow manages to become pervasive, irony is a largely futile weapon that, even worse, seems to turn back upon its source.

The Native American writer Vine DeLoria certainly recognized this reality.

But, in my mind, the writer who most embodies this recognition is the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski.

Following the Nazi conquest of Poland, Borowski briefly entered the Polish resistance, but, after a friend was tortured by the Gestapo, Borowski and his fiancée walked into a trap and were sent to Auschwitz. He managed to survive that experience and rendered his profound ambivalence about his survival in the fictional collection, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, in which the irony is at once so piercing and so brittle that it manages to suggest how one might confront the unimaginable—inescapable, institutionalized genocide–and somehow prevent it from absolutely overwhelming one’s psyche.

Borowski’s fiancée also somehow managed to survive the war, and they were ultimately reunited and married.  In postwar Poland, Borowski briefly became an ardent communist, believing that communism represented the most pointed ideological alternative to fascism.

But his friend who had been tortured by the Gestapo–and who, quite miraculously, had also survived the extermination camps–was now arrested and tortured by the Communist state’s secret police. And when Borowski tried to intervene on his friend’s behalf and could not save him, the horrifying ironies in his helplessness, after they had both survived so much horror, was simply too much for Borowski to bear.

Almost immediately after his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Borowski chose to commit suicide by gassing himself while alone at home. The ironies in his manner of suicide might be seen, I think, as both a gesture of self-assertion and as an admission of and submission to the futility of both self-assertion and irony.

So, contemporary life requires that we have a sense of irony, but, ultimately, we need much more than a sense of irony. Real moral progress requires a cultural acceptance of and endorsement of those truths that irony serves to underscore.

 

5 thoughts on “The “Redskins” Controversy May Not Now Seem to Be a Life and Death Issue, but, from a Cultural and Historical Perspective, It Is Fundamentally Just That Sort of Issue

  1. No, racist mascots are not a life and death issue. Yes, they are stupid and offensive and institutions should end them. But we shouldn’t exaggerate their importance. Recently, an indigenous student at the University of Illinois threatened to commit suicide publicly because of the pain of seeing the Chief Illiniwek mascot depicted around campus.
    http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/04/04/indigenous-student-discusses-public-suicide-over-chief-illiniwek-pain-154316
    Although the U of I eliminated the mascot, many idiots continue to have memorabilia of it (indeed, the only thing preventing its widespread usage is the fact that the U of I controls the trademark and can try to stop the more profitable forms of racism). But this mentally ill student’s claim that seeing the image of a dumb racist mascot makes her life unbearable is just ridiculous. We should reject the notion that a student has a right to ban other students from wearing sweatshirts with a logo on them.

    • I was not suggesting that the actual nicknames, mascots, and logos are a life and death issue but that the trivializing of the objections to those nicknames, logos, and mascots is essentially a trivializing of the cultural and political backdrop to the issue, which certainly did involve a great many life and death issues.

      There is a parallel with the displaying of the Confederate flag. Many of those who insist of their right to display it either have little historical sense of why doing so would be offensive to many others or they are pointedly trying to cause such offense. (Of the many groups who might be offended, one that is almost never mentioned is the descendants of the Union war dead, who accounted, I believe, for the majority of the total war dead.) Still, I would not legally try to restrict any individual’s right to display that flag. But when politicians start to pander to such ignorance and to mandate the display of that flag institutionally, then the issue becomes something much more serious and dangerous.

      Likewise, colleges and universities, which receive federal and state funding, and professional sports teams, which receive government subsidies on many levels and special legal protections under federal law, should be pressured into not perpetuating and at least implicitly endorsing offensive racial stereotypes.

      So I would not ban a fan from the stadium for wearing some article of clothing that features the Redskins logo, but I would argue that protecting that individual freedom does not require that we refrain from pressuring institutions to demonstrate more sensitivity. Individuals have a right to remain ignorant that does not extend to the institutions that are supposed to protect and to promote the greater good–the right of equal treatment and equal protection supposedly guaranteed to everyone.

  2. Seriously? More important things in life… No wonder this country is so bloated and inefficient and education so expensive. We waste time on bs like this.

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