By Teresa Welsh |
If you are not the target of a racial slur, it is easy to wonder why that slur is a problem. In fact, because you, your children and your community don't have to deal with the consequences of the slur, it is easy to claim that those who don't want to be targeted are just interested in "political correctness." It is also easy to believe that a call to end the use of a derogatory epithet is somehow an unacceptable affront to you, rather than what it really is: a heartfelt request to stop the destructive hate that causes so much pain.
This, of course, summarizes the ongoing controversy over the Washington NFL team's continued use of the R-word as its name, decades after famed segregationist George Preston Marshall gave the team that moniker. Despite the R-word being a dictionary-defined racial slur, the team's ownership insists that the league should continue promoting an epithet that was screamed at Native Americans as we were dragged at gunpoint off of our homelands. In the ownership's view, a pathological desire to continue slandering Native people should be a bigger priority than honoring any sense of mutual respect.
Because we personally experience the serious public health and cultural ramifications of such systemic disparagement, the Oneida Indian Nation disagrees. That is why as proud sponsors of the NFL, we have launched the "Change the Mascot" campaign asking the league to change the Washington team's name.
As this campaign has gained the backing of civil rights groups, religious leaders, editorial boards, public health experts, members of Congress and the president of the United States, some have asked why we believe this issue is so important.
The first answer to that question is simple: If, as critics contend, a professional team's name isn't all that important, then why do they so vehemently resist the call for change? The answer, I fear, is that those who are so committed to using this name believe they are entitled to continue slandering us.
The second answer to the question relates to the significance of professional football. The NFL is arguably the country's single most powerful cultural force. In light of that, it is fair to say that for many Americans, their most explicit contact with the idea of Native American culture is the Washington team's racist name. Indeed, on TV screens every week, millions are told that we are not fellow Americans, but instead subhuman. Pretending that's somehow not important is dishonest, especially when social science research shows that such persecution has destructive public health consequences.
The third answer to the question about why this is such an important issue has to do with the definition of America itself.
Those who defend the use of the word "Redskins" present themselves as the sole arbiters of what is acceptable. They present themselves that way because those engineering the racial assaults – rather than the targets of such assaults – have always claimed supremacy. People like Washington team owner Dan Snyder insist that their supposed right to target, intimidate and persecute people inherently negates the right of others to be free of such persecution.
The fight to change Washington's team name, then, is a larger fight to declare that America will finally put the ideals of mutual respect before those who want to slander others on the basis of their alleged skin color.
Such mutual respect, of course, requires the willingness to see the world through others' eyes. It requires, in other words, a society that values empathy more than hate. In such a country, no group deserves to have as powerful an organization as the NFL treat them as a target of a racial slur. As this country's first people, we deserve simply to be treated as what we are: Americans.
About Ray Halbritter Current Nation Representative and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises
Eleanor Holmes Norton District of Columbia Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives