Rick Reilly, a columnist for ESPN, recently posted an op-ed defending the name and mascot of the Washington Redskins. Read it, ye mighty, and despair. Kissing Suzy Kolber’s response is funnier and more biting, but David Zirin’s offers more salient counter-examples. Read both for a full picture of just how misguided Reilly’s column really is.
It’s not even that there should or shouldn’t be a controversy about the name. It’s that Reilly’s column doesn’t show a hint of nuance, context, or understanding of how race and culture actually work. His position is odious, but it’s also badly and inconsistently argued.
A few things that I haven’t seen mentioned (yet) in the collective Internet’s swift excoriation:
– Rick Reilly’s father-in-law from Montana doesn’t speak for all Native Americans. The fact that he isn’t incensed by racial slurs doesn’t make him the gatekeeper of race relations for Native Americans in the United States in 2013. Reilly’s anecdotal lede doesn’t pass for a good-faith argument on a social justice issue. It’s asinine and derailing.
It’s also a nasty bit of sleight of hand. Reilly gives ink to the father-in-law without mentioning the various other Native American groups that do oppose the name.
Native Americans aren’t a hegemonic cultural bloc that all want the same things. And yet, when it’s time to start dropping stats on people — when it’s time to tell us that Wellpinit High School is 91% Native American — that’s exactly how he plays it.
You don’t think there’s one person in Wellpinit, Washington that thinks the word redskin is bullshit? When it suits him, one dissenting Native American is fearlessly bucking the PC trend; when it doesn’t, each of the Wellpinit High School Redskins are in agreement.
Speaking of which …
– Reilly namedrops three high schools that use Redskins as their team name, noting that the student and faculty population of each is largely Native American, to support his thesis. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how reclamation works.
Yes, a high school that is overwhelmingly Native American gets to use the word “Redskin” and the Washington Redskins don’t. It’s their word to use.
Jay-Z and Kanye can write a song called “Niggas in Paris.” It’s their word. “I’m here and I’m queer!” can be a rallying cry for the LGBT community. It’s their word. Red Mesa High School — with a student population of 99.3% Native American, according to Reilly — gets to name their football team the “Redskins,” but Dan Snyder, multi-millionaire owner of an NFL franchise, doesn’t.
Why? Because Native Americans never used the word redskin to demonize, dehumanize, and oppress each other.
This is a very basic concept. If Reilly doesn’t understand it, he’s not equipped to speak on race and culture; if he does, then he’s being purposefully obtuse, which means he’s not equipped to speak on race and culture.
That the Washington Redskins organization would use a word re-appropriated by a minority population for use within a (wildly successful) for-profit organization is gross. For Reilly to use word reclamation as an excuse to defend entrenched power is gross, intellectually dishonest, and a betrayal of the Fourth Estate.
– Reilly cites other professional sports teams that refer to Native Americans and implicitly asks “Where’s all the outrage about that?” You could (and quite rightly, I think) argue that all mascots and logos are reductive, dismissive, and other-ing — I’m reminded of the “It’s a culture, not a costume” campaign — but other mascots tend to be comparatively positive (Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves), locally specific (Florida State Seminoles, Chicago Blackhawks), or at least neutral (Cleveland Indians).
“Redskin,” on the other hand, is just a straight-up ethnic and racial slur, used to marginalize Native Americans and prop up an institutionalized, government- approved, endorsed, and enacted program of genocide, the effects of which — displacement, discrimination, crippling poverty, disenfranchisement — are still in place today.
Brave is different from redskin because Andrew Jackson never called someone a brave as he was ethnically cleansing the Native American population east of the Mississippi River.
As a white dude, I’m not offended “for” or “on behalf of” the Native American population in this country. Like Rick Reilly’s father-in-law, they can make that decision for themselves.
I am offended, though, that blatant, obvious, and categorical racism is allowed to proliferate and that ESPN, the nation’s largest sports journalism outlet, rushes to defend it (badly). I’m offended that an editor read, signed off on, and published Reilly’s column. I’m offended that someone who nominally shares my line of work is allowed — and encouraged! — to write something so asinine, petty, and intellectually, morally, and emotionally stunted.