Native American communities have been battling for decades for the right to influence how their culture and history are used by others. They have enjoyed some success in recent years curbing the use of “Indian” imagery in sports. Now they are closing in on a big prize – a name change for the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
The campaign has prompted a heated backlash. Fox News and conservative talk radio have been particularly fierce in condemning the “political correctness” supposedly undermining our respect for free expression and the sanctity of cherished cultural symbols.
If we are ever going to tap into the massive potential of a truly inclusive American identity we will have to outgrow a culture in which the only broadly respected values are those which are either shared by the white community, or do not bother them. Getting there will require white Americans to come to terms with cultural preferences that favor them in ways so nearly universal that they hardly even notice them.
Because the Redskins brand, like the use of “Indian” imagery in so many major league baseball settings is not deliberately racist or demeaning, it may offer a chance to see the meaning of white privilege in some of its less pernicious and far more pervasive manifestations. There may be an opportunity in this controversy for everyone to better understand the power and implications of a white cultural monopoly that must necessarily come to an end.
To get a better sense what upsets Native Americans about the Redskins, picture an NFL franchise in a decidedly northern city, maybe Boston, called the Texans. So far so good. After all, having a sports team named after you can be a sign of respect and admiration, right?
Boston’s mascot is a cartoonish stereotypical Texan, Nigel, who for some inexplicable reason is a goatherd. He wears a hat just like an authentic Texan, except it’s a small white bowler instead of a Stetson. Like all good Texans he loves to sit around the campfire and enjoy songs. That’s why he always keeps his flute nearby, the instrument that appears with Nigel on the team’s helmet.
Every home-game halftime show includes a routine designed to get Nigel and his Texans energized for the second half. A fan selected from the audience is dressed up in the uniform of a Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiment and forcibly frees Nigel’s slaves, sending him into a rage.
A volunteer chorus of men dressed up as Pentecostal women called “The Holy Rollers” keeps the crowd entertained. When the team needs a fourth-quarter rally, they get the crowd on their feet until the whole stadium joins them speaking in tongues.
Needless to say, this would not be tolerated and any attempt to play a road game in Dallas would not likely end well. More to the point, this would never happen in the first place. No one would be amused by such an explicit abuse of a white culture.
There is nothing explicitly or intentionally insulting in this depiction of a Texan, yet you can be confident that neither Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, nor any of the other folks who have so courageously stepped up to defend the Redskins brand would be defending these fans’ free speech rights.
The really signal detail is that we do in fact have an NFL team called the Texans and no one is complaining. That team is based in Houston where the local community is able to influence how that brand is depicted. Similarly, we have major sports teams called the Fighting Irish, Vikings, Yankees, Rebels, Celtics, Cowboys, Sooners, Steelers, and 49ers. In each instance these identity-oriented teams have roots in the communities that lay claim to those identities. Switch the Yankees and the Rebels and you might get ugly caricatures that look a lot like the Washington Redskins.
We generally assume that mainstream white communities will own their distinct identities while minority communities, like Native Americans, have been on their own. Depictions of minority cultures, no matter how ignorant, exploitative, or just plain dumb are supposed to be tolerated to a very large degree.
Sports mascots are the tip of the iceberg. From Speedy Gonzales, to Tonto, to Long Duk Dong, through an endless parade of cartoonish, dark-skinned terrorist and criminal villains, and on to the use of the “n-word,” minority attempts to exercise some ownership of their culture and image are condemned as censorship while white communities expect and receive the deference that everyone’s culture deserves.
The message is unmistakable and it reads like this: America is a white country that is so big-heartedly inclusive that it mostly tolerates other cultures when it’s not inconvenient. Complaining about crude, boorish, or stupid depictions of minority communities is an infringement on a white majority’s rights to use your cultural symbols in whatever way suits us. Consider it a compliment that we even know you exist.
The argument over the Redskins brand, and the wider conflict over so-called ‘political correctness,’ is not about free expression. Central to this debate is a question of empathy that must be resolved if America is going to thrive as a diverse nation. To finally become what we have always promised to be, a free country in which everyone is born equal, we have to abandon the assumption that some are more equal than others.
Our failure to recognize the offensive and exploitative abuse of Native American culture is not an example of free speech, but an emblem of how reluctant we have been to extend basic human empathy and respect beyond the boundaries of the white community. Respect for racial diversity is not just about who sits where on the bus. It’s about the scope of cultural legitimacy.
Pluralism isn’t easy but it builds a powerfully cohesive, resilient and prosperous nation. Giving up a crudely insulting football mascot should not be considered a high price to pay for that reward, but nonetheless losing the Redskins will have broad implications that some will resent. Making pluralism work means giving up something some Americans cherish very deeply – the idea that America exists for one set of its cultures to which all of the others must defer. Our willingness to embrace a nation in which white cultural assumptions are merely some among many is the price of entry to a freer, more prosperous American future.