A Linguist’s Analysis of the Redskins Defense

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Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post / Getty Images

For more than 20 years now, an unending procession of Native American groups have objected to the name of the Washington Redskins football team. The fact that we are still treating their complaint as something that warrants argument is an embarrassment, but seeing as people are still, in fact, offering various justifications for keeping the name, I thought I would address them with a linguist’s eye and an academic’s openness. In the end, none of them hold up.

1. Redskin isn’t a slur. This defense posits that it isn’t automatically a disparagement to refer to someone on the basis of what color their skin happens to be. And since Native Americans are a relatively small part of the population, it certainly wasn’t well-known that “Redskin” was offensive. I openly admit that I didn’t know “Redskin” was an insult until this controversy arose; I thought it was just a little archaic, a tad John Wayne.

However, often terms become offensive not because of their content but because they carry a visceral association with times we’re glad to be past. Redskin is a word associated with the days when Native Americans were commonly regarded as savages, with arms crossed saying things like “Ugh” for hello. In a similar case, there is nothing wrong with the term Oriental in itself — but it was rejected as symbolic of a time when Asians were more overtly discriminated against than they are today. Calling a team “the Orientals” sounds like a Saturday Night Live sketch — as should calling a team “the Redskins.”

2. Not all Native Americans object to it. Some defenders have noted that there are Native Americans who don’t mind the term. However, this still doesn’t provide an adequate rationale for ignoring those who do, especially if it’s a fairly representative number of them. Again, some historical perspective is helpful. In the late 1960s, not all black people were itching to eliminate the term Negro — but enough were that the term was relegated to archaism (such as traditional titles like that of the United Negro College Fund). No one has ever looked back.

There have been large numbers of Native American groups complaining about the “Redskins” name for a generation now. Even white fellow travelers have put themselves on the line for agreeing with them, and assorted media sources have stopped using the team name. At this point, the fact that not every single Native American out there objects is irrelevant.

3. It’s tradition. This is the weakest defense of “Redskins,” one that is being argued most prominently by the team’s owner, Dan Snyder. The harmonious old plantation image of black slaves was traditional, and yet Paula Deen found out how most of America feels about keeping that old tableau alive even as a mental fantasy. Mad Men shows us a world where women were dames and broads. It might be interesting to peek back at, but no one is clamoring to bring back those days, especially not women.

Here’s some nostalgia: from the 1920s to the 1950s, there was a black baseball team called the Atlanta Black Crackers. The team embraced the name “Crackers” after whites started calling them that. They didn’t mind — go figure; social history is complicated. But few today would see that team’s name as a tradition worthy of preservation.

Overall, many commentators on this issue seem simply weary of political correctness. Charles Krauthammer, for example, is tired of being lectured on such things. “When does it stop?” such people want to know. Well, how about this? Social progress means eliminating the devaluation of whole groups of people, and we are a nation just past institutionalized sexism, racism and classism. So when it comes to issues like the “Redskins” controversy, the answer to “When does it stop?” is “No time soon.”