Racist sports mascots and names

I wrote recently about my great distaste for the Cleveland Indians logo of Chief Wahoo and how as long as they kept the logo I was perfectly content if they never won a single game again, let alone win the World Series. I have been totally unconvinced by those who say it is harmless or even meant to honor Indians.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Denis K. Norman, chair of the Native American Program of study at Harvard University, who gave a talk on disparities in health among American Indians and learned some interesting things from him.

For example, I had thought that the term ‘Native American’ was the most respectful way to refer to them but he says no. When Indians refer to themselves their first preference is to self-identify by their tribe names. Their second preference is to call themselves ‘Indians’. The term Native American is not favored by them and is their third choice. It is, however, the term favored by non-Indian academics (hence his job title above). So in light of that information, in future I will refer to them as Indians. If there is any risk of confusion, the qualified American Indian or Asian Indian can be used.

Secondly, he said that when it comes to seeing themselves represented as sports teams names and mascots, most of them hate it but also felt that they had more pressing issues to be concerned about and thus it was relatively few of them who took on this as a cause to be actively fought over. He also said that some names (like Redskins) are clearly more offensive than others (like Chiefs) and some logos (like Wahoo) are more offensive than others (like a headdress).

He pointed me to this resolution by the American Psychological Association that he felt had the best take on the situation. The resolution “called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations. APA’s position is based on a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.” PZ Myers also recently posted the American Indian Movement Manifesto on Racism in Sports and Media.

Gyassi Ross has an excellent article on the controversy involving the term Washington Redskins ad the whole issue generally. In the course of it he makes an important point:

The “Redskins” debate is similar to the “nigger” debate, yet unlike with the “nigger” debate, outsiders feel perfectly comfortable telling Native people how they should feel. I suppose that’s the most frustrating part of the debate—that we Native people, the folks who are the only meaningful stakeholders in this debate—are not allowed to have a voice in the matter. Correct that: We can have an opinion so long as it is pro-Redskin. Otherwise, we’re being “too sensitive.”

No non-black person has ever, EVER called a black person a “nigger” in recent times and then told that black person that he was being “too sensitive” if/when he got upset. NO non-black person uses the internal value of the word “nigger” as a justification for a non-black person to keep using the word. NO non-black person says, “The word ‘nigger’ was pretty harmless at one time, therefore I’m going to just throw it around a bit. Try it out. See if it works for me.” NO non-black person has ever gone rummaging through American cities in search of a black person who’s not offended by the word “nigger,” and then held them up as proof that the word isn’t so bad. (“See? There are some black folks that aren’t offended by the word, therefore it CAN’T BE racist.”)

Doesn’t happen.

Why not? Because black folks decided that they wouldn’t stand for the word anymore, and it’s now understood that “nigger” belongs to black folks. It’s theirs to do with as they wish, and it’s simply racist when other groups use it. If black people choose to use it, that’s their business—they’ve paid a heavy price to own that word. Similarly, “redskins” is Native people’s word. If it’s unfortunate and sad that we use it, hey, that’s our choice. We paid the price for this racist and loaded term.

Instead, we have a bunch of white men telling us that it’s not racist, and a bunch of black folks who continue to think that it can’t be racist because it’s black men wearing the jerseys and, hey, it’s just a football team.

While the team owner has said that he will keep the name.
Some well known sports reporters like Peter King and Bob Costas have said that they will stop using the name ‘Redskins’ for the Washington football team, drawing the usual ire from fans who seem to have a weird and irrational sense of identification with these racist images.

One radio host confronted King on his show, asking:

“This has been going on for a hundred years and now the media has turned? How come Christine Brennan or Bob Costas, or Peter King … or, you know, Obama, or the Indian groups … where were they in 1968? Where were they in 1973? Where were they in 2007? Now all of a sudden it’s a problem. Why? Why now? I don’t understand… But why was this not a problem with the Native Americans for the last one-hundred years, and it’s a problem now? That’s what I can’t figure out.”

I don’t know why he is puzzled. He really can’t figure this out? Or doesn’t want to because the answer is obvious? Because what he is arguing is a variation of the stupid ‘its tradition’ argument, that what was good for our grandparents should be good for us.

There is a long list of many offensive terms that were accepted or condoned or ignored before that we now have a heightened awareness of, and sensitivity to, as being offensive and as a result we no longer use them.

That process is called becoming more enlightened.


  1. jamessweet says

    I have been totally unconvinced by those who say it is harmless or even meant to honor Indians.

    Well now those are two different things… It could be meant to honor Indians* and cause harm. I am frustrated that so many people who like the names are having so much trouble coming to that conclusion: That it’s possible for them to personally like the name, to have a personal attachment to it, and for their intentions to be benign, and yet to recognize that it causes harm and therefore it is worth giving up whatever personal attachment they may have to the “tradition”. The logic seems to be, “I like the name, and I don’t mean it in a racist way — so therefore the name can’t be racist!” Well that’s just stupid. Might as well say, “I like smoking, and I don’t do it in order to give myself lung cancer — so therefore it can’t give me lung cancer!” Derp.

    * In the case of “Redskins” or “Chief Wahoo”, I agree that the idea that it is “meant to honor” is highly dubious, as those names are just flat-out offensive. But stuff like “Chiefs”, “Braves”, etc., yeah, I can kinda buy that it might have been meant as a tribute. Again, people need to wake up and realize that intention and outcome are not necessarily the same, and that if the outcome doesn’t match your intention, that’s all the MORE reason to change — not an excuse to double-down and deny the outcome!

  2. chigau (違う) says

    In Canada, “Indian” is hardly ever used to refer to Aboriginal people.
    It remains in many older government documents but people don’t use the term.

  3. left0ver1under says

    I can understand people preferring the name of their Tribe (or Nation, as some might say) but I wasn’t aware that people in the US don’t like the term “Native American”.

    In Canada, people are referred to as First Nations people. The term first entered public use in the 1970s or 1980s, depending on who’s making the claim. I don’t recall any public debate about its use and it has never been legally defined, but the term gained widespread acceptance by all people (public and the media) across the country. It’s seen as respectful and accurate both by First Nations people and by those who aren’t. Like Americans, Canadian First Nations people prefer to be called by their Nations -- or Tribes -- but First Nations has become acceptable when people don’t know someone’s place of origin.


    I’m surprised the term never crossed the border (outside of certain areas), given that many groups have land straddling the Canada/US border.

  4. Mano Singham says

    It is not that they actively dislike the term Native American, it is just that they prefer the other terms more. And this is not unanimous. You will note that Ross uses Native American in his essay.

  5. ildi says

    I had thought that the term ‘Native American’ was the most respectful way to refer to them but he says no. When Indians refer to themselves their first preference is to self-identify by their tribe names. Their second preference is to call themselves ‘Indians’.

    I read this in the Longmire series, but I was reserving judgement since it’s fiction.

  6. says

    The Washington footbal team used to be called the Boston Braves. They were renamed Redskins (at about the same time as they were moved to DC) by an owner who was an overt flaming racist. This fact alone disproves any notion that the name “honors” Indians — they already had a name that did that better! so if fans want to keep on using Indian names and associations, they can rename the team the Washington Braves — it’s not exactly a break from tradition.

    No non-black person has ever, EVER called a black person a “nigger” in recent times and then told that black person that he was being “too sensitive” if/when he got upset…

    Actually, yes, there ARE white people doing all of those things — and they’re getting less ostracised for it than they used to.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I too thought that statement was a little too sweeping but it is undoubtedly less common than with the Indians.

  8. invivoMark says

    Yeah, I was surprised by the paragraph with all the “no non-black person has ever…” statements. For I think every single one of them, I thought, “Yeah, I know a guy who has done that.”

    Never underestimate the capacity for idiocy of privileged white people.

  9. Trebuchet says

    One reason for the use of “Native American” or “First Nations” is, I think, that not all aboriginal people in North America are American Indians. In the far North many are Inuit (“Eskimo”).

    In my state, the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association has been urging schools with these names to change them. It’s a big controversy in Port Townsend, the small town where I spend a lot of time and where the team name is “Redskins”. And this is a very liberal small town!

  10. says

    Minor quibble: if American Indians prefer to be called Indians, I respect that. It’s just that it causes a bit of confusion because of the increasing numbers of Indians from India. I’d kinda rather not go back to my grade-school habit of distinguishing “American Indians” from “Indian Indians.” Maybe we should do the Canadian thing and call them First Nations people or something like that — I think it’s kind of dignified since it says the Indians had “nations,” not just “primitive native tribes.”

  11. says

    Definitely too sweeping. I observe white people doing all of those very things every day, when I read blogs like the outstanding Chauncey deVega’s We Are Respectable Negroes, Trudy’s Gradient Lair, racebending, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ column in the Atlantic. We’ve come to a point where a growing number of people honestly believe that it is more damaging to them to be called racist than it is damaging to the people they’re being racist against (cf. Richard Cohen, Richard Dawkins, Paula Deen, et c., et c., et fucking c.).

    That said, yes, the stereotyped nicknames have to go. We have a few schools I’m aware of in Canada that are named for prominent First Nations people, like Tecumseh (Tekamthi) and Olympic runner and WWI veteran Tom Longboat. When I was a kid in Toronto, the Longboat elementary school’s teams were called the Long Runners (Longboat was a cross-country distance runner), and Tecumseh’s senior public (gr 7-8) teams were called the Foresters, I think it was. Something forest-y. It is, actually, possible to respectfully honour First Nations and famous members thereof, but it takes a bit of thinking and some actual respect, rather than lazy stereotypes from old westerns. The input of people from the First Nation to be honoured is also a good choice. I think I’ve heard of a school in Manitoba with a First Nations name whose nick is “the Hunters”, which is a pretty good description of the local Plains nations.

    Lastly, as was recently brought to my attention, the term First Nations has had at least one objection; the nations from the far north (i.e., Nunavut/NWT/Yukon) want it to be “First and Inuit Nations”. I haven’t heard much argument either way on that one yet, but it is somewhat less easy to use in conversation.

  12. says

    Here’s some speculation that may or may not relly apply here: another problem in getting team names like Redskins changed, is that a lot of fans may like using an uncivilized name because they like thinking of themselves and their team as uncivilized brutes who don’t need no stinkin’ class to win games and impress the wimminfolk with their bigger…muscles. By giving themselves a brutish name for a “primitive” race, they equate themselves with the brutish stereotype of that race, which may be better in their minds than equating themselves with real Indians who may be too refined for them.

  13. says

    In support of your point, found at fannie’s room, a quote from a comment made in response to a thoughtful comment by Brandon Marshall about the role of toxic masculinity in the NFL bullying scandal (content note: virulent misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and general assholeishness):

    “All NFL teams should be mandated to have Gay Pride Parades on the field during halftime along with periodic announcements on the PA as the game is played encouraging group hugs.

    We’ll also need an extra month of all the players wearing pink equipment to make sure the message gets across. One of the root causes of all of this bullying is the tackling. It encourages bad manners and feelings. The NFL should replace tackling with wearing flags — if a flag is taken off during the play, the play ends — and we need strict enforcement on that.

    Moreover, yelling and shows of emotion should also be banned and enforced with 15 yard penalties.

    And let’s be honest, the team uniforms and logos aren’t gender-neutral enough, can’t we tone those down with some pastels and fuscias?”

    I think it’s clear that here we have someone who leaves the irony to his wife. Or more likely ex-wife.

  14. pianoman, Heathen & Torontophile says

    That person who complained “why now?” on the radio show: apart from what you said about the argument from tradition, I can recall as far back as 20 years ago Tribes and their supporters calling for name changes. It seems that people like this caller probably just rolled their eyes and told them to go back to the reservation.

    I live near a few reservations, even though my house is on Tribal land (the gov’t will disagree). I wanted to be active in social/volunteer groups that dealt with issues they face, but I was told they don’t really trust non-Indians.

  15. DsylexicHippo says

    @ Raging Bee #7: I thought Indians from India went by Indian-Americans as opposed to American Indians. Same as Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans etc. But I agree, there’s still room for confusion -- for instance, what about Indians from India who are not citizens of America (tourists, transients etc)? Their right to self-identify as Indians should technically supersede those of American Indians.

    All because of a fool called Columbus.

  16. colnago80 says

    Change the name to the Deadskins. Quite appropriate since asshole Danny boy Snyder bought the team.

  17. Friendly says

    Whether intended as a tribute or not, naming sports teams and mascots after Indians reduces the Indian racial experience to the stereotype of the warrior culture. Would the people who think “Redskins” and “Chief Wahoo” are OK also think that an investment firm naming their investment sales group “Team Mazel Tov” and using a logo showing a smiling skullcapped man named “Reuben Riches” carrying a moneybag (to “honor Jews’ well-known financial acumen”) is OK?

  18. mnb0 says

    “So in light of that information, in future I will refer to them as Indians.”
    So will I. It’s convenient for me, because their Surinamese counterparts also call themselves Indianen. People from India are called Indiërs in Dutch and people from former Dutch East Indies Indonesiërs.

  19. JPSjpstark@ll.net says

    Third-generation Scandinavian-American here, so I don’t have any special insight, but two observations:

    1: “Redskins” and “Chief Wahoo” are offensive. But even teams with nicknames that might be seen as a respectful tribute (“Chiefs”, “Braves”) present a problem. The name, and thus the theme of the the sports franchise give the fans license to act offensively. Look no further than Ted Turner and Jane Fonda in the Atlanta baseball stands doing the “tomahawk chop” cheering on the respectfully named “Braves”.

    2: Inevitably someone will make a comparison to the Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” and the Minnesota “Vikings”. I suggest that a whole lot more people of Irish and Scandinavian ancestry and heritage , respectively, approved of those nicknames than American Indians approved of “Redskins” or “Chief Wahoo”. And the Notre Dame Leprechaun and Minnesota Viking mascot represent mythical beings while the American Indians are defending real, existing heritages.

  20. left0ver1under says

    You will find resistance to the term among the “whites only!” types, since it admits other people were in the continent first. They don’t want to admit to the land theft any more than European countries want to admit to colonialism in Africa or elsewhere.

    As one wag once said about the lyrics of “O Canada”, “Our home ON native land.”

  21. Fairportfan says

    Just hit this post while searching for something else: “Native American” is a term popularised by people ignorant of history and English usage.

    My great-grandfathers on my dad’s side were Bohemian immigrants (one was a draft-dodger).

    But my dad, his parents, and i are/were all “native Americans” -- we were born here. (Incidentally, my own “American” linguistic peeve is referring to USAians as “Americans” but Canadians or Mexicans by their nationality…)

    The American Indians’ ancestors walked, mine came on a boat -- but there are no true “native” American humans -- man didn’t evolve here.

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