By Velma J. Korbel, Director — Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights
What often happens when people like me decide to express our outrage at what we deem to be an injustice is that we sometimes offend where we attempt to support and defend. I start this opinion with a disclaimer. I hope that any words used here do not further offend or objectify the people for whom I seek to show respect. I do not speak for you. I speak with you.
“Playing Indian” or “Cowboys and Indians” was a widespread game and a common pastime among children in the United States throughout the early to mid-Twentieth Century. Somewhat similarly, white actors with black painted faces used to amuse white audiences during that era. Thankfully, such practices are no longer widely socially acceptable.
Most Americans now recognize that blatant cultural appropriation disguised as entertainment is actually a not-so-subtle form of racist oppression. Unfortunately, some of the last explicit vestiges of socially acceptable bigotry live on in the mascots and team names of professional sports franchises. Perhaps the most outrageous example is the unabashed and proud use by the National Football League, the Washington D. C. NFL team, and football enthusiasts across the country, of the racial slur “redskins.”
Inexplicably, many still do not consider it problematic to use imagery depicting indigenous people as wild savages or conversely – docile, meek and unable to think for themselves. It is unthinkable that in 2013, Native Americans are apparently still considered, “noble savages” as depicted in twentieth century literature, and thus underserving of the basic respect and recognition of human dignity we all demand.
Let’s look at a lesson learned from our neighbor to the west. The University of North Dakota changed its mascot and logo after a long and protracted campaign of public pressure and criticism. More specifically, in 2005, the NCAA identified nineteen different member institutions, including the University of North Dakota, that used offensive nicknames and threatened to ban certain uses of these names. The effect would have meant no postseason tournaments (controlled by the NCAA) played at these schools and perhaps a loss of membership in different institutional organizations and leagues.
The University of North Dakota sued the NCAA over its threatened ban. A legal settlement in that case helped lead to the eventual demise of that school’s mascot.
I know the NFL is not the NCAA. And who are we to throw stones at Washington when our NFL team’s mascot were seafaring pirates who raided and pillaged northwestern Europe for centuries? When I did a quick web search of the word “viking”, I got a very much romanticized version of the real thing. The difference here is that when I did the same type of search for the word “redskin” the words used in defining it were “offensive”, “disparaging”, “insulting”, and “belittling”. Also different is that Minnesota fans seem to claim ownership of the romanticized version of viking while many Native Americans are opposed to a sports team co-opting their legacy in this very negative way.
The Washington D. C. NFL team will be in town on Thursday. They will bring with them a racial slur, disguised as a trademark, cloaked in the mantle of free speech. Exercise your own right to free speech. Stand up and say “no more”.