What's In A Name?

Washington Redskins logo
This column was written by Michael Tomasky.
Though a liberal, I am not and never have been a devotee of political correctness. I think "black" and "Indian" work just fine most of the time and consider "African American" and "Native American" to be superfluous mouthfuls. I think it's more important that disadvantaged schoolchildren memorize their multiplication tables than have their self-esteem preserved.

And I can't quite get behind the idea that people who choose to change their sex should be grouped, rights-securing wise, with people who were born gay.

So I don't usually go in for this sort of thing. But as the new football season approaches, enough is enough: Washington Redskins is a horrendously racist name.

Where do I start? I suppose by saying that this fact should be so obvious to absolutely everyone that the need to change the name at this point, now no longer the "innocent dawn" of the 21st Century, should be beyond debate. I mean … Redskins! Just sit with that word for a while.

These next three paragraphs contain a few offensive words, but using them (or some of them) is the best way to make the point.

Let's start with the mother of all racist pejoratives — you know the word I mean. This one I won't put it in print; it's too lurid. Obviously, no one would name a team the Washington N-----s, and anyway, I don't think Redskins is equivalent to that. We white folk (this includes not just the United States, but pre-U.S. colonialists) may have killed far more native people, but what we did to black people occupies a more prominent place in our national memory, and I think probably rightly so. So the N-word, so fully associated with that history, is a special case, and it has no equal.

But as we know, alas, there are several pejoratives for black people that are one or two ticks down from the big one. And here, we start to see very clear parallels with redskin. The closest one is "spade." Both refer specifically to pigmentation (the latter a metaphor drawn from a deck of cards). Both mock and categorize entire races explicitly because of pigmentation. So if you think Washington Redskins is OK, then you believe that Washington Spades would be fine, too.

And there is more: Because of the nature of the historic conflict between white man and Indian, the word redskin carries another, more implicit meaning — it marks the people described as a different, hence exotic, hence somehow threatening tribe. Here, the equivalency is with Jews. Could we imagine the Washington Hebes?

Obviously, we could not. But Redskin is no better. And an examination of the history of the franchise seals the argument.

The Washington Redskins began life as the Boston Braves. The team played in Braves Field, home of the baseball Boston Braves (later the Milwaukee Braves, today the Atlanta Braves). In 1933, one year after joining the National Football League, the football Braves moved over to Fenway Park. A name change seemed in order. Head Coach William "Lone Star" Dietz was allegedly of part-Sioux descent. Hence, Redskins, in his "honor" (let's consider it a happy accident that Brother Dietz wasn't a quadroon). The team moved to Washington in 1937.

The ignominious roots in the North's most racist city should tell us something. And I just love that notion that the name was meant to honor Dietz. I'm sure it was, but this only reinforces the fact that times and mores change. In 1930s America, it was also an "honor" for Hattie McDaniel to have to act out humiliating mammy stereotypes in order to win her Oscar (after having been pointedly disinvited from Gone With the Wind's world premiere in Atlanta).