Racial Slurs and Caricatures

Football season is over, but the surrounding conversations are not.

I’ve already written a pretty extensive blog about the need to change the Washington Football Franchise’s mascot to something less offensive than a racial slur and caricature of a Native American, but with the recent production from the National Congress of American Indians, I wanted to revisit the issue.

Although NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell believes that the mascot is an honorable use of Native American heritage, the National Congress of American Indians disagrees. Others might argue that Native Americans aren’t offended by the name, but that excuse seems to deny the truth that is expressed in this video. Only Native Americans can decide what is an honorable representation of their heritage and what is an offensive term in regards to their peoples because, well, it’s about them. And for years, Native American leadership has been decidedly outspoken against the slur.

The above video depicts Native Americans both as culturally proud people, but also as normal Americans who participate in society as teachers, soldiers, parents, children, et cetera. Both statements are important to understand.

Natives take great pride in their culture, despite the fact they have undergone one of the most widespread and detrimental cases of ethnic cleansing in world history. Creating a mascot from their cultural heritage demeans the culture as a whole.

Per the principle of selectivity Native Americans have been categorically absent from our history courses and textbooks. History’s been written by the “winners,” so what little we do know about the “losers” is only in relational to “us” and how “their” downfall benefited white Americans.

It’s important to remember that Native Americans were not just part of history or something that history was enacted upon but they play a vital role in the history of America and continue to play a role in the history of America. As John Green states:

“Much of what we learn about American history, like all history, has been to cleaned up to conform to our mythological view of ourselves. Native Americans have been so marginalized both geographically and metaphorically that its easy to either forget about them or view them merely as people to be pitied or reviled. But its important to know the ways that they resisted colonization because it reminds us that Native Americans were people who acted in history not just people who were acted upon by it. And it also reminds us that the history of indigenous people on this land mass isn’t separate from American history–it’s an essential part of it.”

John Green is right in his observation that Natives have largely been forgotten despite their role in American history and modern society. Mark Charles, Native American author and activist, shares the sentiment in his “A New Conversation” video in which he talks about what it is like to be a Native American in the United States. But by recognizing that indigenous people are normal people and not just forgotten objects of pity, we resurrect them from the black and white pages of history books and give them lives not defined by our words or their relation to us.

Natives are people too–real living people and not just historical figures.

That’s why there is no room for the Washington Mascot in America–it subtly continues to reinforce the misconception that Native Americans are just historical figures that no longer have a voice in society, or don’t exist altogether.

The  use of the caricature tells majority culture that Natives are just part of history and don’t have a voice any longer. The racial slur reinforces Natives voicelessness, but markets it in terms of “honor” and “respect.”

If Washington wanted to honor and respect Natives, maybe they should start by listening to them.

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