University of Nebraska Press, 2016
Hardcover, 256 pp., 12 illustrations
When I was in college, my school experienced a controversy. The college’s team name was the Redmen. The story went that when the college was founded the local town’s high school football team was called the Blueboys. Thus, to show itself in contrast and as an institution of higher status, the college named itself the Redmen. I don’t know just how accurate this is (I rather doubt it), but I do appreciate the balance of the anecdote. Controversy arrived when it was decided two feathers needed to be put on the logo implying the Redmen were in some way American Indian. This created a stir because it was a racist maneuver. My college eventually took the feathers away leaving only the team name. Doing so, however, wasn’t absolution.
The entire issue revealed to everyone just how complicit we all were in the casualness of cultural appropriation. We were all guilty and responsible. There is no dignity in being made a mascot. For more than eighty years, the NFL team in Washington has been profiting from anti-Indian racism in the form of a team name and mascot that is a racial slur. C. Richard King’s new book Redskin: Insult and Brand explores just how this has happened, how it has been and is being justified, and why and how it needs to be challenged and changed.
Stated very simply and very bluntly at the outset of King’s examination of the NFL’s Washington team name, r*dskin is “an offensive, antiquated, and insulting reference to an American Indian” (when using the word, I will adopt King’s technique of elision using the asterisk as an attempt to mitigate the slur’s force). The word, no matter intent, is a racial slur that
“denigrates and dehumanizes; it has a deep connection with organized killing and ethnic cleansing, including taking scalps and bounties; it may be one the key words of conquest in the United States, imprinted on the national imaginary through journalistic coverage of the so-called Indian Wars, dime novels, Hollywood Westerns, and, of course, football.”
Quite simply, there is no justifiable way to approach the word that is not negatively racially charged. Yet, as King’s book explores, there is an entire industry not only attempting to do so but refusing to acknowledge the lived fact of the slur.
Kathleen Rooney makes it clear in her superb review, “the book is designed to elicit a more complex response than mere agreement or disagreement” and it is this that makes King’s work not just unique but authoritative. He is less interested in casting blame (although there is certainly more than enough throughout the Washington team’s history that is appropriately pinpointed and called out) than in exploring the cultural psychology at work in the continued use of the word as the name of the professional football team in Washington. The NFL’s Washington team is “Among the most prominent and profitable in sport,” one that “since its inception has offered insights into the privileges and pleasures associated with taking and remaking Indianness.” The most interesting aspect to King’s work is is centered around what is meant by Indianness. Using Washington as the example par excellence of how white culture sees “Indianness as a resource or raw material to exploit for pleasure or profit” King is able to give us not some mere polemic but an in-depth work of cultural critique.
He identifies our contemporary times as a critical juncture for understanding the continued usage of the term making for “an especially opportune moment to reflect on the past, present, and possible futures of the Washington professional football team.” This has become not just an issue for sports fans, commentators, players, and executives. It is an issue showing up more and more in popular culture as a means to confront systematic and systemic racism.
What King gives us isn’t just the facts of the slur, but how exactly the word acts as a slur. How it is a shorthand for “an imagined community” where “saccharine remembrance” allows fans to acknowledge indigenous people yet at the same time “dissociate themselves from ongoing racism.” This is how supporters of the Washington team convince themselves that they “are warriors celebrating the greatness of indigenous warriors” and not engaged in a misrepresentation of Indians which is “literally removing them from the past while replacing them with false imitations.”
As “a virtually invisible minority,” King shows how American Indians are fetishized by Euro-American culture to such a degree that they “cannot exercise autonomy or authority in relation to the Washington professional football team.” When American Indians or allies attempt to do so they are confronted with open hostility from an entrenched opposition who wear their “reckless disregard” as a badge of honor as they display “an inability or unwillingness to reflect on their location, utterances, or actions.”
Critically, King isolates this action not as some kind of character defect or maliciousness in the supporters of the Washington team but as what he terms as thoughtlessness. Because “most Americans have so fully embraced the national narratives and racial ideologies at the heart of American history, society, and identity…they act without thinking, without considering their social location, without incorporating alternative interpretations, without listening to other, and often without question.” It is within this thoughtlessness that King finds the beating heart of Anti-Indianism allowing “people to take the team and its traditions for granted without the burdens of history or introspection.” Such a move creates a caricature of the American Indian, a mascot, setting control of what is Indianness not in indigenous hands but in “the entitlements of whiteness and the assumptions of settler society.”
By approaching the issue of the team named for a racial slur from this angle, King is better able to get at the core of the issue. He avoids the superficiality of polling and opinion by revealing and respecting just how complex the issue is. Never at any point is King attacking the supporters of Washington, but he is most certainly addressing himself to an underdeveloped
“critical literacy, causing many Americans to be unable to read uses of Indianness like one finds in DC in association with its professional team: they did not have the faculties to be thoughtful, to interpret the text (to say, what does this team logo or name mean?) or the context (what is Indianness doing in a sport spectacle played on ground from which Indians were removed?), and they cannot interrogate their relationships to the production and politics of the text and context.”
Never does King say supporters of Washington can’t or won’t develop this faculty. In fact, the entire book serves as a means for one to confront “erasure, lack of reflection, and active disengagement” with the ultimate goal being transformative understanding and action. The Washington NFL team isn’t threatened or in danger, no one is demanding it close up shop. But there is a genuine opportunity “to reaffirm sport and society as inclusive, affirming, and empowering for all.” King’s study is powerful, well researched, compelling, and honest.
C. Richard King is a professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, includingMedia Representations of Native Americans; Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy (Nebraska, 2001); and Native Athletes in Sport and Society: A Reader (Nebraska, 2006).
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