Goodbye to Racist Mascots: California Bans the Use of ‘Redskins’ in Public Schools

A detail view of a Washington Redskins helmet is seen prior to an NFL football game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Thursday, September 24, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. New York won 32-21. (Aaron M. Sprecher via AP)

Photo courtesy of Time.com | California Governor Jerry Brown approved a ban on using “Redskins” as a team mascot in public schools on Oct. 11.

 

Sophia Zhu ’18
Assistant Opinions Editor

Oct. 11 marks the victory of a statewide movement in California to prevent a racial slur from public use. Governor Jerry Brown signed the ban on using “Redskins” as a team name or mascot in public schools into law. The bill was largely well-received, and many expect that this will set a good example for other states and future generations.

Without a doubt, the term in question is a racial slur that many Native Americans have long found offensive. However, when the mascot is as prominent as the Washington football team or as personal as the mascot of Amherst College, the change becomes extremely controversial and is no longer a black-and-white issue.

Some believe that the real target of the Californian ban on “Redskins” is the Washington Redskins, which stirred up a new wave of criticism and intense debate. At the center of the controversy was the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, who insisted that he would not consider changing the name under any circumstance. Even with President Obama in favor of changing the team name, Snyder stands with a large group of loyal fans.

Why is it so hard to ban these names? For some, a name or mascot is far more than a combination of letters. It can carry years of memories, traditions and a sense of belonging. A decision to ban the name, therefore, be disastrous.

“When I consider the Washington Redskins’ name, I think of what it stands for,” Snyder said. “I think of the Washington Redskins’ traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me – and just as you have shared with your family and friends.”

Apparently, the pro-Redskins are able to see positive and educational meaning in this rather frank racial slur. Many Amherst students share the same opinion. The mascot of Amherst College – “Lord Jeff,” referring to Jeffery Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of British Troops during the French and Indian War – was established in the 1900s and gradually became an icon to which Amherst students and alumni feel tied. Unfortunately, “Lord Jeff” led a genocide of Native Americans, a historical stain that makes him unsuitable as a mascot in the eyes of many Amherst students. The opposition, however, is equally strong with the claim “We are the Lord Jeffs,” resonating around the campus.

A tradition, a culture, a belief – all of these are not unchangeable, and when the time comes, it should change with the good will. People emphasize “context,” saying, for example, that “Redskins” was not initially created as a derogatory name and that “Lord Jeff” should not be judged by today’s standards.

These comments are certainly off the mark since this is exactly why these issues are raised today, when public awareness has accumulated to a point that the injustice is no longer tolerable. Instead, we should connect with the substance itself – the team members, our memories and the relationships – rather than a simplified and superficial icon, let alone a negative one.

No one at this point can judge with full confidence whether  or not the change of a tradition will lead to a brighter future, but when we look back at many radical changes that we made to our traditions, we might feel grateful that we finally became what we are – not because of the adherence to every single tradition but because of all the changes we were able to embrace.

Ironically, for some others, it is not the place of the name in their hearts that makes them opposed to a change but the name’s meaninglessness. They laugh at the fact that civil society takes a team name so seriously and kindly reminds the protestors to focus on other “concrete” Native American affairs instead. They are afraid that changing a name means nothing while rebuilding an icon is quite costly.

Similarly, supporters of “Lord Jeff” suggest “meaningful” activities take place to invite more Native American applicants. It is worth noting that a change in a name or mascot is indeed symbolic, but being symbolic does not mean it is a waste of time, money and energy. A loaded term can be both a weapon and a publicizing tool that honors a sad period for the upcoming generations. They are the legacy of history, and I hope they stay a part of history.

In an era celebrating diversity and inclusivity, these mascots are unfit to serve as the recipients of our pride and applause. The state legislature of California certainly knows the difficulty of fully enforcing the law, but the symbolism it carries means much more. It signals a commitment to a more favorable environment for not only Native Americans but also for every minority and marginalized group. This is a war between tradition and inclusivity, a war on the damaging consciousness that goes unnoticed for years. It is time to act – starting with a goodbye to racist mascots.

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