Amy Donaldson: Sister's subtle racism experience provides convincing case for eschewing ethnic sports mascots

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 6:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 30 2014 6:35 a.m. MDT

Dora grew up in Idaho and she is deaf. Ernie grew in Alaska and she can hear. This matters because growing up Eskimo in urban Alaska can be a demoralizing experience, especially as part of a white family. While there are issues for those who try to maintain their traditional culture in rural Alaska, those who live in urban areas seem to struggle with the stereotypes that persist. They include the idea that natives are lazy, that they are drunks, and that they are dumb. These ideas are expressed as jokes, sometimes in pictures, other times in the form of verbal barbs or offensive pictures. There is no escaping the fact that there are those who not only don’t see the value or beauty in native culture, but they see it as something of which to be ashamed. It has echoes of the old American Indian boarding school motto, “Kill the Indian, save the child.”

Ernie never embraced her Eskimo heritage as a child, even while my family did. I assumed it was simply the fact that she was growing up in a Caucasian house and so fried potatoes were more appealing than Muktuk (whale blubber).

But watching Dora, who expressed pride in her Eskimo culture in almost every way, interact with Ernie, I had another thought. Maybe Dora wasn’t ashamed of her cultural heritage because she couldn’t overhear the barrage of subtle insults to which Ernie had been subjected all of her life.

Maybe Dora was proud because she hadn’t been subjected to the shaming. Our family has always had a good relationship with Ernie’s biological mother and that’s allowed my sister to connect with family members who share Dora’s pride. Over time, I’ve seen Ernie feel that same pride as she’s reconnected with those relatives.

I cannot help but think of Ernie, Dora and their biological family members whenever the Washington Redskins are discussed. I listen to Dan Snyder talk about why he won’t change the team’s name and why he doesn’t see it as racism. It makes me cringe.

And just yesterday, I read about former head coach Joe Gibbs defending Snyder’s stance by saying the term doesn’t mean what some Native American advocates think it means.

"It was always prideful. It was courage involved," Gibbs said of Washington's team name in a CBS interview. "We have a song, 'Hail to the Redskins.' And so everything — everything — about that name has been positive for me in my past."

And that’s the key to this debate, at least in my mind. Everything about the name “Redskins” is positive for Snyder, Gibbs and their devoted fans. But sports culture shouldn’t trump actual ethnic culture. I don’t believe anyone meant any disrespect when they came up with the name. I agree that the depictions and logos have a courageous and proud energy about them.

But the reality is that referring to Native Americans as “Redskins” has and never will be a compliment no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. They don’t refer to each other with that term, and even the dictionary defines it as an offensive term.

The reality is that we’ve outgrown it. We’ve evolved. We didn’t know better when we chose the Redskins as the team’s mascot. Back then, we chose a lot of mascots and depictions of people and their cultures that were silly or belittling. But we know better now. We should defer to the people being portrayed. In many cases we have, but we could still do better, and the Redskins are simply the most obvious.

We should consider the Native American and Eskimo children who are bombarded with images that are often the furthest thing from flattering or courageous. We should consider our own cultures and heritages and how we’d feel if society mocked us in so many ways.

If we really respect Native American culture, we won’t trivialize it by making it a mascot for our sports teams. Even if that sports team is a great organization with a proud tradition.

The tragedies and indignities suffered by Native Americans are clearly chronicled and we should do our best to rid ourselves of any remnants of a time when we not only didn’t respect the courage and beauty of their culture, but tried our best to eradicate it. What's the difference between mascots like the Redskins and the Fighting Irish? Our government never defined Irishmen and their stereotypical propensity to drink and brawl as less than human. In policy and action, our government did exactly that to Native Americans, and so depictions can never be devoid of that historical perception.

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