Blackface and Redface: Or why names do matter.

A group of French police officers is currently under investigation after allegedly blacking their faces and posing with bananas during a “negro party”.  When the images of the party were first circulated via social media, the individuals pictured were almost universally condemned…even though they claimed they were just “having fun” and that they “did not mean to offend anyone.” Overwhelmingly, people who see this image recognize that reducing an entire group of people to a set of exaggerated physical qualities and stereotypical characteristics is not only offensive, but also profoundly dehumanizing.

French police officers investigated over 'blackface party'
French police officers investigated over ‘blackface party’

Overwhelmingly, people who see these images understand that the “intention not to be offensive” was either totally insincere or catastrophically misguided.  Intentions do absolutely nothing to reduce how ugly and hurtful this kind of cultural insensitivity is…and even though I have seen these pictures dozens of times now, they still almost bring me to tears.

The fact that people can be so totally disgusted by this kind of act, but defend the Redskins team name completely baffles me.  As a lifelong Washington Football Franchise fan, I can say that every time I attend a game and see drunken fans donning redface, wearing feather head dresses (ceremonial artifacts that were only worn by the elders of a few tribes during spiritual events), and imitating chants and war cries I am thoroughly sickened.

Redskins fan "honoring" Native Americans
Redskins fan “honoring” Native Americans

Everyday as a professor of Communication Studies, I teach the dual principles that words are powerful and that communication shapes how we perceive our world.  Hate speech hurts and incites violence. Pledges and oaths bind people to profound personal and shared values.  Names define people, places and ideas as much as do their physical characteristics (often times more).

That is why I am ecstatic that the U.S. Trademark Office canceled the Redskins trademark today…and why I am hopeful that the mounting pressure against the organization will finally result in a long overdue change.  The word “Redskins” is not a neutral term for a group of people, it is a disparaging term that reduces that group to a single characteristic…their skin color.  The name “Redskins” does not “honor” the specificity and diversity of the dozens of unique tribal heritages in this country, rather it lumps all Native Americans into one homogenous group and brands that group with a couple of stereotypical and historically inaccurate props.  The name “Redskins” perpetuates a cultural environment where sports fans feel justified in parodying the racial identity of a people that were victims of one of history’s worst genocides and that remain one of our most systemically oppressed groups.  The name “Redskins” is disgusting, and though I support my team and its players, I am ashamed that the organization continues down such a wrongheaded path and actually has the audacity to defend it.

Often in my classrooms, I try to teach through analogy.  So, if you are still reading, I ask you to take a moment to think of the parts of your own personal or cultural identity that really define you – that you hold sacred or dear.  For example, maybe your Asian heritage is dear to you. Maybe your Christianity is a core part of who you are.  Now imagine there was a sports team out there that chose a disparaging name for the group that you identify with as its “mascot”–the “Squinty Eyes” or the “Bible Thumpers.”  Imagine this was done with no real desire to understand anything about your identity, its values, its significance or history. Imagine this sports team appropriated a couple of stereotypical symbols to represent your identity (some of them might even be sacred objects) that become part of the team logo and merchandise and that are worn like “costumes” by its fans — a bowl and some chopsticks or a crucifix.  Now imagine that these fans mimic rituals or cultural practices that are part of your identity without understanding their significance–maybe they periodically scream out a couple of nonsense words that are supposed to sound like an Asian language or maybe they pantomime the holy communion after touchdowns.  Imagine that when you object to your culture being named and portrayed in this way (because the name and the deeds are inexorably connected), your voice is completely drowned out by angry fans who have decided that their sports team is clearly more important than your silly cultural or religious identity and that YOU are actually in the wrong for being too “politically correct”.   Imagine thousands upon thousands of people who are not part of your cultural group, who have no intimate knowledge of your cultural group, who have never experienced the struggles that face members of your cultural group telling YOU what is and what is not offensive TO YOU.

Yes, the team has gone by this name for decades…that doesn’t make it right (lynching people and smacking your wife around used to be pretty “normal” things to do at one time).  As communication and transportation technologies make us more interconnected than we have ever been in human history, we MUST rise to the challenge that increasing diversity (or increasing contact with existing diversity) poses–the challenge to be ethical, kind, and loving humans, to be better intercultural communicators, and to make things right when we have been wrong.