The Washington R****ns name and mascot* (and the many like it) rely upon caricatured stereotypes of those who have been historically subordinated. These negative images are promoted for the entertainment and profit of the dominant culture. Though there are, of course, varying perspectives within the many diverse native communities, this practice has long been decried as inappropriate.
The consequences are real. In 2005, the American Psychological Association released its 'Resolution Recommending Retirement of American Indian Mascots,' which cited the many "harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people."
Given that most such mascots are associated with schools, we should be particularly vigilant. But as of 2006, over 2,500 elementary and high schools use American Indian mascots. Thus, at an early age we promote the idea that stereotyping marginalized groups is acceptable.
Sports fans routinely claim they are 'honoring' Native American cultures by painting their faces red and sticking plastic feathers in their hair. But perhaps if we truly wanted to honor indigenous cultures, we would begin by honoring their repeated requests to cease and desist with such mockeries. If we really wanted to honor, perhaps we would take the time to learn the true histories, cultures, and stories, rather than promoting monolithic and inaccurate images. If we honestly wanted to honor, we might show interest beyond the moments in which we are simply interested in appropriating for our own gain.
Of the most common sports mascots, most are animals (Eagles, Bears, Falcons, Lions) or objects (Rockets, Jets, Sox, Rockies). What does it say when we add to this list teams like the Chiefs, Braves, and Indians? Even when other human beings are used as mascots, it is as a profession, not as a race or ethnicity itself (Packers, Steelers, Cowboys).
People of color are often otherized to the point of being not fully human. We see the manifestations of this tendency is the use of people as props in advertisements (links NSFW), and as Halloween costumes. When we lose our compassion for each other as fellow human beings, objectification and dehumanization facilitate violence and the devaluation of life.
Some of the ease with which we employ such objectification speaks to the invisibility of native cultures within our daily lives. Would you paint your face black, wear an afro wig and prance around the football field trying to imitate your perceptions of black people? Would you lead a pep rally including a fake communion ceremony and selling plastic toy crucifixes as souvenirs?
Given the history of white culture's relationship with American Indian populations, continued profit through the use of caricatured imagery seems particularly heinous. Yet it is all too commonplace. It ushers an environment where it is appropriate for opposing teams to shout things like "hey, Cowboys, finish off those R*****ns" or "Kill the Indians!”
And yet, as a nation, we continue to cling to our mascots like graven idols. We cite years of tradition, argue that offense wasn't intended and so it shouldn't be taken. But ultimately, majority culture shouldn't get a say. It's not about pleasing the crowd's desire to be entertained. We have been repeatedly asked to cease our behavior and yet we have patently refused. Indeed, “when someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist – then the harm becomes intentional.”
What does that say about our heart for our neighbor? This neighbor from whom we've stolen land and maligned for generations. The issue of sports mascots is one small piece of a much larger network of injustices against American Indian nations. Most of these issues continue to be ignored or ridiculed.
We need to consider seriously what is at stake when we prioritize our own team pride over the humanity and respect of our sisters and brothers. Are we really more loyal to a mascot than to the reconciled body of Christ?
Have you attended a school that uses imagery of American Indian stereotypes as a mascot? How would your community react to calls for change? What would be your witness?
Take a look at this great video that drives the point home (but check out this commentary as well):