Why We Should Lighten Up About The Redskins

Why We Should Lighten Up About The Redskins

For more than 50 years, people have challenged the propriety of having a professional football team named the Washington Redskins.  The controversy would rise and fall, never gaining much traction, until 2013 when political leaders including President Obama and House Speaker Harry Reid, voiced their own opposition to the name.  That, and the high-stakes financial issue of refusing the team’s return to Washington’s RFK stadium, were they to continue using that team name.

Now the issue is back in the news again, but before telling you why, let me ask:  what do you think about the use of the name “Redskins”?  Don’t overthink it – at least not yet.  Just ask what you feel at some gut level about the fact that here we are in 2016 and have a professional football team called “Redskins”.

Personally, my gut reaction every time I think about it is, really?!  We really use that name, with no embarrassment?  Still?  How is that any different than having a football team, or more likely an accounting firm, called “Hebes”?  It’s not.  It would not bother me all that much and I would actually find it funny.

And that is when it dawns on me that my initial response, while well-intentioned, may not be so on target.  In fact, calling a team the “Redskins” is probably not such a big deal, and a new survey indicates that 9 out of 10 Native American Indians agree that it is not.

Not only that, 8 in 10 wouldn’t even be offended if a non-native called them the name directly.

Of course, I appreciate that notions of propriety are not simply governed by those who are mostly likely to be offended e.g. the “n-word” should still be out of bounds, no matter how many black people use it.  But when 90% of that community, including those representing a very wide range of political views, economic strata and educational achievement, all agree – as they did in a recent poll seeking Native Indians’ views of the use of “Redskin” – perhaps those of us with negative gut reactions to the moniker are missing something.

I think what we are missing is that the term “Redskin”, like stereotypical image of a Jewish accountant or banker, can be positive as well as negative.  It’s not an either/or deal, and the response to any of these stereotypic labels should be about more than gut responses.  And that is when I begin to ask myself why I would laugh about a firm called “Hebes”, but not so much (at least initially) about “Redskins”.

As a Jew, I live in a country with remarkably low rates of anti-Semitism, and remarkably high rates of Jewish success, so I have the cultural margins to laugh at myself and my community.  That ability is nothing less than the appropriate response to the great good fortune of being a Jewish American in the 21st century.  And truth be told, were I living in Europe where anti-Semitism is rising, I am sure I would laugh less and worry more about how Jewish stereotypes and images were used.  And that too would be appropriate.

So when it comes to the use of “Redskins”, I assess the many socio-economic challenges faced by many Native American communities, especially those not cashing in on gambling casinos, and wonder if we ought not to tread a bit more lightly.  But what this poll tells us is that the vast majority of American Indians are not concerned about their community in that way.  They see the name and image associated with the NFL team as reflecting neither hatred nor mockery of native people, but as being either insignificant, even possibly a tribute to a long tradition of fierceness and bravery – the kind which can inspire a football team to greatness.  That’s not crazy.  So perhaps, those opposed to the name should lighten up just a bit – at least about the name.

Since, in the case of the football team at least, the use of the term is at least as positive as it may be negative, let’s stop berating Redskins team owner Dan Snyder — as so many people opposing the name love to do, or denigrating the Native identity of the 90% of American Indians unconcerned about the name – as leaders from the 10% are doing.   This really is a moment when lighting a candle makes a whole lot more sense than cursing the (unintentionally implied and/or perceived) darkness.

If we are genuinely concerned about redressing socio-economic gaps affecting the American Indian community, it might serve us well to follow the community’s lead, stop stressing about a name which could surely be interpreted as positively as negatively, and instead spend our energy addressing those gaps at a more substantive level.  I know that would be less fun, more work, and require a longer-term commitment that simply raging from the left or from the right about the issue, but maybe….


Brad Hirschfield

Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC's Nightline UpClose, PBS's Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, "For God's Sake," for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.

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