Please Change That Horrible Name

If I am totally honest, I will admit that the impetus behind my movement in a more progressive direction over the past few years has been more ethical than theological. I can illustrate what I mean with the following question. Why are so few people, especially conservative Christians, offended, embarrassed, or possibly enraged over the name of the NFL franchise in Washington, DC?

Today is Columbus Day in the US. Given what we now know about the less-than-noble aspects of Christopher Columbus and the consequences of his “discovery” of the New World, if you aren’t beginning to question whether or not we should continue to celebrate a day in his honor, you likely will not appreciate the point of this blog post. For my part, I refuse to speak the DC NFL team’s name out loud, and I certainly will not type it into the text of this blog. In the rest of this post, I’ll use the form of R——s to denote the hideously inappropriate word to which I am referring.

Red potatoes

The only appropriate use of the name of the DC NFL team.

For reasons I cannot really explain, I am super-sensitive to issues related to Native Americans, and that sensitivity is increasing as I get older. I believe the exploitation and subjugation of Native American tribes over the course of US history is an evil for which we have not exhibited sufficient national repentance and contrition.

In part, my sensitivity to this issue is purely personal. Like many in this country, I have Native American ancestry on my father’s side of the family. You would not question that if you had ever seen my grandmother, a strikingly attractive woman whose almond-brown skin and high cheek bones were stereotypically Native American features.

But this is more than just a personal beef. I am not simply offended. I am saddened and shamed by this horrible chapter of our national history. And the callous disregard for the feelings of people whose ancestors were so mistreated, on the part of those responsible for perpetuating the DC NFL team name, simply makes a bad situation worse.

Please understand. This is not a defense of violent and barbarous behavior on the part of some Natives toward American settlers and others who were not in any way responsible for the unjust policies of the US government with regard to Native peoples. Atrocities are atrocities, no matter who commits them. But injustice cannot be overlooked or excused simply because some who were treated unjustly responded violently.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the ownership of the Washington NFL team has so adamantly refused to accede to the requests of Native American groups to change the name of the team. Shouldn’t it be a matter of simple courtesy to do whatever we can to avoid opening old wounds or forcing victims of injustice to re-live that painful history?

We’re not talking about something on the order of calling a vertically-challenged man “Shorty” or an overweight guy “Dumpy” against his wishes. Many people, including me, regard the term “R——s” as a horribly offensive racial slur, essentially equivalent to the use of the N word with reference to African Americans. In fact, a few years ago, one group that filed a legal complaint against the R——s organization referred to the team name as a  “pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person.” A little over the top, perhaps, but I entirely agree with the sentiment.

Even if it is true that the majority of Native Americans are not offended by the use of the term R——s (and I am not convinced of that), many are, and for good reason. Sensitive Americans should recognize this and support efforts to persuade the Washington team to change its name and to encourage the NFL to do what it can to insist that this change come about.

This is not a conservative vs. liberal issue. This is a matter of respecting the wishes of people who are offended by unnecessary and thoughtless behavior. It is a matter of standing for human dignity. If Native Americans feel disrespected by the Washington NFL team name, and the accompanying logo which is equally offensive, then the civil, thoughtful, respectful thing to do would be to grant their request to change the team’s name.

Some years ago a neo-Nazi group threatened to organize a parade, complete with swastikas and other paraphernalia, that would follow a route through a community that was largely Jewish, many of whom were holocaust survivors. Legal action to block the parade was unsuccessful as the court ruled that the action of the neo-Nazis was a legitimate, if tasteless and insensitive, exercise of the freedom of speech.

I was a politically conservative college student at the time and not big on public demonstrations. Still, I was ready to sign on when some of my fellow students suggested that, if the parade actually happened, they would go to that town in Illinois and stand on the sidewalk between the Jewish residents and the paraders, so that the residents would not have to see the offensive display. As it turned out, the parade never came off, but the idea for showing solidarity with the victims of offensive behavior was a good one.

Of all people, Christians should be sensitive to issues like this. But Americans in general should look inward and ask why so many are opposed to this simple gesture of respect toward a group of people who have suffered so much in our nation’s history. I know the arguments that a change of this magnitude would have adverse financial consequences for the team. Personally, I doubt that. But despite that possibility, we Americans, who take pride in our “exceptionalism,” should raise a collective voice to ask, with fervency and intensity, that the owners of the Washington NFL team do the right thing and change that horrible name.



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