Photo by Ichio on Unsplash. Native American headdresses should only be worn by Native Americans.

Author’s note: Some readers of the article entitled “Is Redskins a racial slur” questioned the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, Matal v.Tam, on using Redskins as a nickname for the Washington NFL team. That case involved the registration by an Asian rock band of a trademark for its name, “The Slants”. The Court held that the band was entitled to register its name as a trademark and ruled that refusing to register trademarks considered disparaging violated the First Amendment. A brief discussion on this subject has been included in the republished article below between the two principals, Joe Bennett and Waya, involved in whether Redskins is a racist term.

(Republished in Medium Daily Digest January 21, 2019)

Is Redskins a racial slur?

An allegorical conversation between an African American and a Native American provides the answer

It was a cool autumn Sunday and the Washington Redskins were playing a home game. Joseph Bennett, an African American gentleman in his early 60’s, was sitting in his usual seat, wearing his customary Indian headdress and maroon Washington team jacket with its ‘Redskin’ emblems. Joe noticed that the seat next to him was not filled with its usual fan. When he inquired about the faithful fan, he was told that the seat had been purchased by an unknown person.

Another fan a few rows back shouted, “Hey Joe, when are you going to get some real feathers in that bonnet and look like a real fighting Indian Chief and an authentic mascot for us?” Joe hollered back: “Tommy, wish I could, but the government has outlawed the use of real eagle feathers!”

At that moment, another gentleman, bundled in a heavy jacket with a hood that covered most of his face, eased into the seat next to Joe. He removed the covering, exposing his painted black face, and introduced himself as Waya of the Cherokee Nation, extending his hand to Joe. Joe stood up, put his hands on his hips, and demanded to know, first, how Waya had gotten a ticket to sit next to him and, second, how he could be so insensitive as to paint his face black. Joe continued speaking harshly and finally said “Just get out of here, NOW!”

Waya retorted, “How can you be so insensitive as to wear an Indian headdress?” Joe was taken aback. He noticed that the eyes of this man were stern yet seemed to express compassion and revealed a deep sadness. In a less harsh voice, Joe said, “I have worn this headdress to REDSKINS games for 30 years. I’m considered one of the team’s unofficial mascots.” To which Waya replied, “No one asked how I felt about your costume and I’m likely the only one at this game who can really tell you how a Native American feels seeing you with your headdress, your Washington team jacket, and hearing you utter the ‘R’ word.

“The affected party rightly decides what is racist…”

Joe looked perplexed. “Listen,” he said. “Redskins has been used as a term of honor and pride for Native Americans for 80 years. And wearing an Indian headdress has been acceptable for as long as I can remember.” Waya politely explained, “Black faced minstrel shows and painted black faces began in the 1840s and continued in this country until the 1960s. The ‘N’ word was acceptable for more than 150 years and was used openly in society and in the media until the 1960s. I can’t tell you how an African American feels deep inside to hear a white person use the ‘N’ word, but….” Waya paused for only a brief moment, looked rather sternly at Joe, gently pointed at him and continued “you can!”

People are constantly telling me that the ‘R’ word means honor but they have no idea how it feels to an American Indian who associates the term with its long derogatory history. Indeed, its history is deeply rooted in hatred; It’s defined in the dictionary as a racial slur to American Indians.” Waya paused briefly, continuing: “We’ve also been called Injuns, our women called squaws. and squaw is still used freely in today’s society. Did you know that squaw means vagina in some Indian dialects?” Waya again paused to see if Joe might respond to this question. Joe did not answer. So he continued, “I believe your name is Joe, may I call you Joe? Don’t you think its the affected party who rightly decides what is racist and what isn’t?”

Joe interrupted and, in a more conciliatory tone, said “Waya, I’d like to hear more. The crowd is beginning to come in. Let’s slip out where there is less noise and talk about this some more. But first, WIPE THAT CHARCOAL OFF YOUR FACE!” Waya took a towel from his coat and began to wipe his face. Joe removed his headdress. The two gentlemen began walking towards an exit as Waya continued wiping the blackness from his face.

They found a relatively quiet spot at a table away from the crowd. “Go on Waya,” Joe said, “You’ve got the floor and this better be good for me to miss part of my game.”

Waya continued “Joe, what African Americans have experienced is what we are going through. If I’m not mistaken, during the early civil rights movement, the major emphasis of Black America was confronting many hardships like voting, education and unemployment inequalities, having to ride at the back of buses, and having separate eating, restroom and theater facilities, which were common in the South. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act began taking effect and the unconscionable ways of treating African Americans were changing, your leaders turned their attention to addressing other issues, such as stereotyping. Look at the names and caricatures like the ‘N’ word, ‘boy’, ‘spade’, ‘jig’, ‘Sambo’ and ‘coons’, and public spectacles, such as painted black faces and black faced minstrel shows that African Americans said were demeaning. Many whites claimed that this was the way of life in America and it had been that way for years without complaints. Many said they were only having good, clean fun, meant no harm, and there was no racism intended. But fortunately, much of white society recognized the injustices in the way black Americans were treated and accepted that these acts, which….” Waya again pointed gently at Joe and continued, “the affected party, said were stereotyping, and change occurred.” The two men looked at each other and Joe rubbed his head. “Waya, I have to agree with a lot you have said, please go on.”

“We are currently the most stereotyped people in sports and advertising — more than just the ‘R’ word and the Washington team’s Indian paraphernalia.”

“Thanks, Joe!” said Waya. “These changes did not come overnight. Stereotyping blacks had been a way of life in America for many, many years. To my knowledge, there were no polls taken among blacks, particularly in the South, nor among other Americans, to assess the percentage of African Americans opposed to these derogatory words or stereotyping in general. But, Joe, polls have been taken, and poorly conducted, showing many American Indians and Washington team fans think the ‘R’ word is not racist. These polls cannot tell me, one of the affected party, how I should feel about hearing the ‘R’ word”

The two men were quiet for a few moments and Joe said, “Waya, I never equated the pain of our ‘stereotyping’, as you call it, with that of Native Americans. I wonder why we haven’t seen your pain more clearly.”

Waya continued, “Joe, look at what most other minorities have experienced. Virtually all have been stereotyped at one time or another. If I’m not mistaken, Jewish Americans were stereotyped in cartoons and depicted in caricatures with large hook noses, curly hair, olive brown skin, and as miserly with money in the early part of the 20th Century; and often called ‘kikes’. Let’s consider Asian Americans and the subsequent fallout they felt from the typecasting of Japanese during and after the Second World War. They were illustrated in cartoons with exaggerated slanted eyes and buck teeth. Chinese were often depicted in Asiatic Hordes, while Asians in general were referred to in terms of the ‘Yellow Peril.’ During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese were called ‘gooks’, ‘Charlie’ and ‘zipper heads’, Mexican Americans have been stereotyped in advertising like ‘The Frito Bandito,’ depicted in cartoons as lazy and referred to as ‘wetbacks’. Even Italian, German, Polish, and Irish Americans have felt the sting of the whip, being stereotyped freely in society and the news media by ethic slurs like ‘dagos’, ‘krauts’, ‘polacks’ and ‘paddies’.

The crowd roared and Waya stopped talking. After a brief pause, he continued: “Joe, you’ve listened to me enough. I think the Washington team may have scored. Why don’t you return to your game? I do appreciate our conversation and you taking time to listen to me. You are an important participant in the Washington team game.” Joe shook his head and said “I can’t leave this conversation. I’ve always thought of myself as a compassionate person; let’s see what more you want to say. Please.”

“Joe, thank you for your time and for listening to me. Each of these examples of past insensitivities toward minorities is now easily comprehensible and acceptable as racially derogatory and politically incorrect in today’s society. The harbinger of change in all cases began with the affected party, the only one who could rightfully feel the depth of the pain of stereotyping. Their concerns were heard and others in society ultimately agreed. The length of time that a specific ethnic group had been the victim of stereotyping, the claims of historical uses by the perpetrators, the reasons given for using a specific term, and the number and percentage of affected individuals involved were not reasons society judged an act or a word to be degrading. Don’t you agree?” Joe listened, but did not respond.

“Joe, I blame America as a whole for not responding to our plight. But listen, virtually every oppressed group has been through the same thing.

We are currently the most stereotyped people in sports and advertising — more than just the ‘R’ word and the Washington team’s Indian paraphernalia. I’ll give you many other examples in sports: the Cleveland Indians and their mascot, Chief Wahoo, the Atlanta Braves and their tomahawk chop, the Chicago Blackhawks with their logo of an American Indian, the Kansas City Chiefs and Arrowhead Stadium, and the colleges and high schools with their monikers, mascots and Indian images.

Examples in advertising include Pontiac, Winnebago, Dodge Dakota, Jeep Cherokee,” Waya paused as he thought he may have overemphasized Jeep Cherokee, but then went on. “Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, Hamm’s Beer, Gray Owl Rice, Umpqua Diary Products, Sue Bee Honey, Land O’ Lakes, Arrowhead Bottled Water, and several cigarette brands such as American Spirit Cigarettes and 111 (‘One-Eleven) American Cigarettes.”

“Stop this, Waya. Now I’ve heard enough.” Joe said. “You can’t tell me you object to Jeep Cherokee? That, if anything, is an honor! You are way off base and way too sensitive.” Joe continued, “But go on and this better be good.”

“Joe, I look at things a bit differently. Remember, we Cherokees are a nation of people. You’ve heard of the Cherokee Nation. Right?” Joe nodded. Waya said, “I also look at Mexico as a nation of people, and would anyone dare make a Jeep….” Waya paused, as if to say: You complete the Jeep….. Joe looked at Waya and again nodded for him to continue.

“I think the reason other minorities don’t identify with our feelings, even though they have experienced similar stereotyping, is because it is a human characteristic to see only the things that affect us and not the things that affect others. We only feel our own pain!” Waya looked at Joe. Joe tilted his head slightly, agreeing.

The two men became quiet. Joe slowly shook his head and said, “You have thought about this a lot, Waya, and I know you have much more to say. But I’ve learned a lot and have a lot to think about. Shall we stop?”

Waya also sensed that it was time to close. He stood up, smiled, cocked his head slightly to one side, gave a slight bow indicating to Joe how much he appreciated the talk, and offered his hand. Joe stood and enthusiastically shook Waya’s hand and said, “I will never wear this headdress again. That will tell many fans that a big change has occurred. I will have to do some explaining, but I will handle that. Thank you, Waya.”

“Many thanks for taking time to chat. I learned a lot too. I appreciate you not wearing the headdress. When I sat down next to you in the stadium, I overhead you say that it would be nice to have real eagle feathers for your headdress. Joe, eagle feathers are sacred to many Indians and are also a religious symbol.” Joe patted Waya on the back and turned his head quickly as his eyes seemed to fill with water. He headed in the direction of his stadium seat, leaving the headdress behind.

Waya made his way toward one of the exits.

Joe subsequently contacted Waya following the Supreme Court’s ruling on the 2017 case by an Asian rock band wishing to have their name, ‘The Slants’, trademarked. “Hello Waya. This is Joe Bennett. I hope you are well.”

“Joe, nice to hear from you. All is ok. Is there any way I can be of help?”

“…..ruling by the Supreme Court that the Asian rock band was entitled to have their nickname, ‘the Slants’ trademarked.”

“I wanted to ask for your insights on the ruling by the Supreme Court that the Asian rock band was entitled to have their nickname, ‘the Slants’ trademarked. Dan Snyder, who owns the Redskins team, was pleased by this ruling. He said it reflects favorably on having the decision by the lower courts overturned that his trademark on Redskins is a racially motivated slur and can no longer be trademarked.”

Waya responded “As you know, the ruling by the Supreme Court was based on freedom of speech and the court overwhelming agreed that the band members had the right to call themselves ‘The Slants’. Otherwise, their freedom of speech would be restricted. The Court said nothing about the term being disparaging to some individuals. And if Synder chooses to call his team Redskins, so be it.

But Joe, doesn’t this also mean that we can freely call the Washington team by a similar nickname used in the past referring to any specific minority? Restricting the use of any of such names as monikers would also affect freedom of speech.

Another important point is ‘The Slants’ are the affected party and is this not analogous to African Americans calling each other the ’N’ word, but a white person cannot do this as it would be derogatory.

To me, the fact that the affected party is the only one who rightfully can attest to what is derogatory and is racially not politically correct is extremely important in these matters. None of the Supreme Court members or the lawyers arguing for or against the moniker ‘The Slants’ discussed the rights of the affected party. In the past, the affected party is the one who first raised objections to what they considered as stereotyping or derogatory. The significance of the affected party having the major say in issues of racism is never raised in the court of law. But it most certainly has been the main route used by the affected party to inform others what is painful to them.”

“Thank you, Waya. You have raised important points on why the Supreme Court’s decision to trademark “The Slants” is justified for the Asian rock band but poorly addresses those who suffer most by openly used terms such as the ‘R’ word. I have been a longtime fan of the Washington team but will give up my tickets this fall. So many fans are no longer renewing their tickets to games and Snyder does not understand that many of us want the this horrible moniker changed.

It’s so good to talk to you, Waya. Let’s stay in touch, Godspeed, dear friend.”

“Thank you, Joe. Goodbye”.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in the newspaper, Indian Country Today, under the title “Extremely Awkward Conversation With a Native American at Redskins Game” on April 18, 2015 (https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/extremely-awkward-conversation-with-a-native-american-at-redskins-game-juQwGbv2BUiMVeesxYIQqA/). This updated version is published here with permission.