Associated Press

Redskins Name-Change Debate Is About ‘White Fear,’ Says Professor


Virginia Tech English Professor Steven Salaita wrote a controversial article for insisting that the Redskins name-change debate is more about white fear than anything else.

“The Redskins mascot is a powerful symbol and progenitor of majoritarian angst in today’s United States,” said Salaita, who writes about indigenous people and recently authored a book about Arab Americans in the time of Obama. He said that the “historical Indian” was dispossessed and has been “retrofitted to Hollywood specifications” so that he is received as a passive emblem of American identity.

“Humane assimilationists of the past set out to save the man but kill the Indian. These days the goal is to save the fake Indian, so we don’t kill the white man,” Salaita wrote. 

The article explores the historical reference to the name Redskin, and Salaita explains that there is some confusion with its origin, which is why some call it offensive and others do not.

Anti-mascot activists claim that the origin of the name lies in the practice of scalping, in which American soldiers were paid for each scalp or redskin they could produce as proof of a dead Indian.

Salaita references Ives Goddard, a curator and senior linguist in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, who said that there is evidence that the name was not originally meant to be offensive. Instead, Goodard said that redskin was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white Europeans encroaching on their lands and culture.

But Goodard and Salaita both conclude that no matter where the name comes from it has been used as an insult.

In the article, “There’s Nothing Scarier Than a Nervous White Man: The ‘Redskins’ Debate Is Really About White Privilege,” Salaita argues that getting rid of the mascot won’t do enough to address the real problem with the offensive name.

“Banning Indian mascots doesn’t adequately address the underlying logic that gives rise to the mascots in the first place,” Salaita wrote.

Salaita said that the real problem is a lack of discussion about the decolonization of Native Americans. And said that it was “doubly unfortunate” that debates about mascot offensiveness were not delinked from the real racialized conversations Americans should be having.

“If we are fully to make sense of the Redskins controversy, then, we need to remove the conversation from conventional sites of multicultural politics and situate it in analysis of colonialism and its enduring legacies.”

Salaita’s point was that Americans must listen to Natives instead of telling them what to accept as controversial and offensive. Ironically, it was something similar to what Roger Goodell told a Baltimore radio station that we should ‘listen’ to those hurt by the offensive redskins name. Salaita, whose article racked up more than 100 comments, also concluded that tribes interpret a ban on mascots as ‘pretext for ignoring Indian voices’.

“The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, for instance, responded to a ban on Indian mascots in Oregon by reaffirming their struggle against ‘the real issues of racism,’” he wrote. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde responded to that same ban, ‘The Tribe is very disappointed that they’ve trampled our sovereignty and have ignored something that our tribes in Oregon have been calling for for years, which is curriculum that accurately describes Oregon’s Native history.”

The Siletz Indians and the Grand Ronde, according to Salaita, expressed the support of various Indian mascots, but rationalized that the issues tribes are fighting for involve correction of past injustices.

Nevertheless, Salatia goes on to say that the mascots, to some tribes, connect them to that history of injustice and that the use of brand images won’t help progressively heal old or correct new wounds.The Oneida of New York has proclaimed, ‘The word ‘redskins’ is deeply hurtful to Native Americans. It is what our people were called as our lands were taken. It is the insult Native American parents heard as their children were taken’.”

It is at this point Salatia reveals the answer to the question he asks in the title of his piece. Why is this debate really about white privilege?

He said that Indian mascots are “products of an American will to name what has been conquered and to maintain power through a refusal to reconsider traditions of naming.” The Salon writer says that “replacing Indian mascots such as the redskin with more benign characters represents a threat much greater than a change of name or color. It indicates a shift of consciousness from one of colonial privilege to the imminence of tribal autonomy.”

Salatia does not come out and say that the Redskins should change its name, but he insinuates that they should. Unlike other teams that teeter on having offensive names: Vikings, Dallas cowboys, Fighting Irish, and Celtics. He clears up any misunderstanding saying that the redskin is different from other controversial mascots because it is recognized as an epithet in addition to a caricature.

“No matter who says what about Indian mascots, one need only observe their popularity and endurance to realize that they occupy a special position in the American imagination,” Salatia wrote. “Regrettably, it is a colonial imagination, emerging only in relation to the Indians it has invented and must control in order to survive.”