I was a little offended at first.
Not on the behalf of Amerindians, either. I have four years of Aboriginal Studies and most of a History degree under my belt, so you’d think I’d be a major supporter of getting rid of racist logos. But, walking into the “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports” symposium (whew!) , I wasn’t totally convinced. All I could think to do was play devil’s advocate.
You see, I’m a sports fan.
I was preoccupied with other issues, too. I was wondering what and where the “other side” was. I remembered the time my own high school removed its offensive Indian Head mascot (I was a 10th grader, a history student, but also a cheerleader. There were mixed feelings.). An audience member even suggested that “these guys” (ie. sports fans) were “ignorant” and just sat around watching sports with their “beer bellies.” Are-you-kidding-me?
To my defensive mind, the dialogue felt like this: Sports fans support racism. Sports fans spit on and yell at protesters. Sports fans send death threats to well-meaning decision makers who fight for Native peoples. College-aged sports fans get drunk and disrespect a culture to an unforgivable level. Sports fans just don’t get it, do they?
As I live-tweeted some of the great points made by the presenters (none of which I disagreed with), I also drafted a tweet to express my discomfort: “As a young, white, sports fan, I feel awk. Want to be considered a possible part of the solution, not just the problem. #RacistSportsLogos”
Then I remembered first year Native Studies. I remembered a First Nations presenter who discussed patience, listening, giving yourself time to think, letting others speak first.
I deleted the tweet. I just listened.
And when I listened, this is what I started to notice:
I noticed how people were so sensitive about depictions of “Indians.” And, I realized, they should be. These people are rebuilding. We are looking at cultural genocide victims, after all. We have an obligation to listen to them and portray them respectfully because it’s the right thing to do.
I heard pain in peoples’ voices as they recounted personal experiences. The father, whose confused little boy asked “Isn’t that what we do at Pow Wow? Are they making fun of us?” in response to people “cheering” at a sports game. Those who were harassed relentlessly when they raised the fact that they were personally offended. People should be allowed to ask for mutual respect from powerful institutions like schools, leagues, and sponsors without fear or risk of cultural deprecation.
I heard the word “Ownership.” That one really made me think.
I noticed that how much intense and brave work people are doing every day to work towards a better understanding, of not only Aboriginal history but contemporary identity. No doubt, we need to support that.
Mostly, though, I noticed that there are people hurting. I noticed Natives who are trying really hard to express themselves honestly and to have a legitimate contemporary presence. People who have gone through so much, people who are trying to pass something meaningful on to the next generation–and people who feel demeaned by a stadium full of people yelling “REDSKINS!” as they try to do this. There are people hurting. As Rev. Graylan Hagler said: “When someone saying ‘ouch,’ we don’t ask them to justify why they’re hurting. Regard their truth as truth.”
“Ouch,” he said. “Means ‘Ouch.'”
And so, I asked myself, what do DC Football Fans have to lose? Their identity. Their collective memory of the team. Their traditional clothing (see also: hats and jerseys). Their symbolism. Their rituals.
Well, gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?
I’d think sports fans, of all people, should be able relate to how deeply symbols can manifest in our lives. How important a team is to a community. How important it is to let that team be inclusive and, you know, not racist.
Personally, my teams are a part of my identity. I really, really don’t want my identity to be rooted in something that hurts people. I don’t want to be cheering with something that isolates or demeans someone else. Sports are fun, and I want them to be fun for everyone. We all should be open to listening and to changing a name, or a symbol.
Teams in and of themselves aren’t about their names. Oh, fans, you must feel that. If the DC Football team had a new name, all that would really change is the t-shirt you have in your closet, or the hat that you wear, or the specific word you yell out. If you define your team spirit or identity by those things, then you need to reassess your fandom. Surely, there’s more to your loyalty than that. And surely, you want your Native brothers and sisters to be able to cheer alongside you without feeling uncomfortable or disrespected.
I’ve always been of the opinion that if something means a LOT to someone else, and your concerns are trivial, you should give at least an inch. Your concerns may not feel trivial, because you’re attached to a team. You have something to lose, sorta.
But think of how much Natives have to lose. And had to lose. And did lose.
I think we owe them respect. And that respect starts here.
Consider this your official invitation to be part of the solution.