The Red*kins team name has managed to retain strong public support, even despite outcry against team owner, Dan Snyder, announcing this week the creation of the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” But strong public support and apathy, even from many within the Native community, doesn’t make it right. And I’ll tell you why.
To be sure, there are a lot of people who support the ethnic team names and mascots, and some of them are indigenous. An Associated Press poll conducted last year, for example, found that 79 percent of Americans are in favor of the Red*kins keeping their name. And even stronger support was found in the 2004 National Annenberg Survey. In that study, a staggering number of self-identified Native Americans—almost 90 percent—said that the Redskins team name didn’t bother them.
Snyder and other team supporters point to figures like this and support from some Native Americans as reason to retain the name, claiming it’s a symbol of honor and respect.
But, contrary to what Snyder and his supporters might have us believe, popular opinion does not make something right. And the real world is a very different place than his supporters suggest.
And there’s a growing body of research that proves it.
Here is a small sampling of five recent studies demonstrating, despite a combination of widespread support and apathy, that Native American team names and mascots do, in fact, have a serious harmful effect:
1. A study by Chaney, Burke, and Burkley (2011) found that many people, in fact, do not distinguish between their feelings between stereotypical Native mascots and actual, living, breathing, Native American people.
2. In their study on the effects of people who were not themselves the object of stereotypical depictions, Kim-Prieto, Okazaki, Goldstein, and Kirschner (2009) found that even people who had been exposed to Native American sports mascots were more likely to stereotype a different ethnic minority group.
3. Steinfeldt et al. (2010) examined racial attitudes about Native Americans expressed in online newspaper forums, focusing on the nickname and logo used by the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux.” The study found support for the positions of anti-mascot activists and organizations that Native American mascots, nicknames, and logos perpetuate stereotypes. It also found that “Because sports fans have the power to play Indian without the consent of American Indians, relations between both groups are negatively affected" (King et al., 2006; Staurowsky, 2007; Williams, 2006; Williams, 2007).
Within the context of college sporting events, the “scripted form of White people “becoming” Indian renders invisible the ignominious history of American Indian genocide by the U.S. government, replacing it with a culturally comfortable and comforting myth of the ‘American Indian warrior’” (Staurowsky, 2007, p. 62). Thus, majority culture participants can disengage themselves from historic and ongoing marginalization of American Indians. In its place, a false sense of unity is forged between American Indians and European Americans through the assumption that American Indians feel honored and respected by racialized mascotery (Black, 2002).” (Steinfeldt et al. 2010: 7)
4. A 2011 study by LaRocque et al. of the emotional impact of the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo on 33 Native American and 36 majority culture (MC) students found that Native
Americans “may experience significantly higher levels of psychological distress when viewing even neutral images of AI (American Indian) nicknames/logos.”
5. Freng and Willis-Esqueda, in their 2011 investigation to determine if exposure to a Native American mascot activated Native American stereotypes, found that the “Chief Wahoo” image of the Cleveland Indians activated negative, not positive, Native American stereotypes when compared to other images.
Cumulatively, these studies show in horrific clarity what supporters of the Red*kins--Native and non-Native alike--seem not to realize: that ethnic mascots are integrally intertwined with their offensive team names,
and together they have the effect of perpetuating institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism contributes to high rates of unemployment, poverty, health problems, and inadequate education for many Native Americans. In short, Native team names and mascots contribute to the very problems we should be focused on solving.
That’s why ethnic team names and mascots aren’t just silly words and images we can afford to ignore. They have a real, measurable impact, and they hurt us all—no matter where we live, what our backgrounds are, and
whether we are personally offended or not.
DaShanne Stokes is a Lakota doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Unfinished Dream: A Discussion on Rights, Equality, and Inclusivity.