The season premiere of South Park, which aired September 24, struck a chord familiar to many viewers and is sure to set the Washington football team scrambling to recover lost yardage.
In the 18th season opener, the cartoon show’s entrepreneurial children decide to make use of the Washington name for their crowd-funded Kickstarter company after discovering that the trademark for the team’s name was revoked. When Dan Snyder, owner of the team, learns of the name being used, he implores the children to change the name, claiming that it’s offensive. He is summarily told that the company was named out of respect for his people and to “Go f*** yourself.”
The parallels between the show and real life are juicy and revealing. By placing Snyder in the role of those protesting the team name in real life, the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, accomplish what so few have been able to do: symbolically put Snyder in the shoes of many Native Americans and hold him publicly accountable for perpetuating a dictionary-defined racial slur.
Parker and Stone truly are to be commended for holding Snyder accountable. But while the primary blame for the continued use of a slur as a team name remains with Snyder, the responsibility is far from his alone.
After all, anti-Indian racism in America has become so taken for granted, expected, and yes, institutionalized, that many people don’t bat an eye when it happens--because they see it every day.
Hardly a word is said, for example, about the wooden Indian statues that can be found at the liquor stores, bars, and tobacco shops that many people frequent, or about the stereotypical images depicted on every day products ranging from Native American Spirit cigarettes and Cherikee Red soda pop to Land O’Lakes butter and cheese.
These are things people see every day. And when a person sees something all the time, the mind has a way of becoming accustomed to it. Over time, it’s like it’s not even there.
That’s one of the reasons why so many people, including some Native Americans, remain in favor of retaining the team name. It also explains why Snyder has been able to resist years of mounting protest for change.
People have become so accustomed to the stereotypes and romanticized images--the Indian costumes at Halloween, the Hiawatha pageants, the face paint and feathered headbands many children make in Cub Scouts, take your pick--that they don’t recognize them for what they are.
That’s also why Snyder’s carefully calculated string of PR moves has been so convincing to his supporters.
The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, for example, has given some 3,000 winter coats to tribes across the Plains and shoes to boys and girls basketball teams.
This, together with the team’s new website, “RedskinsFacts.com,” presents an image of the team as warriors on the battlefield of righteousness and decency, fighting for “tradition,” a team whose name, they say, “epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans—the same intangibles we expect from Washington’s gridiron heroes on game day.”
It’s a heroic image they’re selling, one that simultaneously activates the classic stereotype of the “noble savage” while also framing the team—not the people who are the object of the racial slur they are perpetuating—as the ones who are under attack.
But make no mistake: Discrimination is discrimination, even when people claim it’s “tradition.”
And Dan Snyder is not helping anyone, least of all Native Americans.
A growing body of scientific research shows that such team names and mascots hurt Native American people. They increase psychological distress, harm self-esteem, and activate negative stereotypes.
Parker and Stone would be right to say that it’s high time we hold Snyder accountable. After all, if the NBA can ban Donald Sterling for life and force him to sell the Los Angeles Clippers for making racist comments in private, Snyder, who’s been profiteering from a racial slur publicly for over a decade, should face penalties no less severe.
To do otherwise sends the message that it’s okay to be racist so long as it’s done en masse, for a longer time period, and with far greater detriment.
In the end, Snyder will have to change the name. Trying to buy support with a charitable organization whose real purpose is to protect the image of a 1.7 billion dollar franchise won’t fool everyone for long. Neither will a so-called “facts” website that makes no mention of indigenous opposition or scientific research.
As Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said at a recent news conference, "The NFL needs to join the rest of America in the 21st Century. We can no longer tolerate this attitude toward Native Americans. This is not about team tradition. This is about right and wrong."
This is also about accountability.
But to make Snyder’s actions reflective of one man’s use of a racial slur deflects responsibility. The real blame lies with the culture that created the man, a culture that rewards those who paint their faces, appropriates the likeness of other cultures, and provokes this kind of kind of behavior to begin with.
Today, people across the nation are screaming for Dan Snyder to change the Washington team name. And he should. But let’s hope that we can take the next step and change American culture as well.
DaShanne Stokes is a Lakota author, speaker, and commentator. He holds master’s degrees in psychology and sociology and is currently completing his doctorate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @DaShanneStokes.