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How Fans Convince Themselves 'Redskins' Isn't Racist

Why, despite overwhelming evidence, do so many fans refuse to believe that the “R*dskins” team name is a racial slur – that the R-word is to Indians what the N-word is to blacks; a derogatory and highly offensive racist term?

Blacks would riot if the team were named the “N*ggers,” and would never accept the argument that a team named the “J*gaboos” honors their ability to dance (a “jig”). Don Imus was suspended over his mere use of the word “Nappy,” and team names like “Sp*cs,” “Wetb*cks,” “K*kes,” “C*nts,” and “F*ggots would likewise be intolerable.

Yet, despite numerous legal proceedings finding the word to be racist, grossly insulting, and highly offensive and derogatory, assurances of this fact by virtually every major American Indian organization, and clear statements in dictionaries, many fans refuse to accept this simple conclusion.

Perhaps one explanation is simply “cognitive dissonance”: the psychological term applied to the mental strain which can result from trying to simultaneously harbor two competing inconsistent beliefs. To relieve the mental distress from the conflict, sufferers often change one belief – kidding themselves into disbelieving something which is obviously true, and replacing it with a belief which is clearly false.

For example, a smoker who finds himself unable to quit, but unwilling to accept the fact that his smoking may well kill or disable him, sometimes will illogically conclude that smoking isn’t hazardous. Also, families which have revered a priest their entire lives often cannot accept even overwhelming evidence that he had been a child molester.

Similarly, long time fans – who grew up with the “R*dskins,” revered its players as heroes, and invested so much time and emotional energy in the team – may find it difficult to accept that they are themselves now helping to perpetuate a racist name. Like the addicted smoker who proclaims – and may even truly believe – that smoking isn’t harmful to him, those with an overwhelming love for and investment in the team proclaim that the name isn’t harmful to Indians.

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But, once people become aware of the effects of cognitive dissonance, it is possible to change – to understand that what once may have been acceptable no longer is. For example, once it was acceptable and widely believed that blacks had to be separated from whites, and that women were too emotional to be lawyers.

But most people have now overcome these beliefs, and see them as clearly wrong and blatantly derogatory. So too it is possible to understand that “R*dskins,” whatever its history may have been, is today not a term of honor, but rather a word of racial insult, and make similar changes in their thinking.

With this understanding, fans may more clearly see that, whatever the term may once have meant to them, and however sincere their belief in the name used to be, it has now changed. Even right thinking people once used terms like “coloreds” for blacks, and often referred to their secretary as “my girl.” Today these uses have largely changed, because the connotations of those words have changed, and right thinking people simply don’t use them or support their use.

Using this insight, friends and family members of fans who still insist that “R*dskins” honors rather than denigrates Indians might be better able to help them understand that no amount of history or tradition can excuse the stigma and sting of a word several states will not even permit to be used on license plates. Similarly, fans can understand that agreeing that the name is racist doesn’t mean that they are disowning the team and its history, declining to cheer it on, or even refusing to attend its games.

Instead, it is simply part of overcoming cognitive dissonance and accepting reality. Our country became outraged when Paula Deen – in a private conversation, and at a time and place when it was commonplace and often generally accepted – once used the N-word. Thus, we cannot logically continue to tolerate the open use of the R-word which is equally racist and insulting.

Even Dan Snyder, despite his lifelong veneration of the team, and its long and storied history, may eventually understand that cognitive dissonance – perhaps coupled with some stubborn pride – is affecting his otherwise clear head and sound judgment. If not, economic realities, as more and more people and institutions cast off ingrained notions and accept the obvious, may eventually force him to change his mind.

John F. Banzhaf III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D., is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School.