Washington D.C.’s NFL team announced Monday that it is getting rid of its offensive and racist Redskins nickname – a move that feels entirely in the moment, entirely decades too late and entirely like it would never happen, all at the same time.
The moment, of course, is a collective and wholly necessary re-evaluation of race, history and privilege being undertaken in this country (and really this world) – much of it touched off after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Since the economy is often a driver when it comes to elevating a collective consciousness beyond mere thought, this particular moment also came to bear with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake and Washington’s football organization under pressure to act.
The timing? Well, I remember circulating a petition – along with my longtime best friend, who is Native American – while we were in junior high school that asked for support in changing the “Redskins” nickname of Grand Forks Central, the high school which we were going to attend in a couple years.
I’m fairly sure we created the petition on our own, on a typewriter, and went door-to-door asking people to sign. I’m not entirely sure what we did with the signatures or how many we got. I remember one woman calling me “Paleface.” And I remember that a couple years later Grand Forks Central did, in fact, change the nickname – eventually to Knights.
That was more than a quarter-century ago. There was plenty of resistance, plenty of false equivalence, plenty of insistence that the nickname was an honor and not a slur. And yes, there were a lot of “Redskins Forever” shirts and caps made, many of which are probably now gathering dust in Grand Forks basements — the same ones, perhaps, that also still contain remnants of the University of North Dakota’s "Fighting Sioux" logo and nickname, retired eight years ago.
So it is absurd to think a process undertaken a generation ago by a high school in a state not known for its bastion of liberal viewpoints is now just being started by the most visible professional sports team in our nation’s capital.
But here we are: At a place we so obviously should have arrived a long time ago but that which team owner Daniel Snyder promised just seven years ago would NEVER happen.
Should an organization get to take a victory lap for finally doing the right thing decades too late after being backed into a financial corner? Nope.
We can acknowledge this is better than not doing it. That’s about it. But hold your applause, and feel free to keep your arms folded.
Because we also had better acknowledge this: A lot of us accepted the nickname as part of the NFL, even if it made us uncomfortable. And in that way, a lot of us are complicit. I know I’ve held my nose and used it in things I’ve written or said – accepting the status quo. And I sure never circulated or signed any petitions to get rid of it, even if that’s what I believed was right.
Racism is not merely the problem of the afflicted or the truly vile. It persists when those of us who know better and believe we think better don’t speak and act against it. And in that way it is everyone’s problem.
Along those lines, gestures like toppling statues and removing nicknames are notable, but they are not nearly enough. This is a signpost, not an endpoint when it comes to the work that must be done – and undone – as all of us in positions of privilege grapple with the world around us that has largely been created for our benefit and with our implied consent.
Racism is so ingrained in society that it often masquerades as normal. More of us need to be more consistent and true allies in the fight against it – recognizing that racism is not a moment but a system.
The fact that Washington changing its racist nickname in 2020 still registers as a surprise and a major event should tell us a lot about how long the journey ahead still is.