The “R” Word

Published: June 30, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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In a move that surprised many, last week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled six federal trademark registrations for the name the Washington Redskins, ruling that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans.”

In an story authored by Travis Waldron for ThinkProgress, a liberal blog (June 18), the Patent board said, “We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.”

The case was brought against the team by Amanda Blackhorse whom The Daily Beast describes as “a Navajo activist and psychiatric social worker.” In a statement, Blackhorse said, “I am extremely happy that the [Board] ruled in our favor. It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans. We filed our petition eight years ago and it has been a tough battle ever since. I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed. The team’s name is racist and derogatory. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”

When I first heard of the brouhaha over the longtime National Football League team name, my first reaction was similar to that of all the fuss brought about several years ago regarding Major League Baseball’s Braves’ fans miming a tomahawk “chop” to rally fans and motivate players during the game: “Come on, it’s just a silly gesture with little thought behind it. Where’s the harm?”

Then I read the detailed account of how Blackhorse defined the offensive nature of the name as required by the Patent and Trademark office. From the decision:

1. “The Redskinettes also had appeared wearing costumes suggestive of Native Americans, as shown in the 1962 photograph of them reproduced below, which contained the title ‘Dancing Indians’ and the caption ‘Here are the Redskinettes all decked out in their Indian garb and carrying Burgundy and Gold pom-poms.’ ”

2. “The Washington Redskins marching band had worn Native American headdresses as part of its uniforms between the 1960s and the 1990s, as shown in the image below from the 1980s.”

3. “Between 1967 and 1979, the annual Washington Redskin press guides, shown below, displayed American Indian imagery on the cover page.”

4. “The decision cited an excerpt from the 1990 book Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP: Nearly half of all interracial slurs …refer to real or imagined physical differences. … Most references to physical differences are to skin color, which affirms what we have always known about the significance of color in human relations. Asian groups were called yellow this and that and Native Americans were called redskins, red men, and red devils.”

5. “We further note the earliest restrictive usage label in dictionary definitions in Mr. Barnhart’s report dates back to 1966 from the Random House Unabridged First Edition indicating REDSKIN is ‘Often Offensive.’ From 1986 on, all of the entries presented by Mr. Barnhart include restrictive usage labels ranging from ‘not the preferred term’ to ‘often disparaging and offensive.’ ”

6. According to a statement from the National Congress of American Indians: “[T]he term REDSKINS is not and has never been one of honor or respect, but instead, it has always been and continues to be a pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for Native American’s.”

7. In addition, the office considered letters protesting the name from Native Americans and offered the following sample: “Since you continue not to believe that the term “Redskins” is not [sic] offensive to anyone, let me make this clear: The name ‘Redskins’ is very offensive to me and shows little human interest or taste…If you think you are preserving our culture or your history, then may I suggest a change?

“To live up to your name, your team would field only two men to the opponents eleven. Your player’s wives would be required to face the men of the opposing team. After having lost every game in good faith, you would be required to remain in RFK stadium’s end zone for the rest of your life living off what the other teams had left you. (Which wouldn’t be much.) Since you would probably find this as distasteful as 300,000 Indians do, I would suggest a change in name. In sticking to your ethnic theme, I would suggest the Washington Niggers as a start. … This would start a fantastic trend in the league. We would soon be blessed with the San Fransisco [sic] Chinks, New York Jews, Dallas Wetbacks, Houston Greasers, and the Green Bay Crackers. Great, huh?

“Mr. Williams, these would be very offensive to many people, just as Redskins is offensive to myself and others. You can take a stand that would show you and the team as true believers in civil rights, or you can continue to carry a name that keeps alive a threatening stereotype to Indian people. People, Mr. Williams. We don’t want the Redskins!”

As expected, the team plans to appeal the decision.

The French writer Voltaire wrote, “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.”


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