Ways We Try to Justify Our Traditions: Sports and Beyond

The debate about whether the Washington Redskins should bow to pressure to change its name will continue as long as we as a nation fail to see the difference between trying to justify traditions and recognizing the real deep-seated problems which keep us all in bondage. The issue goes beyond the Washington team and beyond football; however it is something we can dare to address together. Listen to recent conversation points about the Redskins' name, hear echoes of other issues, and consider alternatives.

Ways we try to justify our actions and ourselves:

• "The team is 81 years old. Why didn't anyone object until now?" All sorts of objectionable behaviors remain through the years, becoming "time-honored" traditions. We need to understand the history of the United States which tried for decades to either assimilate or annihilate indigenous peoples. Severely oppressed groups lack power to object and when they do, their objections are rarely heard.

• "It's only a name." Names signify who we are. "I am somebody," was the cry of the Civil Rights movement. And so a people refused to be recognized as Negroes, but named themselves Blacks and then African-Americans. And women chose "Ms." Group after group has refused labels. Making a woman a sex object, or a "colored person" a yard decoration, or one of the over 550 distinct Native American tribes a mascot, dehumanizes them. We are beginning to realize the pain and the lethal danger of name-calling and bullying. It's never "only a name," when one uses another person's name, image or body.

• "I am not a racist." Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and all other "isms" are not simply a matter of saying one remark or even one name, but systemic issues with deep roots. We, our stereotypes, prejudices and fears, are all entwined. We need to continually root out the weeds that will crop up anew in every generation. "I am not...." is rampant self-justification. Far better to recognize our need to shed our fears and defenses and truly seek to understand one another. Only then will all be free of bondage.

• "Most people are not offended." No matter. In fact that attempt at justification ranks right up there with, "It's all in fun," or in terms of sexist remarks, "Can't you take a joke?" Or, "Why do we have to be politically correct?" Whenever people give that self-justifying response, I quickly realize, "They just don't get it." They don't yet understand it is not a matter of trying to not offend someone. It's not a matter of "being a (little) more sensitive." It is a matter of trying hard to understand the deep underlying issues so that we can all come to a higher level of respect for each other's personhood, history and culture.

• "We have permission of Native tribes." People give "permission" for many reasons. Perhaps because they are forced to, forced off their land, forced to give in for fear of losing their jobs or their homes, forced to let someone assault, abuse and control their bodies for fear of losing their lives. I cannot speculate, and I cannot judge, but I can ask. "What does 'giving permission' really mean to everyone involved?"

• "There are other awful ones, too. Some are worse." The essence of self-justification is finding someone who does something worse than I do. Another response is, "Everybody does it." Unfortunately, the practice of using names of Native Americans for team sports has been everywhere. It's hard to count them all. Add to that the thousands of names and words from Native American tribes that have become names of towns and streets and rivers and parks. So, what is one to do? Think! Research! Remember! Discover! Ask! The number of teams that have changed their names and logos is a major start. And news sources that have decided to use, "Washington's pro football team" instead of the "Redskins" is an example. This can become, with courage, a movement, not just to be "sensitive," but to be part of a new way of being Americans together.

• "Native Americans are honored." Simply saying another is honored is to ignore how the other may actually feel. For decades we "honored" women by keeping them "happy," at home, "on a pedestal," "sheltered," away from the public world where they could use all of their gifts. Likewise we kept "happy Negroes" as slaves. Hmm... To honor is to repent from a shameful history of conquest of native peoples and their lands. To honor is to move from ignorance to knowledge of the people behind the names of streets and rivers and towns. To honor is to address grievances of ignored peoples. To honor is to hear and respect the great history, tradition, legacy and presence of native people who say, "We are Americans."