How should a teacher react if a student arrives to class wearing a t-shirt that shouts a repugnant racial slur in large, all capital letters across the chest? The answer ought to be clear. Such attire has no place in the classroom. After all, schools are supposed to be oases of cultural safety, where tolerance and respect of others is both taught and expected. But when I found myself in this exact position during my Physics class last week, I was unsure of how to act. The t-shirt in question was officially-licensed NFL merchandise featuring quarterback Robert Griffin III's name on the back and the "REDSKINS" wordmark on the front. Certainly the student wearing the shirt meant no offense. And as a diehard and life-long football fan, I'd always associated the word with football first. But considering the baggage the word "Redskins" carries, could I expect my classroom to be a safe and inclusive environment if I allowed it to be proudly displayed?
It's time for schools to ban Redskins merchandise from their hallways and classrooms. In fact, many schools already have -- on paper at least -- as their dress codes forbid students from wearing clothing featuring drugs, alcohol, or offensive language like racial slurs. Schools are intended to be inclusive communities, providing students with a culturally safe learning environment free of intolerance and bigotry. Allowing the Redskins' wordmark or logo to be proudly displayed fundamentally undermines these intentions, and sends the message that racist words or images are okay (while something as innocuous as a Budweiser logo is not.)
School dress code policies nearly always specifically prohibit students from wearing "clothing with language or images that are vulgar, discriminatory, or obscene." But despite such policies being in place, students at countless schools are free to wear merchandise emblazoned with a term that many Native American cultural organizations -- not to mention several members of Congress and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office -- have called derogatory, offensive, degrading, and harmful. To claim that the term "Redskins" cannot fit the category of "discriminatory" is foolhardy, even for schools located in the heart of the Washington D.C. football market.
There are those who will say that when students choose to wear gear like this or this they are doing so to support a team, without any intention to offend, and that, furthermore, it is very likely that none of that student's classmates would even take offense. These points are both certainly valid. But the intentions of the student, and even the absence of an offended party, are irrelevant when we aim to teach tolerance and encourage respect. In this regard, the Redskins wordmark is no different than the phrase "that's so gay," a comment casually uttered by countless students before being taught that even if they didn't mean to offend anybody, and even if nobody was around to be offended, such language is not okay. We cannot send students the message that using a racial slur is all right, so long as they don't really mean it and so long as no one who would be hurt by the slur is within earshot.
There are others who will say that students have a right to support the team of their choice in the manner of their choice. And if there is anything more beautiful than a 45-yard Brady-to-Gronkowski touchdown pass, it's freedom of speech! But a school is a special place where certain limits are placed upon first amendment rights. In particular, speech or actions -- including clothing choice -- that cause other students to feel unsafe or unwelcome or interfere with learning are not (and should not be) allowed in schools. All students have a right to learn in an inclusive environment that is free from racist, hurtful language. The fact that this particular racial slur is associated with a popular professional sports team must take a back seat to students' rights to a compassionate and inclusive education.
In time, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder will either change the name of his team or have a change forced upon him. He will be remembered on the wrong side of history. Until then, what will educational administrators across the country do? Will they enforce the dress code policies they likely already have on the books, policies designed to support a safe and tolerant learning community? On what side of history will they be remembered?