Redskins and Darkskins: The Power of Symbols

Over the past few years pressure has been building on Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, to change that team’s name.  This pressure has been brought on by a wide array of people and groups.  Sports journalists Bill Simmons and Peter King have boycotted the name, as has news host Rachel Maddow.  The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation from California bought airtime to play the ad “Proud to Be”:

Most recently, the United States Patent Office has revoked the trademark of the team’s name because:

“the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services, at the times the various registrations involved in the cancellation proceeding were issued.”

As I was listening to the ins and outs of this story on talk radio, I found myself saying, “What’s the big deal?” “This isn’t hurting Native Americans in any material way.” “Here are the thought police again.”  “The government has no right to interfere in the business of the Washington Redskins.”

And then yesterday, as I was getting off the elevator in my apartment building,  I spoke to a couple to my right, then turned to my left to do the same to a young girl.  She quickly averted her eyes and looked down when my face turned towards hers.  Then I remembered why many Native Americans would want this name changed.

She Hadn’t Learned the Ways of America Yet

I moved into my apartment building four years ago.  It is nine floors, but small enough that over time you get to know everyone who lives there.

About a year after I moved in, I met someone on the elevator who was new to me.  She was a Chinese girl, looking about as Chinese as one could get – smallish, round faced, bronzed skin, hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wearing glasses.  She had a “newness” about her on that day.  She smiled at me.  We were neighbors.

I remember her clearly because that first day she handed me a piece of paper.  The paper was about the Falun Gong.  A few days later I saw her and several other people performing some kind of prayer service in a meeting area near the building. I put two and two together, and imagined that maybe she left China for fear of persecution, but I can’t be sure.  I saw her a few times afterwards, and I can’t remember if we said hello to each other or not.  But I do remember not having any negative feelings about our interactions.

But that was then.  Yesterday, now some two years after we first passed each other, I tried to look her in the eye and smile again.  I was ignored.  What had happened?

Symbols and the Making of Race

In my mind, I started to think about what could have caused the change.

Sociologists will say universally that “race is socially constructed”.  They will say that race only has meaning through everyday experiences.  We learn what it means to be “black” or “white” or “Asian” only through the exchange of signs and symbols (language, images, expression, demeanor, neighborhoods).

That line of reasoning is not wholly accurate.  Race is not completely socially constructed – there are clear physical differences between people from different geographic origins.  But how we understand those physical differences, the meanings we attach to skin color, is produced through our experiences in the world.  In other words, the boxes (the skins) are made by biology, but the content of the boxes (the ideas we have about different racial groups) are indeed socially constructed.

I think the girl who did not want to make eye contact with me learned to be wary of people with skins like mine.

Our apartment building straddles a downtown area that has become “revitalized” over the last decade, and a low income black and Hispanic area that would most likely fit the euphemism “inner city”.  To one side of our apartment is a college, a performing arts center, cafes, and Alex and Ani. To the other side is low income housing, a homeless shelter, and Burger King.  I can imagine the symbols she takes in as she navigates her world.  She undoubtedly attends a high school a few blocks away – on the “inner city” side.  Her leisure time is probably spent on the “revitalized” side.  She will fuse class with race.  Whiteness will become a symbol of success and acceptability.  Darkness will symbolize the opposite.

In her high school she will see all the problems associated with inner city schools – lack of respect for teachers, low academic performance, and poor discipline.  I can see her sitting in a classroom working hard, while everyone around her goofs off.  More than likely, she will have encountered boys and young men on the inner city side who are aggressive and harass her.  But things are different on the revitalized side. She will see whites sipping coffee on sidewalks, waiting to go see Mama Mia.  They will be dressed like success in fashionable clothing, just like the people on TV.  Actually, they look like the successful people on TV.  These are all signs, linking race to a variety of behaviors and social outcomes.  White skin is something to be accepted.  Dark skin is to be avoided.

Sometimes these symbols are more straightforward.  Maybe she noticed her mother holding her hand a little more tightly as they walk the sidewalks on the “inner city” side.  This was a sign that these people were to be treated with caution.  Maybe it was even more explicit than that, with her father telling her outright to avoid the people who live on that side and who look like that.

However it went down, through signs and symbols she has learned race in America.  Based on her particular experiences she has learned what blackness and whiteness means.  She has learned how to interact with people who are dark and people who are light – regardless of whether or not she actually knows them.

Race and Social Interaction

A few qualifications are in order.

First, I could be all wrong about the reason for the look-away.  Maybe she is just shy.  Or maybe she is averting her gaze, not from me as a black man, but from me as a man in general.  Second, whether or not she is friendly to me doesn’t matter in any material sense.  My family or livelihood is not threatened just because someone finds my face scary.  In this way, I really shouldn’t care.  And third, it’s her choice.  She has the freedom to carry herself in any way she wants (this may be one of the reasons she is here and not in China).

If this was a one time experience, those qualifications would have more weight.  But this has happened to me before.  I can remember an instance when I was in a suburban Target in the afternoon, and I was given the “invisible man” treatment by the white housewives.  This is when you are in a circumscribed place – like a subway car – and there is someone there who is acting all crazy.  For fear of him acknowledging you, you look through and past him, acting like he does not exist.   I was the invisible man in Target.

And so it doesn’t really matter if I am right that this particular girl is averting her gaze because I am dark-skinned.  In fact, its not about her exactly.  She is only responding to what she has been taught.  It is darn near impossible for her to think differently, because of the way society is organized.  So even if I am off the mark in this particular instance, the differential treatment of people of dark skin happens in America every day countless times.  My goal in this essay is just to describe how symbols make this happen.

Redskins and Darkskins: The Power of Symbols

So back to the Redskins.  We live in a world of symbols.  They teach us much more than direct experience.  I’ve only met a few Native Americans in my life, and my interactions with them have been very short.  Thus, my entire understanding of “Native Americanness” is based upon the symbols and signs I’ve consumed over the years.  This will affect how I interact with any Native Americans in the future.

Native Americans do not want others in the US to be taught to see them as mascots – whopping and hollering and throwing spears.  I’d like to think that I am more enlightened than that, that I can resort to the American values of equality and individuality, and I can approach each Native American I meet anew with fresh eyes and a clear mind.  I certainly won’t think that a Native American I meet will all of a sudden begin putting on war paint.  That would be stupid.  But I also don’t have any images in my head of Native Americans symbols of beauty, success, or achievement.

But its not all about perceptions that others have of you.  It’s also about perceptions of oneself.  Scholars have been quite consistent in their claims that stereotypes hurt people.  One of my favorite reads over the past two years has been Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi about how stereotypes, and the threat of confirming them, reduce the performances of blacks on academic tests, women in math, and white males in athletics.

This also applies to Native Americans.  A recent report commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation summarizes the research showing how, in the words of the writer of the report, clinical psychologist Micheal Friedman:

“A series of studies show that if Native Americans are shown images of stereotypical Native American mascots … self-esteem goes down, belief in community goes down, belief in achievement goes down, and mood goes down. And these effects are primarily among Native American adolescents.”

[By the way, because the report was commissioned by the Oneida Nation, the findings must be taken with a grain of salt.  But because so much research supports this conclusion for so many groups, I can go along with it.]

To close, I love my Redskins, truly.  But if I think about what is gained by me getting to sing “Hail to the Redskins” as opposed to what is lost by Native American adolescents, I can live with another mascot.  Change the name.


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