The NFL’s Washington Redskins have been at the center of controversy on and off for decades. It’s not anything they’ve done; it’s what they haven’t: changed their name. The term “Redskin” is a pejorative name for Native American, one many deem as offensive as the N-word is for African-Americans. Recently, the controversy gained new life, and at the center is Rick Reilly, the well-known and occasionally maligned ESPN columnist.
Reilly wrote a column last week defending the name “Redskins” for a variety of reasons, arguing, “I know Native Americans who don’t care,” and, “White America is always telling everyone what to do.” Reilly built his case by lumping people (white Americans, columnists who criticize the name, etc.) into groups and dismissing them altogether. He used a handful of predominantly Native American high school teams that use the name Redskins and love it as a rationale for keeping the status quo in D.C., failing to recognize the slightest bit of cultural nuance. Reilly mashed arguments together to come to the conclusion that if white America decides to change the Redskins name, it is akin to deciding what is best for all Native Americans and putting them back on reservations.
In all, it was a disturbingly poor and hurtful column. Yes, Reilly made some valid points, such as: Why is it that people are up in arms about the name Redskins but are fine with the Chiefs of Kansas City, the Braves of Atlanta, and the Indians of Cleveland? But those points were lost is in the haze of misguidedness. (And, in fact, efforts are ongoing to change the mascots of those teams and their names.)
Reilly’s column did raise questions that need answering, especially for those of us who recognize the biblical beauty of racial harmony, and those questions are not about the Redskins or any other team in particular. What are the motives for demanding a name change? Do we truly want justice or do we want what looks like justice because it’s easier than fighting for the real thing? Racism is alive and well in America. White privilege is real and racial disharmony hums on. And we know this at some level. It’s why people push to do away with what they consider to be offensive names and images.
The problem is that getting rid of vestiges of racism doesn’t solve the problem—it just makes us feel better. Ultimately, it is just putting a new paint job on a broken-down car—or, as Jesus put it, white washing a tomb. We need to fix the car, otherwise we are just hypocrites. Yes, let’s fix what is visible, but it is the hard work of racial justice that needs to be done, the exploring of our hearts to discern where bigotry or prejudice exist, the willingness to humbly accept correction, and listening to the experiences of the marginalized. We must take risks because they are right and pursue change, first inside and then out. It will be difficult and it will take time. But it won’t be accomplished merely by renaming some sports teams.