But in case you were wondering what the big deal is with “Washington Redskins” (and I didn’t want to get into a lecture specific to anyone in particular) here’s what I have come to understand.
- The word “redskin” is and has always been use pejoratively. You’d only call Tonto the Lone Ranger’s redskin friend if you wanted to emphasize his non-whiteness. If you were being respectful, you’d refer to him as the LR’s Indian friend, or Native friend, or Choktaw friend, or Ute friend, or whatever he is. If you're being really respectful, you'll just call him the LR's friend, since his ethnicity is probably not relevant. Or you'd just call him Tonto, rather than referring to him as 'just' an appendage of a white man. As a word, 'redskin' picks out a specific and not entirely definitional or universal trait of a wide group of people. So not only is it just intrinsically ‘Other’, like ‘spic’ or ‘dago’, it reduces membership in the group to a particular trait which is neither sufficient nor necessary for inclusion in the group.
- Some people object to the dehumanizing effect of a reference like ‘redskin’ in the context of a mascot. These people point out that many sports teams are named for animals. So ‘redskin’ for many suggests something non-human, akin to ‘lion’ or ‘bear’. (Interestingly, sometimes these people don’t have the same trouble with ‘Spartan’ or ‘Hun’. But…)
- It may not be intrinsically offensive to refer to historical groups of people who no one (or very few) living people identify as, e.g. ‘Trojan’, or to a non-ethnic group (again primarily historical) like ‘forty-niner’, ‘saint’ or ‘buccaneer’. On the other hand, when it comes to current ethnicities and nationalities, things get problematic. How offensive ‘fighting Iroquois/Swede/Barbadian’ is depends on how those particular ethnicities relate to whatever the mainstream culture is. And aboriginal peoples are always in a vulnerable position with respect to dominant colonial cultures.
So it comes down to this. If you don’t understand why “Washington Redskins” is offensive, think about what it would be if it was the “Cincinnati Darkies” or the “Denver Wetbacks”. Because basically that’s what we’re dealing with.