Jeffrey Wright defends ‘Redskins’ name

September 24, 2013
(Courtesy FFX)
(Courtesy FFX)

Actor Jeffrey Wright went on FXX’s “Totally Biased” with W. Kamau Bell on Monday night, ostensibly to discuss his new role as villain Dr. Valentin Narcisse on Boardwalk Empire and his role in the Hunger Games sequel.

But really, all the D.C. native wanted to do was talk about the Redskins.

This sort of happened in response to an appearance on the program last week by Dave Zirin, the D.C. based sportswriter who has been one of the leading critics of the name. And that segment prompted Wright to wear his Skins sweartshirt onto the show.

“What the hell’s that sweatshirt about?” Bell asked to start the interview.

“Hey man, I’ve got to represent the red people, man,” Wright said with a laugh. “You went after my people last week pretty hard.”

(Jeffrey Neira/FX Network)
(Jeffrey Neira/FX Network)

“Your people?” Bell asked, leading Wright to explain that he has Powhatan roots, according to family legend.

“But there’s this national dialog around the name Redskins, that it necessarily has to be racist,” Wright continued. “But in fact, if you go back and you look at the origins of the word, it was actually the Native Americans themselves who first referred to their own kind as red, to differentiate themselves from white. So it wasn’t seen as an internalization of inferiority; in fact, it was the opposite, because they were not identifying with the white races who were coming in to drive them off their land, to destroy their culture and all the things that happened.”

“I guess I’d feel differently about that if Native Americans owned the team,” Bell said, to applause. “Because the owner, Dan Snyder, ain’t claiming no part of Native American. And they don’t get discounts, like 10 percent off merchandise or free t-shirts.”

“You make a very good point,” Wright allowed. “You know, I grew up in D.C., going to Redskins games since I can remember. My mom had season tickets from 1970. We romanticized, we idealized, these were our heroes: Larry Brown, Charley Taylor, Sonny Jurgensen, and on down the line. In fact, for me as a young kid, this was actually the only overt figure of color that was represented on an NFL football helmet, right? What’s odder to me in some ways is the Dallas Cowboys. That’s more offensive to me, simply because they’re the Dallas Cowboys. But when you think about the relationship of cowboys to Native American culture – and I generalize – it’s not necessarily so pretty….Reclaim the language; don’t let the white racists determine meaning and value for you.”

Then they had their planned discussion about the things actors are supposed to talk about on interview shows: movie projects, television shows, upcoming roles. And then, remarkably, they started talking about the Redskins again, when Wright brought up the ownership issue.

He first pointed out the several majority-Native American high schools that continue to call their teams “Redskins,” and finally made a proposal.

“They don’t want this to disappear, either,” he said. “If the Redskins, RGIII, in the offseason, spent some time to go down and work with some of those young brothers, maybe help them out with some educational opportunities and things like that — if they made a connection in that way — I think it could dismiss the entire argument. Because in that way, there would be a sense of ownership, or at least a sense of connection to the team. And I think it could be very effective, and a good story for everyone.”

(Thanks to Reader Gulliver for the tip.)

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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