Poll shows D.C. area is hypocritical about ‘Redskins’

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 26, 2013

So now we know from a remarkable new poll that most Washington area residents are far too enlightened and sensitive ever to insult a Native American by calling her or him a “redskin.” What do you think we are, racists?

But we’re perfectly comfortable preserving the same word as the name of our beloved professional football franchise. It’s tradition and, c’mon, we don’t mean it in an offensive way.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Psychologists have a term for such self-serving intellectual duplicity. They call it “compartmentalization.” It refers to an unconscious defense mechanism used to avoid mental discomfort arising from having conflicting values or beliefs.

The rest of us have a term for it, too. We call it “hypocrisy.” The dictionary defines it as a pretense of having a virtuous character that one doesn’t actually possess.

A Washington Post poll released Tuesday laid out clearly our region’s awkward inconsistency in this matter.

Two-thirds of area adults want to keep the team’s name. Yet those same people agree by a two-to-one margin that the word “redskin” is an inappropriate way to describe a Native American.

To better understand the contradiction, I interviewed 10 poll respondents who shared the dominant view. I asked why they thought the word “redskin” was fine for the team but unacceptable for American Indians.

I heard a muddled mix of explanations. Several said frankly that they couldn’t explain the apparent discrepancy. Others said the word was pejorative but had been the team’s name for so long that Native Americans and other critics ought to just look the other way. Three argued that the issue wasn’t relevant, partly because American Indians, in person or in the team’s logo, don’t have red skin.

The team’s name is “not anything to do with any kind of racial slur toward Indians,” said a 34-year-old woman from Landover. “When I look at the helmet or the jerseys, I don’t see an Indian with red skin. I believe it’s burgundy.”

For individual Indians, however, the woman said she would never use the term. Like others, she likened it to ugly words that disparage African Americans or Latinos. “It’s just not appropriate,” she said.

(The people I interviewed agreed to speak on the record, but I am withholding their names because I don’t want to single them out for criticism.)

A 60-year-old man from Alexandria said he could “dissociate” the separate uses of the term.

“I don’t know that I know any Native Americans, but I certainly wouldn’t refer to them as redskins,” he said. “I have a double standard there, because I think it’s okay to have a football team named that way.”

Many defended the team’s name primarily on grounds it was so familiar.

“It would be weird if they changed the name that had been known for so long,” a 21-year-old District woman said. “It is a little offensive, but at the same time, it’s just a name.”

She said she wouldn’t use the term to describe a Native American, because “they’re not red-skinned.”

I think the results reflect the influence of two factors: big money for marketing and Native Americans’ lack of political influence.

The team has spent many millions of dollars over the years promoting the Redskins brand as the team’s name. That money has helped establish a meaning for it in many people’s minds as something distinct from the word that dictionaries label as frequently or usually offensive.

In addition, there are just too few American Indians left to raise a sufficiently big fuss about the name to force people to face an unpleasant reality.

That’s the view of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is a co-sponsor of a House bill that would prohibit the term “Redskins” from being trademarked.

“This is an issue that has come to consciousness only very slowly for one reason only,” Norton said. “Native Americans are only 2 percent of the population.”

She also made a point that I think is crucial to understanding the mass psychology of the issue: Many people who should know better make excuses to defend the name because they don’t want to acknowledge they’ve been using a racially derogatory term for years.

I’m a season ticket holder and a huge fan, and I don’t feel too great about it myself. But I try to atone by supporting a change in the name.

Judging by the poll, a healthy majority in our region is already uncomfortable with the word. Eventually, I hope they’ll accept that the same uneasiness must apply to the team’s name as well.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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