I know, I know. We’ve all already given a lot of emotional energy to this issue, and three years ago, we agreed, whether or not we said it, to move on.
But I think you’ll want to hear about this recent survey because it differs from the previous polls in an important way.
It aimed to understand not only how Native Americans feel about the team’s name, but also why they feel that way.
The survey offered respondents more than 40 emotions to choose from to express how the team name makes them feel. Among their options: Proud, disappointed, empowered, embarrassed, appreciative and hopeless.
The distinction between the survey and the previous polls may seem subtle, but it is not. It’s the difference between these two questions:
When your co-worker steals your ideas and passes them off as his own, does that make you feel angry?
How do you feel when your co-worker steals your ideas and passes them off as his own? Angry, vulnerable, driven … ?
The recent survey, while not connected to the previous polls, also raises an interesting question about them, or rather our reaction to them.
Identity and racism are two of the most complicated issues in our country. Why then did we let a long-standing debate that centered on both die with a simple question?
The Post and the Annenberg poll both asked: “The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive, or doesn’t it bother you?”
When The Post set out to ask that question, no one had any idea what the results would show. The paper’s staff knew only that for years, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and people who spoke for him had held up the Annenberg finding as a defense of the name. They had done this even as public protests, alarming studies and condemnation from one prominent figure after another portrayed the name as a racist slur that was harmful to an already mistreated population.
As a reporter, I spent a lot of time writing about the name debate, and I can tell you that I was as surprised as anyone by the poll’s results. I would have bet my car that over the years attitudes had changed, at least a little.
But no, both polls found 9 out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the team’s name.
I don’t have to tell you what happened next if you lived then in the Washington region, where the fight to change the name was the fiercest:
Daniel Snyder danced. Not really. But he did laud the poll’s findings, saying at the time, “We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
Public figures who had taken stances against the name reanalyzed their positions. The Washington Post’s Robert McCartney, who as a columnist repeatedly urged the team to change its name, declared in a headline, “I’m dropping my protest of Washington’s football team name.”
And organizations that had been shouting for the name to change argued that the poll should have never been conducted, and then grew increasingly quieter. Their once-frequent news releases arrived more sporadically.
The Post’s poll has been blamed for killing the debate. The truth is, our collective response did.
And that never should have happened. The name is a dictionary-defined slur, whether or not 10 percent of Native Americans or 50 percent of your co-workers or your favorite aunt acknowledge it.
Numbers are neat and easy to understand. Identity and racism are messy and complicated. That disconnect comes through when you look closer at some of the participants of The Post’s poll. I spoke to many at the time. One woman who said she wouldn’t be offended if someone called her a “Redskin” had already been called “Pocahontas,” “Tonto” and “Kemosahbee.”
A man who had a sixth-grade education and had survived liver disease and lung cancer said he knew better than to feel offended by something that couldn’t be changed. “We can’t change it because we ain’t strong enough to change it,” he said.
I know, I know. That’s the past. We’ve moved on.
Except, the recent survey acknowledges the nuanced reality of the issue. It was led by marketing research firm Wolvereye, with help from Gazelle Global Research Services, and was conducted through a Web-based survey of 500 people who self-identified as Native American. Ryan Baum, the CEO of Wolvereye, noticed my previous coverage of the issue and offered me a first look at the results.
The Post’s poll, which involved 504 people who self-identified as Native American, was conducted by phone, so the numbers can’t be compared. But one major takeaway from the Wolvereye survey is that 68 percent of the respondents were not offended by the team’s name.
The reasons they gave for feeling that way include: it is just a name, it honors or represents their heritage, and people are overly sensitive.
For those who were offended by the name, they saw it as racist, ignoring a history of suffering and a double standard because it wouldn’t be tolerated with other ethnicities and races. More than half of the people who were offended by the name were also offended by the team’s logo.
Some of the most interesting results, though, came when people were allowed to move beyond the word “offended.” The survey presented respondents with more than 40 emotions and asked them to indicate whether each represented how they felt about the team’s name.
The word picked most was “proud.” That might comfort some people who have supported the team keeping its name, but a closer look at the results shows that while most of the survey’s respondents felt that way, many did not.
Following closely behind “proud” were “indifferent” and “annoyed.” Then came “content,” “satisfied” and “disappointed.”
Some Native Americans did choose words such as “appreciative,” “relaxed” and “nostalgic.” But they also chose “angry,” “disturbed,” “embarrassed,” “hopeless” and “exhausted.”
But I know, I know. We’ve moved on.
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