Joseph, who is black, wore it as a social experiment, curious to see how people might respond. The result: a few negative, but relatively tame encounters.
More telling is what has happened in the days since he posted about his experience online, allowing more people a longer duration of time to sit with that image of him in the shirt. It is in that space where it has become clear how far the country has strayed from a time when it seemed possible the team’s controversial name might actually change. Online, the animosity has multiplied and intensified. People have shown just how angry his experiment made them.
Angry enough to call him a liar.
Angry enough to throw racial insults at him.
Angry enough to write, “You wear that T-shirt around me . . . I’ll knock you the f--- out . . . have you crawling and leaking . . . calling for the law.”
“I’m getting death threats on my business website,” Joseph told me.
The 29-year-old founder of New York marketing agency We Have Stories received a humanitarian award in June from Comic-Con for creating the #BlackPantherChallenge, a national movement that helped raise enough money to allow 70,000 children who couldn’t otherwise afford to see the movie to do so.
With the shirt, he said he intended to start a conversation. But he purposely avoided displaying any derogatory words. And yet, the hate still came.
“A lot of people believe we live in a post-racial society,” he said. “This just lets people know we are nowhere near post-racial.”
He pointed to President Trump’s recent comments about LeBron James and a rally white supremacists are planning in the District on Sunday: “These are tumultuous times steeped in racial divide.”
The concept behind the
T-shirt is not new. Similar ones have been sold for years. And the point it aims to make — that Native Americans should not be mascots — has also been made for decades, appearing in different forms on protest signs and in press releases by activists who pushed hard for the NFL team to change its name.
Inside the fight between Daniel Snyder and Native American activists over ‘Redskins’
But those protest signs don’t wave as often now. Just a few years ago, after President Barack Obama, 50 U.S. senators, civil rights organizations and numerous media organizations came out against the Redskins name, it wasn’t unusual to hear people refer to the team as the “R-word.” Now, it seems, no one bothers.
The Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, who was one of the strongest local voices to push against the team’s name, said that the fight not only stalled, it has “gone back almost a light-year.”
“We’re so far off from having any type of credible, serious discussion” about it, he said. Before, people who defended the name argued it was a way to honor Native Americans, he said. “People will acknowledge the term Redskins at this point and will not even claim it’s a thing of honor.”
Hagler had heard of Joseph’s experiment and said the reaction to it proves the point that he and others tried hard to make.
“If it’s a thing of honor, what are you mad about? What do you want to kill somebody about?” he said. “It’s the nature of racism in America. I can make references to Latinos and Latinas. I can talk about black folks and it’s become accepted now. When it gets exposed is when you turn it on the dominant culture.”
Hagler believes several factors led support for the name change to taper: a cultural push against political correctness, a trademark lawsuit that fell in the team’s favor and a Washington Post poll that found that 9 in 10 Native Americans say they are not offended by the Washington Redskins name.
The poll is the first thing that Joseph mentioned when we spoke. It is the argument he has heard most often in recent days to dismiss the discussion.
It is also why he hesitated, at first, to talk to me.
I wrote about the poll’s findings as a reporter. I had no role in deciding whether the poll was conducted and was on leave, living out of the country, when much of the data was collected. But I understand why it was done. Before I left, I had written extensively about the name debate, presenting multiple sides of the issue, and team officials consistently pointed to an old poll in defense of keeping the name.
When The Post decided to collect its own data, no one knew what the numbers might reveal. They could easily have shown that sentiment had shifted. But it hadn’t. And the poll was then criticized as sending a blow to the debate by presenting the argument that if most Native Americans didn’t care, why should anybody else?
New poll finds 9 in 10 Native Americans aren’t offended by Redskins name
That argument felt flimsy then and remains flimsy now.
The focus should never have turned to whether the poll should have been conducted. The central question should have remained whether any poll mattered at all. Basing behavior on those numbers, or any numbers, means asking: Where do I feel comfortable drawing the line on hurting an already oppressed group of people?
If you were to walk through a detention center filled with 100 immigrants, and 10 of them told you, “Please don’t call me an illegal alien because it makes me feel less than human,” would that be enough for you to respect their wishes? Or would 50 have to say it? Would it take 90?
This is not about political correctness, which calls for using words carefully in case they might offend. This is about knowing with certainty that at least a portion of the population will be offended if you use that word.
“I think this whole experiment has shown some people in this country just don’t feel other people deserve respect,” Joseph said. “Respect is the key, and people in power, people in privilege, are just not willing to give respect to anything until they say it’s time to give respect to it.”
Not all the messages directed at Joseph have been negative. Some have come from Native Americans who have thanked him for bringing the conversation back.
Others have come from people who plan to buy their own shirts or have already worn a similar one in public.
To them, Joseph issued a warning on his Twitter account that acknowledged his own privileged position at 6-foot-2 “and a half.”
“I’m a larger person who lives in NYC, so my ability to safely wear this shirt is higher than some,” he wrote. “Please be safe out there.”
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