For much of my life, at least on fall and winter weekends, I was Rachel Dolezal.
I donned a T-shirt, sweatshirt or cap emblazoned with some image and nickname of my hometown football team and cheered it on. In the beginning, it was a gold-and-white spear and arrowhead festooned with a single feather. Then it became a burgundy R with a circle around it and a pair of white-and-burgundy feathers dangling down the back. Finally, the R gave way to the silhouette of a dark-skinned man with feathers cascading from his scalp.
He was an “American Indian,” as we’ve come to call the original and native people of the Americas. And the feathers, the golden spear and arrowhead, the paint that some who sat in RFK Stadium near Dad and me streaked on their faces, the headdresses that a few fans wore and nicknames they gave themselves, such as a guy who went by “Chief Zee,” were all that concocted Native American’s property — or his people’s.
We stole it. That’s called cultural appropriation. It’s misapplication. It’s misuse. It’s a callous disregard of the sensibilities of others who are not us.
That’s what too many of us continue to do in and around Washington, D.C., with native peoples’ culture, all for our selfish purpose as football fans. It’s the same as Dolezal — who Monday resigned her presidency of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP after her claim of being black was disproved by her white biological parents — stealing chunks of black American culture for her gain.
An ongoing MSNBC poll is finding that more than two-thirds of people think Dolezal, who basically mascoted as an African American like “Chief Zee” (real name: Zema Williams) did a native person, trivialized black identity.
The poll isn’t breaking down responses by race. But there is no need for quantification of reaction to Dolezal’s dizzying tale to know that we, black people, as most would expect, feel particularly aggrieved by this deception.
It is a reminder that there is nothing trivial about trivializing a people, which is why black fans of the football team I fell in love with growing up should be in the vanguard of the movement to shed it of its native imagery rather than perpetuating it. I’ve dumped my gear over the years. And well before the recent trend of not writing the team’s nickname, I stopped doing so.
That was one reason two friends and I from D.C., filmmakers Sam Bardley and Kali McIver — who were part of the team that produced the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Without Bias” about Len Bias — launched a film project last summer about the practice in sports of infantilizing native people, reducing them to parts of their sum. It is, we should have known all along, a deleterious practice.
Whether it’s the football team we grew up rooting for or the logo of the Chicago hockey team that just won the Stanley Cup or the choreographed behavior of Atlanta’s baseball fans, it’s insensitive at best, dangerous at worst and infuriating to those who are objectified.
“Yes, it’s about the R-word,” Robert Holden, the deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, told us, “but it’s about the impact on children; it’s about the impact on tribal communities.”
Indeed, the American Psychological Association 10 years ago called for an immediate end to the use of native peoples, symbols and images in all sports. It cited more and more studies that showed mascoting was no less than racial stereotyping and had a negative impact on the identity development and self-esteem of native kids.
These practices haven’t helped native teenagers and young adults whose suicide rate for 15- to 24-year-olds is double the national average. It hasn’t helped native kids who graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. It hasn’t helped those whose substance-abuse rates are higher than others their age.
“American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them,” then Arizona professor Stephanie Fryberg stated in the APA decision. “This in turn restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”
You want to pretend to be Native American? You want to pretend to be black? Then see what it’s like to be at the top of those misery statistics. Go live on a reservation for a while. Or do as John Howard Griffin did during the civil rights movement to see how black people survived in the Jim Crow South: Darken your skin to appear as African American as possible and travel from city to city and record, as he did in his book “Black Like Me,” how you are mistreated.
But doing those sorts of things aren’t as lucrative as selling foam tomahawks, vials of war paint, faux Indian clothing and feather headdresses, which together are also inaccurate representations of ritual and ceremony of upward of 600 native tribes in this country. And they certainly aren’t as fun as pretending you and your team are some sort of tribe, like Dolezal has pretended that she’s a part of the black sisterhood like Angela Davis or Sonia Sanchez.
There was a time when black Americans were routinely stereotyped in this country through marketing images and symbols intended to represent our culture. But through steadfast protest and the affirmation of what is our real culture, most of that imaging was eliminated and relegated to collections of the absurd. My father even wrote a letter of protest to Edward Bennett Williams in the mid-’60s, when Williams presided over our favorite football team, and eloquently argued for him to stop the team band from playing “Dixie,” which encouraged some white fans to wave the Confederate flag and some black fans to confront them. Williams acceded to my father’s perspective.
The disrespect Dolezal has shown for black culture and identity is the same that appropriating native symbols and imagery for a team sport has shown for native people. Black football fans in particular in this city should be just as outraged about seeing the culture of others misrepresented for profit as they are of Dolezal doing so with theirs.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.