Racist Mascots: Teaching the Harm of Slurs and Stereotypes

On Monday July 13th, the Washington N.F.L. team announced it would be dropping the team name R*dskins and associated logos. The decision came only 10 days after the franchise pledged to review the name under pressure from corporate sponsors and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but activists have been calling for these changes for almost 50 years. The word r*dskins is a dictionary defined slur that the National Congress of American Indians condemns.

Activists have had many successes in the last 50 years in educating the public and campaigning to abolish “Indian” names and mascots (my own high school only eliminated the last vestiges of our racist team name in 2014) but current Washington R*dskins owner Daniel Snyder has adamantly resisted any change for decades.

As the National Congress of American Indians said in their press release regarding the change, “We thank the generations of tribal nations, leaders, and activists who worked for decades to make this day possible[…] We are not mascots — we are Native people, citizens of more than 500 tribal nations who have stood strong for millennia and overcome countless challenges to reach this pivotal moment in time when we can help transform America into the just, equitable, and compassionate country our children deserve.”

As educators, highlighting the work and activism of Indigenous people will be an important part of discussing this name change and teaching about contemporary Native American life more broadly. The PBS film In Whose Honor is a valuable resource for discussing this activism and the harm caused by “Indian” mascots and the Canadian documentary Reel Injun provides background and commentary on stereotypes and whitewashing in television and movies. The Zinn Education Project’s lesson Native American Activism: 1960s to Present puts this struggle in a border context.

Educators should also be aware that these issues will have a direct impact on student wellbeing. In their Resolution Recommending Retirement of American Indian Mascots, the American Psychiatric Association outlines the negative impact of “Indian” logos and mascots: they perpetuate stereotypes, create a hostile learning environment for American Indian students at schools with these mascots, undermine the education of all young people by communicating that these stereotypes are acceptable and accurate, hinder the efforts of Native people to communicate accurate knowledge of their culture and history and exacerbate discrimination.

Class discussion of the R*dskin name change and the activism around “Indian” mascots can also be part of a larger examination of the harm caused when slurs are normalized and stereotypical or inaccurate images are reproduced in the media. Trans activists have long described the many troubling implications of casting cis men to play trans women on television and in the movies – both because trans actresses miss out on a job opportunity and because it helps perpetuate the idea that trans women are somehow men in disguise. The wonderful Netflix documentary Disclosure features this discussion as well as explanations of the harm caused by a lack of trans representation or media portrayals that exclusively show trans people as sex workers or murderers. Other resources for lessons on slurs and stereotypes include Teaching Tolerance’s What’s So Bad About “That’s So Gay”? and the Anti-Defamation League’s On-Screen Diversity: Why Visibility in Media Matters.

The Washington NFL team’s name change is a victory but the work is ongoing. For example, in the Boston area, calls to rename a local high school’s athletic team and eliminate their racist mascot have redoubled. Other schools in the country must face a similar reckoning, as must the apparatus that produces our media and pop culture – both in terms of who it depicts and how it depicts them and in who is involved in the creative process. And we must continue to arm young people with the tools to engage critically with media images and to create change in their communities. One important way of doing this is through engaging and trauma informed sex education which includes media literacy and discussions of social justice.