“Intending to honor something is a lot different than actually honoring it.” So said John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” on Nov. 8, 2015. His point about the name of the Washington NFL franchise and its bully of an owner rings true in my encounter this fall with the board of education of the Montgomery County public schools in suburban Maryland.
On Sept. 11, I was dropping my child off at kindergarten for his first day of school, when I encountered the principal and several staff members celebrating the start of the NFL season and the Washington team’s first NFL home game. They were wearing the team’s merchandise while greeting students outside the school. As a Native American who’s lived in the Washington area since 1999, I initially gritted my teeth and thought about ignoring the issue, until I saw the name of the team written on the sleeve of the principal’s shirt.
The word is defined as offensive and disparaging. Linguistically, its origin is disputed. But no one can disagree that its historical use, whether it be in terms of referencing scalps and the bounties paid for them or in the American cinema, is intended to be negative in connotation.
While in some ways the repeated exposure to the slur can be mind-numbing, it can also be enraging. Every day, I see people in the team’s merchandise, and I ask myself: What if I wore a shirt that said “Niggers,” “Wetbacks,” or “Kikes”? How would someone wearing a shirt with the R-word emblazoned across it react to that?
The other day, I was in a public space and saw the local team’s pregame show on the television. It was an African-American sportscaster promoting a community-involvement public relations project in which the team was involved. I counted the use of the team name 18 times in under two minutes.
I emailed the principal, the board of education, and a local reporter I had spoken with last year about the issue of the school district’s dress code and the use of the R-word. I explained that academic studies repeatedly demonstrate not only the harm Native mascots have on the self-esteem and academic performance of Native students, but also the impact mascots have on non-Native students, who are more likely to adopt cultural-stereotyping practices as a result. And I explained that when school officials tacitly or explicitly support casual racism, including by wearing team merchandise, it sends exactly the wrong message about what we should be teaching our children. I received no reply.
It didn’t take long to discover that it wasn’t just the staff wearing the Washington team’s merchandise. There was a “Welcome Back to School” bulletin board in one of the hallways that used the team pennants with the team’s name and logo—a stereotypical image of a Plains Indian. A neighbor told me that the team’s flags were also hanging in two of the school’s classrooms.
Two weeks later, I sent another email to the principal and the board of education. Again, no response.
I checked the school board’s upcoming meeting agendas. At its meeting on Oct. 13, the board planned to discuss a resolution supporting Native American Heritage Month.
[W]earing and displaying Washington NFL team merchandise is an affirmative act of discrimination.
I went and testified to the board. I told them I was a Native parent, and I was offended. I told them that I was past-president of the Native American Bar Association of Washington, D.C. I explained that in the last decade, as a presidential appointee to three different American Bar Association committees, I had worked on issues of diversity within the legal profession and in education. I told them that if they truly wanted to honor Native Americans, the board should enforce the school district’s dress code, which reads:
“Students are expected to wear appropriate clothing to school. Clothing that offends others or disrupts learning is inappropriate. Clothing that includes references to gangs, drugs, alcohol, and sex is not acceptable.”
I didn’t tell them that I’d benefited from a prelaw-pipeline education diversity program at the Pre-Law Summer Institute for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, or that I’d been recruited from there to attend the University of Arizona, where I studied federal Indian law and critical race theory under Professor Robert Williams and constitutional law under Professor S. James Anaya, who served as the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. I also didn’t tell them that the resolution they passed was pretty poor lip service to Natives, and that it expressed little understanding of the issues we Natives face in the community and the school district.
The Washington Professional Football Team.
The interim superintendent of the Montgomery County district responded to me. He said that in a large, diverse school district, not everyone is going to like what they see. He said that given the system’s values of equity and respect and students’ right of free expression, district officials would continue to monitor the impact and respond to the issue by benchmarking their actions against those of other Washington-area school districts. He hoped I would continue to collaborate with my son’s principal and still be “respectful and kind.” He didn’t address the academic research that I had shared. He didn’t address the comments of the district spokesman, who said the board addresses complaints like mine on a school-by-school basis. He didn’t address the dress code. He didn’t address the offensiveness of the name. But, he also didn’t use the name itself.
Make no mistake: Wearing and displaying Washington NFL team merchandise is an affirmative act of discrimination. It also says a lot about the person wearing it, displaying it, and defending it. It’s hard to understand that treating people respectfully means defending the slur you wear or allowing it to be worn on teachers’ and students’ chests. It’s hard to believe the school district is benchmarking its actions against those of other districts when a school in neighboring suburban Virginia reacted immediately with education, counseling, and policies to ensure that an incident in which students were photographed wearing the N-word at school and sharing it on social media didn’t occur again. (Unsurprisingly, a local network-affiliated news program, when broadcasting the story, blurred the word on the students’ shirts.) Were it any other slur, would the school board not react immediately? Given the amount of money that the Washington NFL team pours into public relations and community outreach, it strikes me that the issue of educational civil rights has become a political football for the school district.
In the Washington region, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, tribal lobby offices, and tribal law firms all employ a steady number of Native Americans who leave their tribal homes and uproot their families to serve their communities and their two nations—their tribe and the United States government. Native American student enrollment in the Montgomery County schools is around 280 students. The fact that we are a minority among minorities in the region is not an excuse for ignoring our children’s rights to an education environment free of racist imagery and discrimination.
Of the Native Americans I know in Washington, there are Ojibwe, Navajo, Choctaw, Apache, Cherokee, Passamaquoddy, and Mohawk, among many others. There are no Redskins.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as A Native American Parent Confronts A Pervasive NFL Slur