Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports Symposium at NMAI


Is a museum a forum or a temple? asked Brooklyn Museum director Duncan Cameron in 1971.  Many museums tell stories of historic struggles for equality. There are significant victories that museums highlight: the abolition of slavery in the United States, gaining suffrage, winning the right to serve in the military, the Supreme Court’s decision that “separate but not equal” is inherently unequal.

National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian

Museums can also serve as forums for struggles going on in the present. The National Museum of the American Indian recently held a forum (or, more specifically, a three-part symposium) on racist mascots in American sports. I did not attend in person, but I watched the six hour event online.

Over a dozen speakers addressed the issue from a variety of perspectives (legal, religious, athletic, personal). All shared the view that racist nicknames and mascots have no place in professional sports. One panelist was heartened after an audience member spoke about having a change of heart from watching the symposium: “I was worried we were preaching to the choir.”

This issue has gotten a lot of press in the Washington Post lately, and though I really don’t follow sports at all, I have been paying some attention to this particular situation. The Washington Post columns elicit letters to the editor, which in turn elicit reader comments, so there is a lot of opinion to read on the subject.

In this day and age, it’s rare that you’ll hear someone stand up and say the words, Let’s be racist! (However, even these sentiments can be found on the Internet.) But in the case of sports team mascots that many find racist and offensive, there is still resistance to changing them. The symposium addressed some of these common objections:

“We’re honoring them!” Deputy Director of the National Congress of American Indians Robert Holden responded, “We don’t need honors like that.” A common thread throughout the speakers’ words was, in a nutshell, why would you honor someone by doing something that hurts them? The Hon. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, former United States Senator, said of one team, “It’s fine if you wanna be a savage. Use your own picture….Don’t use our people.

“Some Native Americans are fine with these mascots.” In some cases, this point is true. Campbell stated that, as each tribe is a sovereign nation, if a tribe endorses the use of their own name and traditions being used by a team, this choice should be respected. This choice has been made by some American Indian nations. However, two subpoints must be noted: 1) There are plenty of Native Americans who do find such mascots offensive, as the very existence of the symposium demonstrates, and 2) In the particular case of the DC football team, the term is not a neutral one, but an inherently offensive term – one of the most racists slurs there is. Virtually no one would support the use of this particular term for a team name.

“Aren’t there more important things to worry about?” My own reaction: this question is thrown at anyone who tries to accomplish anything ever. The panelists noted that they are working on these other issues along with the issue of racist mascots, and that racist mascots are linked to other issues. Mike Wise from the Washington Post told a story of a young Native American child who was ashamed to see a sports mascot “making fun of us.” “What more contributes to the highest rates of alcoholism and suicides on reservations, per capita in this country, than a child’s self-esteem, who you are, what you believe?” Wise asked.

“What will be next?” As one letter to the editor of the Washington Post states:

There are many NFL team names that may offend thin-skinned and hypersensitive people: Do atheists hate the Saints? Do socialists despise the Patriots? Are short people (sorry, “vertically challenged”) offended by the Giants and Titans? Do environmental activists dislike Chargers, Jets and Steelers? And surely animal-rights extremists cannot appreciate the Bears, Bengals, Broncos, Cardinals, Colts, Dolphins, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Lions, Panthers, Rams, Ravens and Seahawks.

Moving beyond the letter writer’s bizarre examples: yes, names can be problematic for a variety of reasons. Case in point: the Washington Bullets-turned-Wizards. DC Superior Court’s Hon. Judith Bartnoff and the Post’s Mike Wise joked that that team is doing just fine – well, okay, they’re not, but they’re not any worse off than if they had kept their old name!

So then the question arises: what should the team be called instead? Several people have written to the Washington Post with their ideas. At the symposium and elsewhere, people have noted that it would not be offensive if the name stayed the same, but the symbol and mascot changed to a potato. And if we want to keep the first part of the name, there are numerous red things that represent the DC area. Red velvet cupcakes are big right now. From the museum world, we have red pandas at the National Zoo, red coral at the National Museum of Natural History, the Red Room at the White House, the American Red Cross Headquarters, and red vests at the Capitol Visitor Center. Many in the area would grimly agree that Red Tape, Red Line Delays, Red Light Cameras, and (perhaps coming soon!) Red Taxis are also apt symbols of this region.

As many panelists mentioned, a name change would be a financial windfall for the team and its owners, as well as owners of the old memorabilia (all new products to sell! Existing products become vintage and suddenly worth more!). Along with my tongue-in-cheek suggestions above, many people can have fun trying to think of new name ideas. The important thing, though, is not so much finding the perfect mascot and designing the perfect new logo. The most important thing is to listen when people say they are hurt by a racial slur and have had enough. These voices were speaking up long before NMAI’s symposium, but the symposium has provided even more opportunities for these voices to be heard.

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March’s blog theme is Museums and Fighting Inequality.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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