2017 started with the New York Giants beating the Washington Redskins in the final game of the regular season for each team. Although I couldn’t watch the game, I have a new Amazon Echo Dot and asked Alexa the score.
My kids (five and six) were with me when Alexa told us, “Last night the Giants beat the Redskins 19-10.” Typically, this would be a chance for me to teach them about football, or reinforce our Giants fandom, or discuss our new technological toy. Instead, it veered in a different direction.
“The red skins? Eww… that’s gross! Why are they called that?” The six year old led the charge with the five year old repeating, and adding, “Is it because of blood?”
Our city and its schools are diverse. My kids are regularly around such a mix of races, ethnicities, and cultures that they aren’t phased by anything different from themselves. They understand at a base level that everyone is different in some way. There are boys and girls, various languages, hair colors and types and lengths, different skin tones, multiple sizes and shapes.
They also know they’ve never seen anybody with red skin.
So I find myself in a spot where, rather than discuss football or technology, my mind is reeling with thoughts of America’s racial divide and fear of screwing up this teaching moment.
Use of “redskin” in reference to indigenous Americans dates at least to the 1760s, and may have been a relatively innocuous term initially. But over the next century, the term became a pejorative, used in reference to scalping or killing Native Americans. Finally, in 1933, George P. Marshall renamed his football team the “Redskins.” By then, use of “redskin” as a pejorative was well-established, but so were a lot of offensive names in wide usage.
Women only got the right to vote 13 years earlier. Less than a decade before, Native Americans were granted citizenship, but still prevented from voting in various states. Our country has become far more civil and inclusive in the intervening eight decades.
My kids know nothing of this history. I could explain it to them, but they wouldn’t comprehend that people—adults—were mean to each other solely because of their differences. I certainly couldn’t explain to them why adults today insist upon using an offensive name while saying they don’t mean it offensively. I could almost hear the older one asking, “Why don’t they just not use it?”
I punted. “It’s an old-fashioned name and it’ll probably change in the next few years.” They’re six and five. In time, I’ll educate them on race in America. For now, I’ll take solace in knowing that they don’t understand the country’s repulsive history of treatment toward its native inhabitants, or how relegating this history to one offensive word in a team name is not only wrong, but is disingenuous to our collective assertion that all are created equal.
For now, the incident serves as a stark example of how children, untainted by societal pressures, see an issue so clearly, where adults, clinging desperately to “tradition,” continue to use a term that dismisses an entire group of people by making them a mascot.
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