Redskins, Sambos, and Whities – Racism in Sports Mascots

I don’t particularly follow sports at all.  Well, that’s a lie.  I do pay pretty close attention to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and I follow soccer internationally to some degree.  That’s about it, though, and I definitely pay no attention to American football.  However, the other day I was around a TV with ESPN’s SportsCenter playing, and I noticed some of the scores from the weekend’s football games.  The Minnesota Vikings had beaten the Washington Redskins 17 – 13.

Longtime Redskins Mascot, Chief Zee

“Really?” I thought to myself, “It’s almost 2011, and we still have a professional sports team named after a racial slur?”  After all, the term “Redskin” was a largely-derogatory term for Native Americans, used by white people who were disparaging the native peoples of this land.  Worse, the team with the racial slur as a name is the NFL team from our nation’s capital*slaps forehead* What are we thinking?  Was it not bad enough that the folks in D.C. broke almost every single federal treaty signed with Native People?

I can already hear the reaction most defenders of this mascot would have:  But we’re honoring their brave warrior spirit!  They should feel proud that a Native American is the mascot for the Washington Redskins.

My reaction?

As I started thinking further, I realized that we have tons of racist depictions of Native American Indians in our sports teams around the U.S..  Another team in the NFL is the Kansas City Chiefs.  In Major League Baseball, you have the Atlanta Braves (who, in a step in the right direction, tactfully changed their mascot from a racist depiction of a native person to a baseball-headed guy):

Perhaps one of the worst offenders, the Cleveland Indians with their overtly-racist mascot:

How, in any way, is this acceptable?  Looking at the overtly-racist Indians’ mascot, with its misshapen nose and eagle feather in the back, I can’t help but draw a parallel.  What if we had a team called the Charleston Sambos?  Worse, to parallel the term used by the Washington Redskins, what if we had a team called the New York Niggers?  What if this was their mascot?


Now, this is in no way meant to draw a parallel between the African American experience and the Native American Indian experience in the U.S..  Instead, it is meant to pose the question: If we had overtly racist sports mascots that depicted African Americans or Latinos – say the Houston Wetbacks – in the way that we do Native Americans, would we stand for it?

I am going to guess that the answer is no.  Then why on earth is there a double standard?  I mean, Wikipedia has a whole list of sports teams with mascots derived from Indigenous Peoples.  There are teams in the NHL, NBA, NCAA, and countless high school teams!  Notably, there is also a long list of teams that have changed their mascot from a racist and patronizing depiction of Indigenous Peoples to something more respectful, thus proving that it is not that difficult to make the change!  Granted, there have been millions of dollars poured into the marketing of major sports franchises like the Washington Redskins (which is likely to be more difficult to convince those in power to change), but if nothing else, we can set the stage at the local level!

For example, Colorado State Senator Suzanne Williams recently introduced (though later withdrew under tremendous pressure) a bill that would have required all public and charter high schools in Colorado seek approval from the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs to make sure that the mascot was accountable and respectful.  Local pressure has been applied to school boards and state legislatures all over the country in hopes of encouraging high schools to change Indian mascots to something more respectful.  The NCAA even attempted to have all American Indian mascots eliminated from participating schools, but it decided (through political pressure) that it could not force schools to change their mascots and simply ruled that such mascots could not represent teams in the NCAA playoffs.

In reflecting on this topic, I think back to when I tried to broach the subject with a family member about the Mariemont High School Warriors’ mascot in Mariemont, OH.  The family member posited, “But Jamie, you teach in a high school where the mascot is also the Warriors, but your mascot is a Trojan warrior.  What’s the difference?”  This is a common response.  The differences abound.  I think the most significant difference, though, is that there were not more than 10 million Trojans killed in an incredible genocide that is barely spoken of but somehow “honored” through the racist depictions of the people in sports culture.  It is worse that most of the schools that have racist Indian mascots are predominantly white considering that it was at the hands of white Europeans that such a holocaust was wrought.

Basically those of us who are calling for a change in these racist mascots are simply calling for respect!  Once again, political correctness is essentially a call for respect.  If it is hurtful to the group in question when you use certain terms (like the blatantly racist term Redskin) or when you use certain imagery, don’t do it!  It is hurtful!  Plain and simple.  Indigenous groups all over the United States have made it clear how hurtful it is to continue having team names like the Redskins and mascots like the Cleveland Indians’.  It is time we showed Native American Indians the respect that they deserve and mount a sustained effort to pressure the teams in our communities to change these mascots. Perhaps I can start with a letter to Central High School, home of the Warriors, in my home town of Grand Junction, CO.  Come on Central High School Hippogryphs!

The future mascot of Central High School in Grand Junction, CO

In my favorite form of resistance to this culture of racist sports imagery, I want to highlight the intramural basketball team from the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley who stirred controversy in 2002 by flipping the paradigm of power, naming their team the “Fightin’ Whities.”

The team, made up of Native American, White, and Latino players, wanted to draw attention to the racist history and tradition of naming teams after stereotypical depictions of Indigenous Peoples.  Through t-shirt sales, they were able to raise a substantial amount of money and endow a sizable scholarship for students at UNC, naming it the “Fightin’ Whites Minority Scholarship” for Native American students.  Now that’s creative activism!

Peace be the Journey.


29 thoughts on “Redskins, Sambos, and Whities – Racism in Sports Mascots

  1. you know…the Redskins don’t really have to changes their names. Just their mascot. Imagine if they changed it to something like Mr. Peanut or Mr. Potato Head. They drop the racist feathers off their logo…just like William and Mary and presto chango rearrango!!! An acceptable compromise.

    • Sooo…… Redskins logo and mascot definitely need to go. The braves mascot. I am probably missing a bunch more off the top of my head, but the braves name and chiefs to me do not depict Native Americans in a negative light. Although i guess thats like saying the Washington witchdoctors and having a indigenous look of a mascot with a bone in his nose and skulls on his belt. Is the world TOO P.C. or are we not sensitive enough to all the “people” in our world. Not just country. I just saw a headlight about a highschool called the arabs. Because of the current conflict, do we care as much about our arab population than in my opinion the 2 most oppressed races in america, Native Americans and African Americans

  2. […] article was originally posted at Change From Within Tagged with: Redskins • sports […]

  3. I mean, seriously. I also think it’s “racist” for the Patriots to depict white people as 3-point hat wearing colonialists with muskets! And, I think it’s racist for the Pittsburgh Pirates to depict white people as sea-bound thieves! And, the Los Angeles Kings shouldn’t be depicting Europeans as monarchists! And, the rank of “Chief” should be eliminated from the army! You know, I’m 1/4 Native American, and I think you should just get a life. I’m so tired of white people speaking up for minorities as if minorities are just too stupid to speak up for themselves.

  4. Thank you for writing this article and responding to comments!

  5. […] or the “Fighting Sioux?”  Write them to ask for a change in mascot!  Here’s a piece I wrote on the subject of mascots a few years back to give you a little help in explaining why this needs to […]

  6. […] the “Warriors” or the “Fighting Sioux?”  Write them to ask for a change in mascot!  Here’s a piece I wrote on the subject of mascots a few years back to give you a little help in explaining why this needs to […]

  7. […] “Redskins, Sambos, and Whities: Racism in Sports Mascots“ “Speak American: Multilingualism and the English-Only Movement“ “It’s Not Just Rap – Misogyny in Music“ […]

  8. […] school the “Warriors” or the “Fighting Sioux?” Write them to ask for a change in mascot! Here’s a piece I wrote on the subject of mascots a few years back to give you a little help in explaining why this needs to […]

  9. I know it doesn’t change anything with what I think but I most definitely disagree… Native Americans are the only ones that have a say in the matter. I still believe that Native Americans should feel honored that a team that goes in and works/fights to be the best day in and day out is named after native Americans. It’s a respect thing.

    I also don’t get the double standard on the race issue. There are things like Latino workers union and black scholarship funds but if anyone tried to make a white-only anything, the world would go bezerk. If you are going to change team names then be fair and fix the racism on everyone’s part. Pretty soon here Caucasian is going to be the minority where I live in California so things need to start being even. I’m sick of hearing people at my school saying “it’s because I’m black huh?” Every time they get in trouble for doing something stupid! I hear black people call each other niggers and Mexicans call each other beaners and wetbacks. I’m just sick of the unfairness. If I ever said “it’s because I’m white” people would laugh in my face. I’m sorry I got off topic I’m just mad. Not at you but the system.

    • First and foremost, you are speaking out of both sides of your mouth. You are saying that the only voices that matter are Indigenous voices, but then you are dictating to Indigenous people how they should feel. You don’t get to say how a people who are experiencing ongoing genocide ought to feel about their representation in popular culture.

      And as far as your second paragraph, it’s ironic that you say you are mad at the system. You seem to think that the “system” somehow is setting up a double standard that disadvantages you as a (seemingly) White person. But White folks are not the ones experiencing systemic marginalization and oppression.

      Here’s another article I wrote that gets at the heart of what seems to be your concern:

      And one last point: being a majority does not guarantee a group of people rights or freedom from oppression. Look no further than Apartheid South Africa.

      • That article is bullshit because it is NOT what Matt was referring to. I am a Liberal. I live on SoCal. I abhor white supremacists. I have had death threats from them but it alarms me when I hear from behind me other so called liberals making the same kind of remarks towards all whites. YET you dismiss the behavior because you are instituting the bogeyman clause of the SYSTEM. The ill fated MACRO level institutional racism clause but ignore that institutional racism also applies at the micro level and is really what happens when a majority culture either through malice or proxy treats unlike kinds less favorably over their own kind. This majority culture could be say how a US Army company conducts its business and treats minority enlisted with less favorable treatment.

        I have met Mexican and Black Supremacists. You can dismiss them all you want because they are not in Congress but that does not erase the fact that their attitudes are no less racist. What is funny is to see local Mexicans claim that California as well as most of the Southwest should break off to form some mythical Aztec homeland. They completely ignore the actual indians to whom they are not from those specific tribes have lived on this land and it is not their land nor are they actually an Aztec nor is the land they claim any of the sort.

        And what is odd is Matt was saying first and foremost Indians should be the ones to say this but that in his opinion should feel honored. He did not dictate that they had to feel honored. He gave his opinion but if they said otherwise then he would stick to that.

        I have to ask did the author read the articles he made links to within the article. Such as the 10 million number or did the author just do searches and linked snips he though relevant to his point? The article he linked is actually disputing genocide.

  10. This is so funny, everyone is so sensitive in today’s time! Well I’m offended by the Cowboys since my family is from the Deep South and wears boots!! Haha. Everything is picked apart, and dissected. It will never change and racism will only survive by those who keep bringing it up.

    • Jared, a few things (some of which I have already said above).

      1. To compare the Cowboys as a mascot to the Redsk*ns is disingenuous and proves that either you are being willfully ignorant or have never read a single history that wasn’t Whitewashed. The comparison presumes that the Cowboys name could, in any way, exploit genocide and exploitation for profit rather than reinforce a storied and celebrated image of White people in the West (which is actually quite ridiculous considering that the VAST majority of “cowboys” were Black, Latino, and Indigenous.

      2. Sure, you’re probably right. Just not talking about it will likely do away with a hundreds of years-old system of oppression. Let’s go ahead and try that.

      • Let us not forget the Fighting Irish. Do I hear angry outcries from the Irish community that they are being depicted as drunken aggressive leprechauns? Nope. And yes I will use them for comparison. Do your research on how they were treated, taken advantage of, and discriminated against when they got off the boat. Who in this country is of any “pure” blooded race anyway these days? I’m a dang mash up for sure. I could say I am offended that mine and my husbands Viking ancestors are being depicted as big hairy aggressive horn wearing white guys. I think there are far more important things in this world we need to worry about. My grandfather was part Cherokee (and yes he was enough you could tell just by looking at him), my grandmother part Choctaw, my husband’s grandmother full Native American ( I can’t remember what tribe she was from. She didn’t even have a last name until she married an Irish man) and we don’t stay awake at night stewing in anger over the Fighting Irish, Vikings, Redskins, Braves, etc.. But that being said, yes, I think there could be much more respect and compromise when using Native American mascots. Then maybe everyone could finally just move on to more important world issues.

  11. I have to ask did the author read the articles he made links to within his article. Such as the 10 million number or did the author just do searches and linked snips he though relevant to his point? The article he linked is actually disputing genocide.

  12. Great article and replies to comments. you are intelligent and articulate. I am native and an activist and have said ALOT on this issue. The best way to explain it to ask them if it is OK to have their team named the Washington Blackskins. I thought so. Or to say that just because not all women at one time in any given oppressed society complained about rape or abuse, or were beaten and conditioned to go along and say it was “OK,” does not mean it IS OK. It is the women and men who stand up for the oppressed and themselves who make the world a decent place to live, not the majority of victims who have lost the will to fight and their victimizers who trivialize their oppression so they can derive selfish pleasure from it and dismiss the women who fight back as “whiny troublemakers.” It is the ignorant who need to stop thinking the world revolves around them and grow up and stop their harmful actions.

  13. […] ChangeFromWithin looked at the issue of racist American mascots back in 2010. […]

  14. […] Redskins, Sambos, and Whities – Racism in Sports Mascots … – The Minnesota Vikings had beaten the Washington … and Whities: Racism in Sports Mascots | … “Redskins, Sambos, and Whities: Racism in Sports Mascots … […]

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