On May 19, The Washington Post released a poll showing that approximately 9 out of 10 Native Americans do not find the name of the football team Washington Redskins to be offensive. This has sparked a renewed debate in DC over the proper use of historically pejorative words in society, with some supporters of changing the team’s name now switching their position. Dan Snyder and those who support keeping the team’s name have begun citing this poll as evidence that nothing needs to be done. Yet are the opinions of Native Americans the only metric by which we should judge the propriety of the word “redskin”? Harmful ideologies can affect the beliefs of historically oppressed populations as easily as they can those who benefit from them. As Malcolm X was fond of pointing out, many blacks–both during slavery and his own time–were convinced of the benevolence of their masters.
I don’t mean to imply that such a phenomenon must be what is currently happening with this poll result, only that the issue of whether or not the team’s name must be changed hinges on more than the views of those in the Native American community (although those perspectives should by no means be disregarded). As the ways in which words signify meaning and perpetuate worldviews is a topic that many philosophers have taken up, this debate could benefit from a background in the philosophy of language. Below is a list of some contributions philosophers have made to the discussion of ‘pejorative language’ which may help us all to reflect on this issue:
- “Representing Redskins :The Ethics of Native American Team Names”, by Peter Lindsey. Published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport
- “Pejorative Language”, an article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- “Forbidden Words”, an episode of the podcast Philosophy Talk
- Racism and Philosophy, an edited collection by Susan Babbitt and Sue Campbell