What’s in a Name?

On game days, tens of thousands of voices shout out when the Washington football team plays. The voices you don’t hear, however, are the ones that most need to be heard.

This is one of the messages that special guest Gyasi Ross brought to students in all three divisions on February 29. A Native American from the Blackfeet Nation, graduate of Columbia Law School, and a sought-after speaker and writer on race and social justice issues, Gyasi (pronounced “Jossie”) works to promote agency and equity for what he called “historically overlooked and undervalued groups.”

Native Americans stay trapped in this category when the local NFL franchise, owned by businessman Dan Snyder, uses “the R word” as its official team name with little regard for the effect it has on the people it is supposedly evoking, he asserted. At one point, he used the analogy of wealthy homeowners in drought-stricken California who continue to overuse water because they can afford it: “We don’t care what the effect is long-term for the poor people—only for what benefits us.”

The Native American voice “has been neglected for a very long time—we don’t even hear from them,” he said. “As long as a group cannot speak for itself, does not have a microphone, you can get away with it. Once we hear what people [in disenfranchised populations] have to say, we’re likely to hear a different story. . . . And we all need to be listening to them, because there is power in those groups and the stories they tell.”

Shortly into Gyasi’s talk, 9th grader Sameer Shaikh joined him at the podium to pose a series of questions exploring why the Washington football team name persists.

Sameer first asked Gyasi what he thought of the assertion that the name is not meant to offend but rather to honor Native Americans.

“There is usually a difference between intended impact” and what actually happens, Gyasi explained. “It’s a very passive-aggressive way of saying [when people are offended], ‘It’s not my fault.’ I think we’re too grown [up] for that. We have an obligation to think past that. If you are questioning impact, there is an obligation to go and see who the stakeholders are. There’s nobody else who is a stakeholder in this other than Native American people—not football fans, nobody. Impact should only be questioned by one group.”

Sameer asked Gyasi how he would respond to people who say that because the name recalls “a long and proud sports tradition,” changing the name would be “turning their backs on a storied franchise.”

“I don’t think they’ve won any Super Bowls in a long time, so I’m not sure about this ‘long and storied tradition,’” Gyasi said, making the students laugh. He then defined an objective standard: something that exists “whether I recognize it or I don’t.” He contrasted that with a subjective standard, which involves someone’s feelings about something. “Folks are looking for a subjective stance, [but] we need to use objective standards. We say, ‘we’re going to ask every single Native American to see if they subjectively feel offense at this word.’ We’re asking the wrong question,” he said.

Sameer’s final query asked Gyasi how he would respond to the argument that “the R word” has been around for 85 years, and it is only the current wave of political correctness that is moving the chain back on the term.

“Slavery was around for 230 years,” said Gyasi, adding that it’s only “within the last 60 years” that African Americans have gained a stronger voice in their fight for equality. “Voice costs money and requires access” to change people’s minds, he said, noting that in the Native American community where he grew up in Montana, unemployment was 70 percent and there was no running water. “The last thing you are worried about is using what little resources you have to hire a publicist” to combat offensive language. “We don’t know what it would be if we had had resources to have a voice in this fight. Just because we have just started to hear about [opposition] doesn’t mean that it just started.”

The floor then opened to questions from the audience.

“How do you feel about the use of Indian tribe names in other sports, other teams with Native-themed mascots?” asked one student.

Gyasi explained that where he is from, the population is 98 percent Native; his high school teams were the Brownlee Indians. “It makes sense there. The context was there.” When autonomy, voice, and volition are present, “that makes all the difference in the world,” he said. This is not the case in Washington, DC.

“The Washington football team is a business—what are good ways to incentivize businesses to change the name?” asked another.

Gyasi agreed that football is a business. Dan Snyder “is a capitalist. It’s inevitable that as soon as something starts becoming a weight and is hurting the bottom line, a capitalist will respond.”

As he told members of the Student Government earlier in the day, “I submit that we have a duty to step in and do something about this. Contact advertisers. You have the ability to create conversations, and media advertisers care about what you say.

“Quakers,” he reminded students, “are always on the right side of history. We need to step in for any group that is powerless—and this [issue] is in our backyard.”

After Gyasi’s visit, many students wrote reflections on what they heard and penned ideas about how they could help. They then shared them with Philip McAdoo, the School’s Director of Equity, Justice, and Community. Following are a few of their thoughts.

Sixth grade reflections: What did we hear?

He thinks that [Native] sports mascots are being racist because they are telling the Native Americans what they should look like and how they should act even though they [team owners] are not part of the culture.

Some sports teams have changed their names [and] it hasn’t affected them, so why don’t the other teams change their names?

It’s not that hard to change a mascot from a racist one to a non-racist one.

Native Americans look really different, they live in many different places, in many different environments, so you cannot classify them as just one name.

Other cultures can’t tell you what to be offended by.

Discrimination is about all groups, not just blacks and whites.

People start believing stereotypes more than truth.

Sixth grade: What actions would/could we take?

Not promote the [team] name.

Support any petitions.

I can tell people how the team names are offensive to people.

I can keep up-to-date on these topics so that I can stay informed.

I’d want to educate people on [Gyasi’s] culture’s traditions. 

I want to be more aware of what stereotypes are around me.

I want to stop stereotyping. We all do it, and some of it is unconscious.

Upper School queries:

Do we make decisions on behalf of a people without giving them a voice? Are we providing all community members voice and agency?

What is holding us back from holding honest conversations about certain topics?

How do we represent and practice Quaker values as non-Quakers, and when Quakers are such a minority in our community?

For more information on Gyasi Ross, see his website at gyasi-ross.com.

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