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Commentary by Tim Graham: Dropping the R-word is the right thing to do

I’m not out to change the world or the NFL or what you believe.

My plan is to change me and how I operate.

Beyond the period at the end of this sentence, I intend never to use the word redskin again.

I say “intend” instead of “vow” because I very well could slip up and accidentally say it again in casual conversation or during an interview. For any sports fan, the word simply falls from the lips without thought.

And that’s the problem with uttering a racial slur so cavalierly over the years: We don’t think about the R-word’s meaning anymore.

We must not take for granted anything so harmful to other people.

There are folks who’ll see this and instinctively moan about political correctness and bleeding-heart liberalism or the loss of old-school traditions. And a vast majority of those readers will be white men. Almost none of them will be Native Americans.

We don’t get to decide what’s offensive. The people about whom we speak do.

“It’s an incredibly offensive word,” said Samantha Nephew, the marketing and communications specialist for Seneca Holdings in the HSBC Tower. “White people came in and didn’t call them what they called themselves. It was a way of belittling them, almost dehumanizing them.

“It does take a lot for someone who has something that’s called white privilege to sit back and go, ‘Why is it OK to keep saying it?’ ”

Every few years, there’s a push for Washington’s NFL team to change the nickname because it’s a racial epithet. Two weeks ago, 10 members of Congress sent a letter to owner Dan Snyder and urged him to stop.

Similar letters were sent to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith (Washington plays at FedEx Field) and the other 31 NFL owners.

“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today. “It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use caps.”

Upon reading Snyder’s mulish comment, I realized I didn’t need to wait for his blessing to drop the R-word from my vocabulary.

The R-word long has been sports white noise.

Merriam-Webster’s definition states the R-word is “usually offensive,” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary for people learning the English language states: “The word redskin is very offensive and should be avoided.”

“We don’t like it,” said Chief Darwin Hill of the Tonawanda Band of Senecas. “Black people don’t like the words that are used for them. Hispanics, Jewish people, everybody has been called different things that we don’t say anymore. When does it end?

Hopefully, soon.

Last week, the Canisteo-Greenwood Central School District south of Hornell announced it was dropping the R-word as its nickname. Just a month ago, Cooperstown Central School students forced a change, leaving only two schools in the state still using a slur to identify their sports teams.

A report in the Hornell Evening Tribune quoted the Canisteo-Greenwood superintendent as saying officials didn’t want to be the last New York school clinging to a pejorative nickname.

Lancaster and Oriskany, you’re on the clock.

Nephew was a media-relations intern for the Bills in Toronto series two years ago. That’s when Buffalo played Washington in the Rogers Centre. Part of her job was to type news releases and transcripts from interviews with the coaches and players.

She referred to the visiting team as only Washington whenever she could, but part of her job was to type out the interviews verbatim. She seethed every time her fingers clacked out that personal, racial insult.

“I feel it every time I hear it,” Nephew said. “It stung to have to write out the team name.”

The trouble with using the R-word isn’t limited to the word itself. There are so many ancillary abuses that can be even more offensive.

Fans have a tendency to push the boundaries of a theme. They’ll carry out the R-word as theater. There are mascots, costumes and chants. Insensitive media outlets will use punny headlines or drop a flippant reference to Native American culture.

Other sports teams such as the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians have made similarly unfortunate mistakes.

But only one major professional sports team proudly uses a racial smear as a nickname.

Nephew relayed a story from Buffalo’s preseason loss to Washington last year in Ralph Wilson Stadium, where a Buffalo fan was overheard yelling at a Washington supporter that despite the score, “It’s OK! We stole your land!”

“People need to stop taking this so lightly and understand it gives people some kind of license to make light of my ancestors,” Nephew said. “Ralph Wilson Stadium is right on the territory that would have been our land.

“It comes down to a lack of compassion, really. And it hurts that people don’t have that respect to know that our land was taken away under really horrible circumstances. To make light of that at a football game doesn’t make sense to me, and that’s what the Redskins name does.”

FedEx Field is located in Maryland partially because lawmakers, including former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, wanted the team to change its nickname before the public would secure land for a new D.C. stadium in 1993.

Washington football fans still arrive at games in over-the-top Native American regalia, feather headdresses and all. Some whoop and stomp like they imagine they’re supposed to, based on what they saw in John Wayne movies.

“A good many Americans don’t know any Indians,” Kevin Gover, who runs the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, recently told CNN. “The Indian you see most often in Washington D.C. is at a football game – at the expense of real Indians, real history, real culture. The petty stereotype has become expected.”

In late April, Washington’s star black quarterback, Robert Griffin III, tweeted against the push to strike the R-word. Griffin called it the “tyranny of political correctness.”

Two months earlier, at a Smithsonian symposium called “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports,” Nighthorse repeated a question he frequently has asked African-American R-word defenders.

“How you would like for us to change the name of that team to the Washington Darkies?” Nighthorse said.

The R-word would be embarrassing to say if we hadn’t heard it from the time we became conscious of NFL teams and logos.

The R-word should not tumble from our mouths so effortlessly, so thoughtlessly.

“It’s a matter of respect,” Nephew said. “I wouldn’t call anybody whatever racially derogatory term there is for them even if I don’t understand why it’s offensive. Why would I do that? I’m not in the business of offending people.”

I won’t speak for anybody else, but neither am I.

(From the News’ Press Coverage blog)


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