- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Sonia K. Katyal
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving the trademark for the Washington Redskins. That decision left in place a lower court ruling stating that the plaintiffs had waited too long to bring a case for trademark cancellation – thus triggering the doctrine of laches, under which suits brought too late are barred. Around the same time, a federal judge in North Dakota prohibited the State Board of Education from immediately retiring the Fighting Sioux moniker of the University of North Dakota.
But neither controversy is truly over, and the underlying issue of racialized representations is likely to be discussed and litigated for years to come. With respect to the Washington Redskins, a different set of plaintiffs – and an entirely new case, filed in August 2006 – is waiting in the wings to challenge the trademark on the grounds of its disparaging content. In the UND case, the judge imposed a temporary restraining order on the ground that the state board could not unilaterally alter the deadline without ensuring the tribes’ participation. A new hearing has been set.
The legal cases against racially-hostile mascots can be complicated, raising issues related to both intellectual property rights and the First Amendment. Yet the ethical case against such representations could hardly be clearer.
The Widespread Use of American Indian Mascots, and the Damage It Causes
Both of the cases discussed above are painful legacies of an era in advertising that relied on the use of racial or ethnic minorities as the basis for logos, without much attention to the psychological harms such logos can cause, particularly in an educational context.
Sherman Alexie’s partly-autobiographical novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” makes the point well. Its fourteen-year-old Native American protagonist courageously decides to attend – and play basketball – at a prestigious all-white high school. As the only boy from the reservation, he faces a daily tirade of taunts: An illustration shows a series of cloud-like white figures bearing down on a small, skinny, bedraggled boy, calling him “Chief,” “Sitting Bull,” “Tonto,” “Squaw Boy,” and of course, “Redskin.” There is one glaring exception to his solitary confinement as the sole Native American at his school. Every time he plays basketball, he is greeted on the court by the image of the school mascot: a hook-nosed, buck-toothed version of an American Indian, sporting feathers and an angry scowl.
For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Alexie’s protagonist: You are fourteen, and saddled with all the challenges that adolescence brings—from acne, to bad fashion, to painful insecurities — on top of the differences you are trying so desperately to overcome as a Native American growing up in the United States. In this sense, Alexie’s character is no different than many other children who are asked to overcome tremendous cultural barriers in search of an education. But there is one thing that makes Alexie’s character’s experience unique: Every day that he excels in basketball, the one activity that enables him to surpass the racial divide between himself and his classmates, the ubiquitous image of the school mascot reminds him of his limitations.
No other race gets singled out for this sort of caricature, so often and so regularly, in this day and age. The toll such mascots take cannot be justified ethically, no matter how the litigation is resolved.
The Suit To Retire the Washington Redskins Logo
Back in 1972, as Suzan Harjo, one of the plaintiffs in the Redskins case, recounts in the book Team Spirits (edited by C. Richard King and Charles Springwood), this kind of harm motivated a Native American coalition to respectfully ask the team’s attorney to change the name of the Washington Redskins team. They asked him to imagine an NFL in which “the other teams are known as the New York Kikes, the Chicago Polocks, the San Francisco Dagoes, the Detroit Niggers, the Los Angeles Spics, etc.”
Their efforts were largely met with silence until twenty years later, when, in 1992, a group of native leaders from diverse tribes sued to request the trademark’s cancellation. That year, thousands of Native Americans protested at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. Speaking to Congress, Suzan Harjo commented, “We have emotional scarring that is taking place…the highest rate of teenage suicide of any population in this country, which comes from low self-esteem, which comes from having those kids’ elders…mocked, dehumanized, cartooned, stereotyped. That is what is causing the deaths of many of our children. We can’t be polite about these problems anymore.”
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen agreed: “It hardly enhances the self-esteem of an Indian youth to always see his people – himself – represented as a cartoon character. And always, the caricature is suggestive of battle, of violence – the Indian warrior, the brave, the chief, the warpath, the beating of tom-toms….Its time the Redskins changed their name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but a team that insists on retaining an offensive name just plain stinks.”
In the Washington Redskins case, a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office panel agreed with the plaintiffs that the term “Redskins” was disparaging, and ordered cancellation of the trademark. But U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar- Kotelly overturned that ruling, claiming that “[t]here is no evidence in the record that addresses whether the use of the term ‘redskin(s)’ in the context of a football team and related entertainment services would be viewed by a substantial composite of Native Americans, in the relevant time frame, as disparaging.” Yet one plaintiff had observed, for example, that “Redskins” is “the absolute, unquestionably worst term….There is no context in which the term ‘Redskins’ is not offensive.”
Sadly, we seem to have made little progress since that decision.
The Problem of Commercial Insensitivity Against Native Americans
Americans have proved increasingly and rightly sensitive about representations that are racially derogatory. Thirty plus years ago, American advertising was littered with objectionable stereotypes of people of color. Today, many of those brands have since retired. Even Aunt Jemima has been given a “liberation makeover,” replacing her kerchief with a short bobbed haircut, crisp white sweater, set of pearls, and shining smile. Miley Cyrus faced sharp criticism when she was photographed pretending to be Asian by “slanting” her eyes. A few years ago, there was a national outcry when Abercrombie & Fitch put out a white T-shirt featuring caricatures of Asians with slanted eyes and rice-paddy hats that said, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White,” along with other, similarly themed shirts. Immediately after a public outcry, the shirts were pulled off of the shelves, and the company issued a public statement: “We are truly and deeply sorry we’ve offended people.”
Yet even as African-American and Asian-American stereotypes are widely decried, stereotypical – and sometimes shocking — caricatures of Native Americans persist largely without complaint: The cigar store Indian; the sports team mascot; and the ubiquitous Halloween costume, complete with feathered headdress, are just the most prominent examples.
Fans who thinks nothing of doing a “tomahawk chop” or exhorting their team to “scalp the enemy” do not always see or understand how those attitudes feed into the longstanding, pervasive harms that minorities often face when their culture is thoughtlessly mocked. Not only do these stereotypes fail to recognize the living reality of Native Americans, but they also suggest that Native culture, unlike any other, is safe to make fun of.
Sonia K. Katyal is a Professor of Law at Fordham Law School and the author of Property Outlaws (forthcoming from Yale University Press, 2010) with Eduardo M. Peñalver, a Professor of Law at Cornell Law School.
Author: News Wire (24 Articles)