As the more committed fans of my column will likely already know, I am both a senior in the residential college formerly known as Calhoun and a fan of Washington, D.C.’s professional football team. While my college, now named in honor of distinguished Grace Hopper GRD ’34, has finally shed its racist nickname, my favorite sports team, named in honor of a racial slur that resembles a type of potato, has not.
In my four years at Yale, I’ve wondered whether the Yale Corporation or Dan Snyder would get rid of its racist mascot first. Much to my surprise, the collegiate equivalent of Spectre from James Bond won that little contest. I am now at the point in my life where I don’t have to walk around every day being reminded that men like Calhoun enslaved my ancestors. My residential college feels slightly less like a plantation and your biracial author no longer feels like he’s going to dinner in the big house.
Unfortunately, Dan Snyder — a man whose team’s gear I still can’t wear around town without feeling like a jerk — hasn’t quite gotten the memo that naming your organization after a racial slur or a famous white supremacist probably isn’t the most progressive thing to do. Of equal cause for disappointment, Snyder, like the Corporation, is motivated primarily by a desire to keep as much money in his pockets as possible, which means unless there’s enough bad press or financial pressure to change his team’s name, there’s no way in hell he’s going to undergo the legal and fiscal ordeal required to do so.
I’m celebrating this week because I might be able to wear a residential college T-shirt at some point this year, and my fellow students have managed to affect some small change in an organization known for moving toward progressivism about as fast as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey can run a mile. But the world of sports is not an Ivy League college, and a bunch of drunken idiots showing up to Washington games in redface isn’t enough evidence to convince the team’s owner that changing might be the right call.
In my 21 short years on this earth, I’ve learned that words matter. The way we refer to people, teams or ourselves truly has an impact not just on how others perceive us but also on how we perceive ourselves. Just as I felt disgusted at Yale for insisting that I, and countless other mixed and Black students, live each day in a college honoring an outspoken advocate of our oppression, I feel equally for my Native American brothers and sisters who are being objectified and caricaturized through mascots like the “Redskins.” While my support for Washington football and the men who step out on that field on Sundays will never waver, I cannot in good conscience support the name or the team’s owner for insisting upon its continued use.
Instances like the decision to give Hopper College its new namesake or the push to rename my Washington football team are not examples of America giving into political correctness or excessive liberalism. Instead, they show the power and value of showing humans basic respect and decency. The symbolic power of names like Calhoun or “Redskins” is far more significant than mere words alone. Both of these nicknames are symbols of continued oppression and are reminders that minorities in this country are still forced to fight for some sense of agency. I’m not saying that as some politically correct, bleeding-heart liberal; I am saying that as a man of color who has at least some knowledge of the power that a word can wield throughout history.
Believe me when I say that a name, or a word, can go a long way in dehumanizing or devaluing an entire group of people. Just as my Black mother should never have to go through the pain of having the word “nigger” spat in her direction again, the native peoples of our country should not have to turn on a football game to see fans in painted faces and headdresses costumed-up as so-called “Redskins.”
I am happy to see that Yale has been forced to make at least a small, incremental change toward progress. But I’d like to see the same thing happen with my football team. I have no more a desire to show up to FedEx Field wearing a racial slur on my back anymore than I did to walk around campus with a racist’s name on my chest. I’d like to think that we’re better than that.
Marc Cugnon is a senior in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .