Is current use of the word "Redskins" racist?

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Aug 29, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Washington Redskins helmet during the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Washington Redskins defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30-12. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So the debate about the use of the name Redskins rages on.  Is the term offensive?  Is it racist?  If so, was it always racist?  Does the context or intent when a term is used determine if it is racist or not?  The Oxford Dictionary defines the word (racist) as: “a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another (noun) or “having or showing the belief that a particular race is superior to another” (adjective).

Another definition could be “discrimination or prejudice based on race”.  I read an interesting article recently. It described how certain words we use every day (well, in the UK anyway), originated from offensive terms or expressions. For example, the word “hooligan”, now used to describe a group of unruly and aggressive youths, originated from the Irish “Houlihans”, renowned for their drunkenness and violence against the police.

Similarly, the modern cheer “hip hip hooray” was originally used as a threatening rallying cry in the early 1800s by Germans and some neighbouring countries as they searched for Jews. For those who are interested in the article click here:  “8 Racist Words you use Every Day”.  The point is that meanings of words can change over an extended period of time.

Back in the annals of American history, the meaning of the word “Redskin” may well have been used as a racial slur. I’m no expert on the meaning then any more than its meaning today.  And while I accept that the meaning to some people will differ from the meaning to others, no one can argue that the context of a team name can be classed as offensive intent.

My limited research suggests the term originated as a descriptive word to identify tribes wearing red-pigmented war paint.  And may well have been used in the past disparagingly to identify a certain race of people, but in modern times, it’s meaning has changed again, in recognition of the courage and bravery of Native American tribes as they fought to save their land.

I don’t think the majority of people would, but not because it is an admittance that the term is offensive, but because the term is not used to describe those people anymore.  It could be argued that the term “Indian” was equally disparaging.  This 2005 article from the Washington Post suggests that early use of the term redskin was more positive….

“when it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level . . . These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves,” the word later underwent a process of pejoration, by which it gained a negative connotation.”

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