The ‘Blackskins’ Story: A Strong Image Provokes a Strong Reaction

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

On Friday, ICTMN published an essay, “Fun Racism Quiz: Would NFL Have a Team Called Washington Blackskins?”, and provocative image by Gerard Miller that he had published some time ago, as a college undergraduate. Miller, an African American, said that the piece had convinced some of his fellow students — ones who didn’t care about the controversy over the Redskins football team name — that it was an issue they should care about.

The image is a strong one, and it inspired strong reactions from many of our Facebook followers, as well as debate in a comment thread that has now stretched to over 500 entries. There are many insightful comments in the thread—and many that aren’t insightful.

Wayde Sid McCloud contributed one of the first responses, and to some extent hit the nail on the head: “When the African American cries racism, America has your back 100%. When Native Americans talk about racism towards them, it’s ignored!”

He may be exaggerating with “has your back 100%” but it’s safe to say that America has developed pretty good radar when it comes to racist images and words directed at African Americans. The Blackskins image is obviously racist. Nobody could argue that it is a “tribute” to African Americans. Through perseverance, the black community has largely succeeded in educating the rest of America about what images and words are disrespectful and harmful—but, unfortunately, Native Americans haven’t gotten to that stage. When Natives call out an image as racist, they are often challenged. Everything from “It’s a tribute” to “You’re just being politically correct” to “It’s a tradition—get over it.” Would anyone advance those same arguments to a black person who was (rightfully) offended by the Blackskins image?

Some commenters (and there is no telling, on Facebook, whether the people chiming in have read the article) saw the Blackskins image as a “cheap shot” directed at African Americans, and wondered why American Indians would “attack” another group that also faces discrimination but isn’t involved in the Redskins mascot discussions. The Blackskins image was not an attack on African Americans.

Look how far we have come—from a country that allowed slavery 150 years ago to one in which the Blackskins image would not be tolerated for a second. Every thinking American sees that it is racist, and that’s laudable progress. And “Blackskins” isn’t even a racial slur anyone uses.

Unfortunately, take the same image, substitute a 19th-century conception of a noble Indian and print the word “Redskins—which is a slur according to any dictionary—beneath it, and America goes blind to the racism. So blind that it’s considered suitable for t-shirts, bumper stickers, and baby attire. And that’s the point. American Indians have seen black Americans make great strides in reclaiming human dignity after brutal historic oppression. Black Americans in the year 2013 have made progress toward that mountaintop, and as a black man, Gerard Miller knows that. He also knows that American Indians would like to catch up.