Journalists Must Remove Racial Slurs from Lexicon

Editorial Board

A student newspaper at a high school in Pennsylvania this week found itself at the epicenter of an issue that has for decades posed challenges for journalistic outlets nationwide: what to do about the fact that a popular and profitable athletic mascot is widely regarded as a racial slur.

Sports teams at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, PA, share the controversial mascot that serves as the official name of the NFL team from Washington, D.C. For over a year, the Neshaminy Playwickian has attempted to distance itself from the epithet by refusing to print it, despite forceful opposition from the school’s administration. Last week, these tensions came to a head as school officials suspended the publication’s student editor-in-chief and faculty advisor. These suspensions came only three months after administrators froze the paper’s social media accounts and deducted $1,200 from its annual budget.

The Review’s Editorial Board, joining a growing number of scholastic, regional and national newspapers, finds the actions of NHS officials abhorrent. We’ve opined before on the importance of unrestricted journalism at academic institutions (“College Rankings Devalue Breadth of Knowledge, Ignore Human Element,” The Oberlin Review, Sept. 12, 2014). A newspaper’s choices regarding the language choices it makes, especially in the case of a racial epithet, are no less important.

Both national and local sports teams have seen their share of offensive and racist mascots. Stereotypes of Native Americans have long been a common trope. In Ohio, as many as 11.2 percent of high school sports teams use the likenesses of Native Americans in mascots such as “Braves,” “Warriors” and “Savages,” along with several more overtly offensive epithets. Until 2007, Oberlin High School was among these, using the name “Indians” until members of the Muskogee Tribe argued that the former mascot desensitized fans to the dehumanizing nature of such stereotypes. The Cleveland Indians, for their part, are still represented by the same scarlet-colored caricature introduced 64 years ago as “Chief Wahoo.”

The Washington team’s name, however, goes beyond racist caricatures. In a Sports editorial last year, then–Sports editor Rose Stoloff emphasized that the slur has its origins in colonial violence (“Offensive Names Plague NFL,” The Oberlin Review, Oct. 11, 2013) with some historical accounts suggesting the term referred not to perceived skin color but to blood, due to the bounty white settlers in the French and Indian War placed on Native Americans’ scalps.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have urged owner Dan Snyder to change the team’s name. President Obama said he would do so were he in Snyder’s position, and in May, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell petitioning a name change. Yet their efforts seem to have been in vain. Snyder has repeatedly said he will never change the team’s name, and even after the United States Patent and Trademark Office revoked six of the team’s trademark protections in June, the federal government has little power to force Snyder’s hand.

This does not mean, however, that journalistic publications aren’t speaking out — or, rather, retracting. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 major news publications and journalists, including seven ESPN-affiliated journalists, restrict or ban the Washington football team’s name. The Editorial Board believes this alteration of discourse is not only a change for the better, but a journalistic duty. Similar strategies have had measurable success in the past — for example, the Associated Press’s decision to remove “illegal immigrant” from its style guide last year prompted The New York Times to reconsider its use of the term. On the subject of offensive slurs, the latest edition of the A.P. guide prescribes that “racial epithets” not be used except in direct quotations when there is a “compelling reason” for their inclusion. Millions of people read the nation’s newspapers, magazines and blogs every day. By taking the initiative to remove racist slurs from their vocabulary, publications have substantial influence over the language used in public discourse, and, in turn, by their readers.

And the discourse surrounding the Washington team’s name is in urgent need of change. A word despised by the vast majority of Native Americans, one whose impact is compounded by years of structural and physical violence, is a powerful, damaging racial slur. While changing everyday lexicon is only one small step in addressing deeply-embedded prejudices, it is an important one. Journalists, with the influence they hold over the language of the day, have a responsibility to do their part.