December 27, 2012 at 3:13 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
The Braves have a new spring training cap and twitter has been abuzz with reaction to it.
Let me first say that this article is not going to offer any answers. What will follow is an incredibly complicated issue, that will only barely have the surface of it scratched, if that. Hopefully what will follow is slightly more in depth and level headed than the simplistic “that’s racist” and “deal with it, lol” type responses that mostly characterized both sides.
Let me also say that I would personally be more than happy to see the entire “Braves” mascot/theme done away with. It has nothing to do with the city of Atlanta. It obviously does offend some people. Since there’s no real reason why it SHOULD be the moniker for the MLB team in Atlanta, and it does make some people uncomfortable, I’d personally just as soon get rid of it. I’m also not someone to take ‘tradition’ as a justification for anything. That’s my personal take, and that’s all it is. I have no interest in arguing that one way or the other.
What I do find interesting is the idea of racism in America. So the questions I want to address are these: 1) Is the usage of any Native American imagery, whatsoever, racist? 2) Is the usage of any Native American imagery to represent a school or sports team, ie as a mascot, inherently racist? 3) Is the image on the Braves’ spring training cap racist in a way that the Tomahawk it replaced isn’t? 4) If not, why was their outrage this year and not last year?
For the first question, I’m simply going to lay out the arguments, because they are well worn, and seem to be at a stopping point from both sides. It would be relatively easy if Native Americans agreed on the issue, but famously 91% of Native Americans polled by Sports Illustrated said that they didn’t even find the clearly pejorative term ‘Redskin’ to be racist or even offensive. However, I’m not saying that means that it’s not racist, just that one possible clear path to deciding the issue is cut off. If Native Americans themselves felt that the usage of these symbols and names were racist, then clearly I think it would be offensive to continue to do so. Minorities get to decide what terms offend them and are mocking. If it was clear that Native Americans were offended by the Atlanta Braves name, logos and imagery, the issue would be decided more or less. But it’s not. Now perhaps it’s the case that Native Americans are so discriminated against and marginalized that they themselves have grown unresponsive to racism and have come to accept it. This would be akin to the little African American girl in the 50s pointing at the white doll as being prettier. Sometimes a class of individuals is so harmed that they simply can no longer even recognize some discrimination levied against them.
The American Psychological Association, while speaking towards a resolution recommending the banning of all Native American imagery for educational institutions had this to say: “The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”
While the issue is particularly problematic for places of learning, some of that could still apply to their usage by a sports franchise. Perhaps a sports franchise has no obligation to foster learning, but it should at least not make things worse. Ultimately, for the Braves, I think the issue comes down to this question: Is the usage of the name Braves, the tomahawk and the image of the Native American on their spring training caps “teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians.”
An additional argument is that the usage of such is exploitive in nature. That essentially the Atlanta Braves are using the mass genocide of a native people as a cheap marketing ploy. While in some sense that might seem the easier path to declaring the usage of any Native American imagery wrong at all, it also ignores that using the same criteria most movies made about Native Americans are made by white individuals and using a simple “making money off of it = exploitation” argument would deem even insightful and positive movies like Dances With Wolves as exploitive and thus wrong. The counter there is that a movie like Dances With Wolves, while in some sense exploitive, has counterbalancing good, and is thus no longer bad. But to make that argument puts us back at square one. If we are to consider the societal impact of the usage of Native American imagery to make money, then we are simply begging the original question “is the usage of Native American Imagery inherently bad by sports teams?”
Utimately, the question of whether or not any usage of any Native America imagery at all by sports franchises is inherently racist is one that nobody seems to agree upon. Native Americans don’t seem to agree, white people don’t seem to agree. Perhaps in 30-50 years society will move towards a consensus on the matter, but it’s clear that one doesn’t exist now. I think it would be a bit presumptuous to think we would find one here, but I am merely hoping that we at least viewed the issue with open eyes.
Next, let’s ask ourselves if the Atlanta Braves primary images are racist, in a way that Native American imagery doesn’t have to be. That is, for the moment, let’s put aside the arguments that apply to all Native American imagery, ie the ‘inherently bad’ argument. Because even if Native American Imagery being used by sports teams isn’t inherently bad, this particular instance might be so. We’ll also, for the moment, put aside the image on the Braves spring training cap, merely because I want to deal with it separately.
First, the simple name Braves, is it inherently racist? The name Brave isn’t actually itself a Native American term. It is a spanish term for North American native warriors. A sort of catchall that has the same latin derivation as barbarian. Bravo itself essentially meant courageous indigenous warrior. In fact, the term can also be found applied to pacific islanders as well in some historical documents, though the term fell away in that usage over time. Additionally, unlike what many proponents claim, the term isn’t an honor bestowed upon warriors by tribes themselves, and thus a celebration, it was a term used by enemies. The term did carry with it a sense of respect, but it was nevertheless a term created by Europeans for those that they were fighting. Further, even if the term was meant to honor Native American warriors, the usage by current day Americans for its sports teams can easily be seen as mocking them, ie we let silly baseball players be called the same thing we called your fiercest warriors.
Ultimately this is part of why I don’t particularly love the name of the team in the first place. I don’t really see the argument that the term Brave is a positive for Native Americans. I’ve never gained a deeper understanding of Native American traditions because of the term. However, I think jumping from ‘non-educational and perhaps ignorant’ to ‘racist’ is a significant jump.
I believe it’s important to clearly define important terms in an argument. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, most disagreements between intelligent people come down to hidden disagreements on the meanings of the terms they were using. I’m going to define racism as
prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as such.
And this is where I think the usage of the name Braves falls just short of racism. Simply by limiting the term to warriors it, by definition, isn’t intending to perpetuate a stereotype about all native americans, but just the warriors. The Braves aren’t the Atlanta Indians. It’s not uncommon for sports teams to (perhaps idiotically) equate sports with war. In fact it’s perhaps the most common metaphor used for both (ie sports metaphors in war, and war metaphors in sports). And many academics believe that our love of sports is in fact intimately related to primitive clan warfare. We are, after all, glamorizing arbitrary ‘us v. them’ designations and picking ‘sides’ based on nothing but shared geography and imagery. The idea that one should be ‘loyal to their team’ is idiotic without the clan warfare metaphor. That is, I don’t think that the name Braves and the tomahawk are by definition racist, because the term doesn’t itself make claim that all native americans were violent and used tomahawks, but that their warriors were violent and that the tomahawk was a weapon. A follower on twitter asked me why the Braves mascot wasn’t a picture of a Native American woman in a slightly colorized shirt. The answer, both complex and simple, is that she wasn’t a warrior, and thus would be a poor depiction of a Brave. In choosing the term Brave, the choice was made for a warrior mascot. Choosing to glorify (or perhaps mock) Native American warriors is perhaps an issue of its own, but that goes back to our first question that was left unanswered. The tomahawk chop is perhaps particularly egregious, because there is literally zero evidence that any Native Americans ever used the ‘war chant’ and it’s most likely a completely bastardized myth. It uses tones that weren’t even common to any Native American music. But racist? I don’t know.
Now, to say that a term isn’t racist isn’t to say it’s good either. Even if the term isn’t overtly racist, it is possible that it helps perpetuate ignorant stereotypes and that it glorifies violence. This is where my problem with the name Braves and the tomahawks comes into play. Because people don’t particularly delve in to it, it can help people make shallow assumptions. This is especially the case because the name is a generic catch all for all native american warriors, indicating that they were some sort of homogenous monolith of a single, shared culture. It also glorifies their military aspirations, which I think we should be past glorification of violence by anybody. We clearly aren’t. But such is society. In sum, my issues with the term Braves is that it’s a european catch all term, and it does little to foster any real appreciation of Native American peoples. That it glorifies violence, like a large number of mascots do, and that is in and of itself not something I’m totally comfortable with.
Finally, addressing the hat that started it all. Keith Law characterized the logo as “a caricature of a racial stereotype.” A caricature is defined as: “A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject’s distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect.” Sorry Keith, but this clearly fails any reasonable definition of the word caricature. Not even close. It’s a completely proportional image that is barely even identifiable as a native american outside of the mohawk and feather. Those two aspects aren’t exaggerated. Maybe it’s still a stereotype. Here though we run into the issue of how exactly do you make a depiction of a ‘brave’ look?
*Here* is an image from a magazine on indigenous youth leadership. It’s a depiction of a native American warrior/leader, as realistically depicted by Native Americans themselves. It depicts him with a mohawk and feathers. It may be a more complex drawing, showing complex chest tattoos and other features that the single face doesn’t show on the Braves’ cap, but is it categorically different than the logo on the Braves spring training hat? The problem with picking something to depict a Native American Warrior is that you have to depict something, some Native American warriors did in fact wear feathers and have mohawks. Is it a stereotype? Perhaps, but would it be any more or less of a stereotype if it showed two braids on the side? Mohawks aren’t really a stereotype, other than one of several period correct hair choices for Native American warriors.
Why find the image of the Native American offensive and not the tomahawk or name Braves? Ultimately, I think the issue is that the personification of the mascot reminds us that the name Braves has some non-arbitrary meaning. That it stood for Native American warriors. I think the tomahawk, and especially the name are easier to abstract, and to essentially forget what it is that they stand for. The picture reminds us precisely what and who it is that this symbology represents. And many are, perhaps rightly, uncomfortable with that. The name Braves and the tomahawk allows us to forget the issues above in a way that this image doesn’t. If the image of the Native American is bad, it’s bad in precisely the same exact way that the term Braves is and the tomahawk is. It’s just easier to ignore it for those, while the image of the Brave on the spring training cap literally stares you in the face.
Ultimately, I think the logo on the Braves spring training caps may be deemed offensive, and perhaps rightly so, but I do have trouble distinguishing any way in which it is offensive and the term Braves, and the usage of the tomahawk aren’t as well. If you find this hat offensive, and not those images, I think it’s because you simply like ignoring what the other terms and symbols mean. That was what was so curious to me. Ultimately I’m okay with saying we should do away with the whole idea of Braves to begin with, but I don’t see a way in which this particular thing is racist, and last year’s spring training hat, glorifying a Native American tool of war in a stereotypical way wasn’t. Ultimately I’d just as soon not have this design, but more because some people find it offensive in a way that all the other Braves imagery isn’t, for whatever reason, not because I think there actually is a reason. I do think that the image falls short of the most common definition of the term racist (although I’m willing to grant other people have different definitions of racism that perhaps it does fall under). However, it’s not politically correct. And while political correctness is often mocked, it is often a necessary by product of increased racial sensitivity to an issue that is important. If we are over vigilant in this regard, that’s certainly preferable to being crass and using logos like the *Cleveland Indians*, or a name like Redskins. In the end, while I may not agree with the outrage over this particular logo in comparison to everything else that the Braves do, perhaps the fact that people are outraged is a good thing.
The one thing I’m sure of though is that it’s much more complicated than “that’s racist!” or “just deal with it bro”.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and not meant to be interpreted as representative of the beliefs of ‘the blog’ as a whole.