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Stop Printing the R-Word

Publishing an anti-Native slur is a choice. It’s time for the media to stop following NFL owner Dan Snyder’s lead and take a stand.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last August, Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas wrote about a third-party poll on public perception of the name and mascot of the Washington NFL team. I won’t print it here because it’s a slur. Despite the fact that the company that conducted the poll did not provide methodology and—like the paper’s own 2016 poll on the subject—allowed respondents to self-identify as Native American, Vargas uncritically published its claim that “68 percent of the respondents were not offended by the team’s name.”

This column happened to coincide with my first week as a staff writer at The New Republic and ended up being the focus of my first story here. I’m proud of the actual argument my piece contained—that people who merely claim Native ancestry cannot be continually lumped in with actual tribal citizens when determining whether an anti-Native slur is offensive. But one aspect of that story still gnaws at me whenever I see it pop up or when I think back on it. After the piece had been edited twice over and my editor agreed that we would not publish the team name, the original headline was changed. It now reads, “Native American Imposters Keep Corrupting the ‘[Slur]’ Debate.” The reasoning I was given had to do with search engine optimization. It was not my preference, but I also did not fight against it.

Shortly after my piece went up, a Native editor I look up to at another publication reached out to me privately and took me to task for running the slur. I initially tried to reason it away, to explain that the only way to expose a slur is by reckoning with it head-on. In the past, I have worked with editors to use it cheekily in headlines as a way to point out the hypocrisy of the discourse around the word. But this wasn’t that. It was a straightforward headline on my first byline at this publication. I didn’t fight it. I came to realize I was wrong, and I had to admit as much.

My job, loosely put, is to report on Indian Country. There is no one else in the small world of New York media who is paid to regularly write and report about Native people in the capacity that I am. I think deeply about these things in my professional and personal life. I try to do justice to my subjects. I still failed to uphold my own standards. The situation itself can feel like a trap: If the slur was not in the headline, then its reach to potential readers would have been diminished by the cold algorithms that determine these kinds of things. But its presence was a contradiction. The R-word is in the headline, even as its conclusion reads: “I think all halfway decent publications and news programs should have ceased publishing and uttering the slur in all of their coverage—no matter what the NFL allows—years ago.” The search engine optimization may have helped the piece travel, but its core argument was blunted. Like I said—a trap.

The endgame, for myself and other Native people and others who want to be part of this work, is to de-normalize and abolish the use of a slur that is still uttered with the casualness of “Cowboys,” “Giants,” or “Eagles.” This is a battle against both white supremacy and the capitalist structures upholding it: Because a particularly inscrutable white billionaire paid $800 million for a sports franchise, we must wait on him to determine when this cultural blight will finally end. But in my own experience with this issue, I realized that the media is not actually beholden to the whims of Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington NFL team. We do not have to keep the R-word alive for him. Because really, if an outlet feels comfortable featuring the slur in its coverage of the team, why shouldn’t Snyder feel comfortable marketing it?

This is not a unique dilemma. On Friday, the Post editorial board published a column calling for the name to be changed, either by Snyder or the NFL. “Mr. Snyder—or, if Mr. Snyder refuses to back down from his declaration of ‘NEVER,’ the NFL—should take advantage of this singular moment in history to get on the right side of history,” the board wrote. “Change the name. NOW.” Three days before the board called for the end of the team name, sports columnist Barry Svrluga published an op-ed making the same case, revealing that while he had never publicly condemned the name, he’d quietly been protesting it by only referring to the team as “Washington” in his articles. (Svrluga did not respond to my interview request.)

But if you look above the online version of Svrluga’s article, or other versions of the piece that the paper has run before it, you’ll notice a hyperlink with the slur in glowing blue letters. That’s because the story was filed under the paper’s section titled after the team, which is filled with similar slur-filled headlines, including one from Saturday—a piece about the franchise grappling with its other racist legacies.

Once you see this level of dissonance, you can’t unsee it: Mike Carey, longtime NFL referee, avoided Washington’s games because of the name,” read a Post headline, directly beneath a section head featuring the slur. “Daniel Snyder can’t see that the future is here,” read an ESPN headline, while the sidebar promotes a story categorized by the slur in all caps. There’s a New York Times headline on a profile of Suzan Shown Harjo, who has fought for four decades to have the name removed, that does the same two-step of rejecting and using the slur simultaneously.

As a Native reporter highly interested in this subject, I’ve grown tired of the cyclical debate. Every August, as training camp rolled around, it was the same routine. Some Native folks are mad. Here’s why some of them are mad, and here’s why are some aren’t. Also, here are 16 game stories and countless features and columns and highlight videos rife with the slur. Please subscribe! So, last October, I contacted editors at the sports desks at the Post and the Times, as well as the communications departments at ESPN and NFL Network, to ask the same questions that editor had asked me two months before: How do these outlets institutionally consider the harmfulness of the slur while dealing with the reality that it remains the official moniker of a storied sports institution?

The NFL Network failed to respond to my request. Jordan Cohen, the executive director of communications for The New York Times, said, “Sorry for the delay. We’re going to decline to comment here.” ESPN’s Bill Hofheimer, the company’s senior director for communications, wrote in a chickenshit statement, “Fans recognize NFL franchises by their official names, which are also licensed trademarks. We will continue to use the official NFL nomenclature across our platforms as long as fans expect this to be the name that drives their rooting experience.”

As for the Post, my question was shuffled off to senior publicist Naseem Amini, who responded, “I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to help with this request.” Amini offered the same response when I followed up on Tuesday.

This is the context in which the editorial board’s recent piece lives. While the board does not make editorial decisions, its failure to engage with its own paper’s continued use and normalization of the slur renders its condemnation just another empty statement. It would have the word removed from the Washington NFL team’s jerseys but not from its own pages, because that, unlike the easy performative action of publishing a 500-word editorial, would be a decision with real costs, real risks, and real potential impacts.

National media institutions are never as progressive or ahead of the curve as they sell themselves. In fact, the media industry remains one of the most reactionary forces in America. Its newsrooms are overwhelmingly white, and major editorial changes take years to see the light—especially at places like ESPN and NFL Network, where lucrative TV contracts with the league stand in the way of any morality, and especially on matters regarding Native people, who are virtually invisible among the editorial leadership ranks that get tasked with such decisions.

This is in part why the Post’s call for the NFL to step in and force Snyder to change the name is a fool’s errand. It took the league four years and a national uprising against racist policing before it offered a half-ass apology to Colin Kaepernick and other players who began protesting police brutality in 2016. On the issue of the slur, the league has hidden behind polling. The Washington franchise, meanwhile, proved on Wednesday that it is capable of rejecting outdated racist displays, with ESPN reporting that the name of George Preston Marshall, the team’s original, segregationist owner, will be removed from its stadium. But on the team name, Snyder is insistent. Waiting on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or an NFL owner—in this case, one of its most recalcitrant owners—to do the right thing is the approach of someone who is not paying attention. That, or it is the act of an institution that knows its words hold little weight beyond placating its critics. Snyder and the NFL don’t give a damn what the Post editorial board thinks or writes about the name. They’re far too wealthy and legally protected to otherwise be concerned.

Using the R-word, just like not using it, is a choice. But like Svrluga’s silent stand proved, by forcing these choices to be made on an individual basis, the media institutions that continue to profit from their use are eliding their culpability in the slur’s continued existence. This also opens up journalists, especially those of color, to the whims of a hostile newsroom should a publication demand the use of the name. If more Native people held the necessary editorial leadership positions or set the standards for on-air commentary, it’s possible that more would have changed and sooner. But unlike the colonizer statues being toppled by Native people across the country, slurs cannot be fully destroyed. Until the institution hiding behind trademarks and licensing agreements lets it go, all it can be is muted. What the newspapers—as well as every sports channel and radio station that covers the Washington NFL team—could do until that day comes is simple: Just stop using the name. Writing or saying only “Washington” and “NFL team” is not hard. It’s easy, in fact. Like any other progress made in our newsrooms, it requires collective action against ownership. That, and a little bravery.