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  • Writer's pictureCarimah Townes

Q&A: Showing Solidarity in the Fight Against Racist Mascots

(Originally published on November 29, 2022)

(Credit: Rebrand Racist Mascots)

Allyship has been critical in the fight against racist team names and mascots that stereotype and harm Native Americans. Josh Silver is an ally who co-founded Rebrand Washington Football in 2015, to support Native Americans’ ongoing campaign to change the racist team name in D.C. Following the official name change this year, Silver and his co-founders changed their name to Rebrand Racist Mascots (RRM), in order to “[continue] the positive trend of retiring anti-Indigenous mascots, beginning a half century ago at Stanford University.”

We spoke to Silver about solidarity, his experiences as an ally and organizer, and the ongoing efforts to rename racist mascots nationally and locally.

The Inclusion Playbook: How did you get involved in this movement as an ally?

Josh Silver: I was a big fan of the Washington Football Team since the 70’s. I felt like I really owed something to Native Americans, because in some ways I was unwittingly contributing to the noise pollution. I hooked up with Ian Washburn and Bill Mosley; one of us lives in Virginia, one in Maryland, one in Washington, D.C. We were small—just three white dudes that were fans of the Washington Football Team for a long time.

IP: What steps did you take to support the movement?

(Credit: Rebrand Racist Mascots)

JS: It was an organizing and education effort. First, we established a website, name, and email. And we gathered petitions. You get people signing your petition and then you present your position to people in power. In this case it was Dan Snyder. When you stand in front of a metro station for two hours, thousands of people pass by. Ian was good about having a visible presence. We had t-shirts, signs, a table, and petition forms. In a period of two hours, you would get maybe 100-150 signatures. But thousands of people who were getting educated passed by. You do this over a period of years and you’re literally educating tens of thousands of people.

I started asking people for their emails and where they lived. I created databases, because we were trying to get the Montgomery County Council to pass a resolution [for Snyder to] change the name. Once a year, we delivered petitions to Snyder and we made it a precedent. Some years we got local TV or radio out.

IP: How else did you gather support over the years?

(Credit: Rebrand Racist Mascots)

JS: We tried to get resolutions passed by city councils like Montgomery County, Arlington County, and Washington, D.C. We had very important support from churches and synagogues. [We just tried] to figure out all of the pressure points. I can’t say we were responsible for the name change, but we were definitely a contributing factor. A lot of Native American advocates like Suzan Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse were the pioneers. A lot of the pioneers were Native women.

IP: Did you find that athletes or coaches were invested in the name change efforts?

JS: It varied. There were some famous Washington Football players that were very resistant. But then you found some players who were supportive: Tre’ Johnson and Charles Mann. Towards the end of this, some sports columnists came out in support of the name change: Thomas Boswell, Barry Svrluga. The Washington Post editorial page advocated for the name change, even though the paper itself kept using the name.

IP: Was there a distinct turning point?

(Credit: Rebrand Racist Mascots)

JS: Right after the tragic loss of George Floyd, there was a lot of momentum to change the name. I think that was one of the triggering events. The corporate sector would not have [recognized] this issue if advocates had not put it on the table over a period of decades. All of this built to a crescendo like water building up behind a dam, and then with George Floyd the dam burst.

We got the Cleveland Baseball Team and the Washington Football Team. I hope Atlanta, Kansas City, and Chicago are next.

IP: The statement about RRM’s rebrand says that “brandishing Native American stereotypes damages Native Americans and non-Natives alike.” Can you explain how this issue also impacts non-Natives?

JS: A non-Native will form stereotypes, [such as] “brave” or “a fighter who isn’t necessarily smart”. That limits how you deal with Native Americans. Using that stereotype, you might list a Native American as a security guard, but you’d never list them as a poet or a mathematician. You’re basically diminishing the richness of their communities and diminishing the potential of their communities. From the point of view of an ally, one of the very important first steps is to get rid of the stereotypes. They limit engagement with a minority group. You’re only slotting them for certain positions in society.

People should enjoy Native Americans for who they actually are. They have cultures and traditions that are worth listening to—not through the lens of Dan Snyder. Ask them how they want to contribute.

IP: Since the name change in Washington, D.C., are you seeing progress or momentum elsewhere?

(Credit: Rebrand Racist Mascots)

JS: There was a big Cleveland victory; there was local activism there. High schools have a lot of courageous activities going on. I say courageous because there are a lot of advocates who get threatened, even at that level. This is going on all around the country, because unfortunately, this racist phenomenon is national. You find it in every locality in every state.

IP: What’s next for RRM?

JS: We hope to stand in solidarity with advocates all around the country. Realistically, the next step for RRM occurs when the Atlanta Baseball Team comes to town, the Kansas City Football team comes to town, and the Chicago Hockey Team. We’ll be out there demonstrating. It’s very important for us to say that’s not ok. I don’t live in Atlanta, but this is a harmful stereotype and it has a national impact.

We’re still in the process of figuring out how to effectively [support other advocates in other cities] and really help out. We run RRM as a small group, so we can’t be in all the different states.

IP: What do you say to fans or critics who are deeply tied to a specific team and worry that the spirit of the team will be lost if a name or tradition is changed?

JS: You hear that. “You’re taking away our team! You’re taking away all this history.” Just put yourself in the shoes of the victims. It’s awfully demeaning. It just goes to your soul as an oppressed person. I can understand being loyal to a team. I was a big fan of the Washington Football Team. But if someone comes up to me and says, “You know, waving [a racist flag] isn’t a good idea,” I would destroy it. I might feel bad about it for a day or two, but then I'll get over it and start rooting for the team just as vigorously. It doesn’t mean I’m erasing accomplishments. They’re still there. You’ll get over it.

Every once in a while, when we’re standing in front of a metro station, people will come up to us and say “You’re white! Why are you doing this?” My response is: “I’m a human being and this is wrong.“

This interview is Part 2 of our Native American Heritage Month series about racist mascots. Read Part 1 with Native advocate Mary Phillips here.

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