Skip to main content

New Republic - June 25, 2020

"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."

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? ...
Read full report at New Republic