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The Threat of White Supremacy

Redface, like blackface, is a sin of white supremacy

Yet, people don’t recognize it and perpetuate the racism

Blackface is a damnable blot on the nation’s history. Today many Americans recognize it, belatedly, as the abomination it always was.

Redface, too, is a damnable blot, though so common in our time it is nearly invisible.

This contradiction puzzles Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He is a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and lives in Virginia, where he has followed the burgeoning blackface scandal in state government.

“I saw this coming down and then the swift and raucous reaction to it,” he said. “And being here in Northern Virginia, where the Washington football team is revered, people don’t give a second thought to fans putting paint and feathers on themselves at the stadium.

“The connection was immediately obvious to me, and yet there is not a word of it in the conversation about the Virginia government and blackface. And it just mystifies me that people don’t see the connection.”

Blackface and redface are not the same, but they are fruit of the same poisonous tree — namely, white supremacy.

So why is one castigated and the other emulated? Gover thinks it is partly about demographics. African-Americans are nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 census, while Native Americans are just under 1 percent.

“You can easily go a day and not see another Indian in most places in the D.C. area and throughout Virginia, so we’re invisible,” Gover said. “At least real Indians are invisible, while these imaginary Indians on the football helmets are very visible. So I understand why people don’t make the connection.”

One difference is blackface is meant to demean while some perpetrators of redface actually believe they honor Native Americans “when they pretend to be Indians,” Gover said. “They’ve been doing it for 250 years.”

Redface is as old as the republic: The protesters at the Boston Tea Party in 1773 dressed as Mohawks as a way of saying they were of this continent — Englishmen no longer.

“Indians play a different role in the culture, and the appropriation of Native imagery and the use of redface is in that way a different phenomenon than what’s going on with blackface,” Gover said.

Blackface retains the ability to shock, while perhaps the most shocking thing about redface is that many Americans don’t find it shocking at all.

They see it regularly at stadiums and on TV screens. Certain fans of the NFL teams in Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Missouri, and the MLB teams in Atlanta and Cleveland and the NHL team in Chicago engage in it.

“If you go to a Washington football game, you’re going to see some clown who’s dressed up, who’s painted himself red and who’s wearing multicolored feathers,” Gover said. “And so that is clearly not respectful of Native traditions or honoring Native people. And there is always going to be someone like that.”

Gover’s definition of redface is more expansive than war paint. He says you can find it in the team name of the Washington NFL club and see it in Cleveland baseball’s recently retired Chief Wahoo logo and hear it in the singsong cheer of the so-called “tomahawk chop.”

That’s the one where fans of teams using American Indian imagery imitate a supposed war chant while rhythmically moving their forearms in an open-palm chopping motion.

The custom began at Florida State football games decades ago, by most accounts, and spread to Atlanta when former FSU star Deion Sanders played for the big league baseball team there in the early 1990s. That’s how Sanders remembers it spreading.

And what of Native Americans who say the chant is racist? Sanders prefers not to think about that.

“I’m not into the racist stuff,” he said. “That’s not my lane, my man. I’m sorry, I’m a happy person. I’m a blessed dude. That’s where I live.”

An investigative report by an agency hired on behalf of the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, said the students from Covington Catholic High School did not engage in any racist or offensive behavior last month in a newsmaking encounter with a member of the Omaha Tribe, although the report did mention that the students performed the tomahawk chop.

Gover believes the chop is clearly racist but says he can’t condemn the Covington kids because they were just doing what they’ve seen others do for their whole lives.

“They didn’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s be racist and make up this song,’ ” Gover said. “They’ve seen it and they assume it’s OK because it’s part of the popular culture.”

Sure enough, later that same weekend, when the New England Patriots played the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, fans there performed the chop and the chant on prime-time television with nary a mention on the broadcast.

“What most people know about Native Americans comes from their education and from popular culture, which is almost entirely wrong,” Gover said. “So why should we be surprised that most Americans don’t really know much about Indians that is true?

“I guess I would say that if you really want to honor us, learn something about the history of the country. And in doing that, you are going to learn something about your own history that is tremendously important.”

Stadiums are often filled with people who like to think of themselves as flag-waving, anthem-standing patriots. Wave a foam finger: We’re No. 1.

“But it becomes very uncomfortable, if you’re the greatest country in the history of the planet, to reflect on two things,” Gover said. “One is the displacement and killing of Native Americans. The other, of course, is the enslavement of Africans.”

Which brings us back to the genuine connection between blackface and redface. They are twin blots on our nation’s history — one that we are only now coming to grips with, and one that hides in plain sight at a stadium near you.

Erik Brady is a freelance writer who retired in 2019 from USA Today as the last member of the newspaper’s founding generation in 1982.