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King on Sporting Culture and the “Change the Name” Campaign

C. Richard King, Professor and Chair of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago, gave a keynote lecture on “Origins, Interpretations and Impacts” of Indigenous imagery in North American sporting culture on November 8.

McGill’s First Peoples’ House, along with SSMU’s Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, Tomas Jirousek, brought Professor King to Montreal to present his research on the racialization and appropriation of Indigenous imagery in sports. Considering the success of the “Change the Name” Campaign in the Fall 2018 SSMU Referendum, Professor King directly addressed McGill’s history of racialized team names, mascots, and other appropriated images in sports.

Professor King has dedicated 25 years to understanding the racial politics of culture and Indigeneity in sports and media. King has written several books dedicated to this subject, including Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy (2001), Native Athletes in Sport and Society (2005), and, most recently, Redskins: Insult and Brand (2015).

The co-opting of Indigeneity by the West has resulted in images which misrepresent Indigenous people and cause them harm. Feelings of invisibility and fraudulent identity are some of the more widely-recognized harms that these dehumanizing images, appropriated symbols, names, and mascots have on Indigenous peoples.

“Misrecognition” refers to the inability of broader society to understand Indigenous people as part of a present reality. King pointed out how phrases such as “you don’t look like an Indian” and stereotyped images contribute to the erasure and denial of Indigenous voices.

During the Q&A period, McGill student Ella Martindale asked Professor King how one should respond to people who claim that the name does not refer to Indigenous people at all, but rather to James McGill’s Scottish heritage. Several other students spoke to the arguments they had heard against the name change, claiming that “R*dmen” has nothing to do with Indigenous people, and is part of McGill’s history and traditions. In response, King discussed how this rhetoric echoes a white-settler ownership over appropriated images while denying the structural violence that this name represents and contributes to.

King also expressed the downfalls of thinking about race and power simply in terms of bad intentions, bad attitudes, and bad ideas. He believes that if something is done without any of the aforementioned in mind, then it is not bad or racist. This definition of racism directs attention and blame to the wrong place: individual action, rather than a system of racial violence. By focusing on who is to blame for the perpetuation of violence, the broader context of McGill’s “R*dmen” name becomes lost.

Jirousek asked King what “is to be done after the vote to tackle the lingering generative qualities of these images?” In response, Professor King emphasized how McGill can incorporate practices of reconciliation in its institution. King suggested providing the tools for students, athletes, and faculty to inform themselves of Indigenous peoples’ histories. In fact, King said that “if McGill sees dehumanization as a bad thing, then it has an obligation to its students and most importantly its Indigenous students to address this issue directly.”