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Bryce Miller: College professor Joely Proudfit weighs reasons, wait for Washington's NFL name change

The San Diego Union-Tribune — By Bryce Miller The San Diego Union-Tribune

Aug. 01-- SAN DIEGO-Fights for societal change are not only waged in lavish boardrooms among billionaires, as happened when the defiant owner of Washington D.C.'s NFL team begrudgingly agreed to change a racially offensive nickname.

The fact that Dan Snyder caved only when naming rights check-writer FedEx threatened to rip its name off of FedEx Field reminded us about the power of cash over conscience.

Sometimes, though, the struggle for what's right plays out in a first grade after-school program.

Joely Proudfit, a California State University San Marcos professor in the American Indian Studies program who founded and directs the California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center, found herself stunned by a story she learned by happenstance.

Proudfit enrolled her daughter in a program where kids formed a rock band. Six months later when they played for parents, mom asked about the names of her bandmates. She said she did not know, because the other kids stopped talking to her.

The day the five or six kids came together, one boy wore a Washington hat. When the brave 6-year-old explained that the "R-word," as Proudfit references it, is "very hurtful to Native Americans and I'm Native American," the other kids rallied around the boy and shut her out.

"She has been raised to know right from wrong and not look at skin color as a deficit, but to see beautiful diversity," said Proudfit, 52, a Presidential appointee of Barack Obama to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education in 2016. "She knows what the Washington 'R' team is. The boy was defensive and the other kids rallied around him and dismissed her point of view.

"It was supposed to be a fun, after-school program and they wouldn't talk to her because she had the audacity to say, 'That hurts.' "

When you think, "It's just a mascot" ... or "It really honors Native Americans" ... or "Keep the political correctness nonsense out of sports" ... stop. Unless you're Native American, you don't get to moderate the discussion or evaluate the debate.

To those who oppose the conversations, it signals the power of privilege for those-myself absolutely included-who benefit from more economic tools, more access to opportunity and more graying protections.

"When people say, 'Hey, what's the big deal? Keep politics out of sports,' I'm like, 'Yes, please. Can you keep culture out of it while you're at it? Can you keep racism and oppression out of it, too?' " Proudfit said. "Yes, let's get on the same page on all of that.

"There's no way to use racialized mascots of human beings. If it was any other group of people, it just wouldn't work."

The fact that it took the death of George Floyd from a horrifying, narrative-shredding knee of a Minneapolis police officer to finally strip away an abhorrent NFL name that's indisputably offensive stuns.

"We've known this for a long time-it's a dictionary-defined racial epithet." said Proudfit, who is Luiseno/Payomkawichum-the indigenous people from the region where the CSU San Marcos campus is located. "So what took so long? Why now? Because racism isn't profitable.

"It's like the n-word. That was around for so long and people used it like it's nothing. Right now, in most circles, it's shocking to hear that word. We hope the same thing happens for all these other racial epithets."

The Black Lives Movement grabbed America by the shoulders, shaking much of it from disconnected and disinterested slumber. Slowly, more are understanding walks made in different shoes. They're realizing the perceptions of others are shaped by years of unique experiences. They're shedding the absurdity and audacity of one race assuming it can explain the root thinking of another.

Proudfit was raised in poverty, the daughter of heroin-addicted parents. Her mother bounced from one minimum-wage factory job to another. The family experienced homelessness, eviction notices and unrelenting hunger.

To help the family survive, Proudfit swept floors at a liquor store to buy basic groceries.

"I can't even smell bologna now," she said. "If it's around I'm like, 'Nah, I'm good.' "

Differences in racial perceptions and opportunities revealed themselves through television.

"I'm a kid of the '70s," Proudfit said. "All kids shared the same kind of pop culture then, right? I'd watch the same things everybody else did. Old black and white (reruns) of 'F Troop,' 'The Mickey Mouse Club,' 'The Munsters,' 'The Brady Bunch,' 'I Dream of Jeannie.'

"I wanted to be Marcia Brady, like everyone else. But you never saw yourself reflected in that. As a Native American, you felt like such an outsider. Where do I fit in this world?"

Blending academics and race allowed Proudfit to find a voice, shape minds and challenge dusty conventions.

She's willing and ready to challenge anyone who thinks sports mascots representing indigenous people remains OK-be it the Cleveland Indians, the Florida State Seminoles or, yes, the San Diego State Aztecs.

"You have people chiming in who aren't really listening," Proudfit said about the Aztecs. "If they were listening, they would hear that people do not want to be racialized mascots. Just because you take a racialized mascot of an indigenous population that exists hundreds or thousands of miles away from San Diego, doesn't make it any less painful.

"Let's celebrate the opportunity for the alumni, the students, the sponsors to select a whole new mascot to celebrate the time we're in now."

Conversations continue, in ways they never have before.

Are we willing to listen?

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