Caution: The “R Word” is a Matter of Human Rights

by Pat Shelly


Last week’s decision denying patent protection to a football team’s racist mascot image is progress of a sort.

But for Hilary Weaver, professor of Social Work at the University at Buffalo, the “R word” has impact far outside the sports arena.

Blog weaverHilary reporterPhoto









(Please note that due to the offensive nature of the name of the Washington D.C. NFL football team, I use the “R word” throughout. External links, however, may use it).


The “R Word’s” Painful Legacy

The “R word” is still in daily use. And so are the effects of its painful legacy. Hilary Weaver (Lakota) is  professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Social Work, University at Buffalo (UB). She was interviewed by the UB Reporter about the U.S. Patent Office decision to deny trademark protection for a racist sports team logo. She spoke about what the “R word” means for her family.


Shortly after joining the UB faculty, she attended a conference at a local hotel. The Buffalo Bills, Buffalo’s professional football team, were playing the Washington D.C. team. “Welcome R——-” read a huge banner in the hotel, where the visiting team was housed.


Years later, she and her two children attended a Buffalo Bisons baseball game. The opposing team was named the Indians. The home town fans’ verbal abuse of all things Indian was insulting and hateful. Her efforts to instill pride in her children about their Native American ancestry were being challenged by this overwhelming display of hostility.


In the beginning of a Buffalo News Buffalo News interview with Weaver, columnist Don Esmonde writes, “Of course it is personal. How could it not be?…Yes, it’s personal when [she] is raising two kids in what she hopes will be a more tolerant, less ignorant America. [And] finally, it was in-your-face personal, the time when Weaver’s world collided head-on with [owner of the Washington D.C. football team] Dan Snyder’s racial myopia.”


Why the “R Word” is a Matter of Human Rights

We are all entitled to our human rights, including those pertaining to protection against discrimination and hate speech:

– Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights.   They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
– Article 6 assures everyone of equal protection before the law.
– Article 8 applies to equal access to legal remedy.
– Article 12  guarantees protection against attacks on one’s honor or reputation.
– Article 15 states that everyone has the right to a nationality.

It is appropriate that the United States, through the agency of the federal Office of Patents and Trademarks, took action to redress a denigrating action that breaches the assurance of dignity, conscience and community. Human rights is a framework with which we can measure just how observant our behaviors, policies, and practices are in honoring those rights.

The Patent Office Decision Against a Racist Logo

On June 23, 2014, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office denied any protection of the logo of an NFL team’s mascot as a trademark. Why? The successful suit was based on language in the U.S. Trademark Act, prohibiting protection of anything that may denigrate a person, institution, or belief. A wider application of this ruling could mean that federal laws will not be used to support any efforts to make profit off racial slurs.

Ongoing Challenges to the “R Word”

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has a comprehensive policy paper on the issue; it includes a record of successful efforts in changing the names of national and college sports teams. Such efforts began in 1968 – thirty-six years ago!


BLOG weaverHilary headlineEndingLegacy


Change the Mascot aims to rid society of the disrespectful and belittling names and mascots of the NFL’s Washington D.C. football team and the Cleveland Indians American League baseball team among others. Despite the U.S. Patent Office victory, the mascot remains, even though it cannot be trademarked. Sales of caps and jerseys with the mascot still continue.  Many colleges and municipal sports teams have changed names in order to remove the stigma of racism from this arena.

One of the latest protests against racism took place at the University of North Dakota during Springfest , when a group of students wore racially offensive T-shirts showing a cartoon head with a feather headdress and a beer bong (funnel) in his mouth. It was particularly offensive given the high rate of addiction to alcohol among Native Americans. The university dropped its “Fighting Sioux” nickname only in 2012.

Proud To Be

In June 2014, an ad called “Proud To Be” aired during the National Basketball Finals.



This same ad was denied any air time during the National Football League season. It is most effective in its portrayal of the diverse cultures and indigenous nations that are present within the boundaries of the United States. At its close, the narrator says: “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t…” is the “R word.” This is shown quite vividly by presenting an image of the Washington D.C. team’s helmet sitting in the middle of a football field.


The power of language, of naming, is recognized by all societies. Experiencing the racism shown by the use the “R word” can be traumatizing. As a Chinese proverb says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

BLOG weaverHilary ChangeMascots-icon4Directions

What Do You Think?

How have you successfully challenged racist names? How can allies (anti-racist white people, for example) assist in confronting racism? What success story or example of progress can you share?


Anzalone, C. (2014, June 26). ‘R word’ patent decision strikes chord with social work professor. UB Reporter. Retrieved from

Burleson, A. (2014, May 12). ‘Siouxper drunk’ t-shirts draw condemnation at UND. Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Retrieved from

Change the Mascot, with NCAI. (2014). Proud to Be [Video file]. Retrieved from

Esmonde, D. (2104, June 28). UB professor feels ‘R word’ sting. Buffalo News. Retrieved from

National Congress of American Indians. (2013, October). Ending the legacy of racism in sorts and the era of harmful. “Indian” sports mascots. Retrieved from

United Nations (n.d.). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from

Vargas, T. (2014, June 18). Federal agency cancels “R word” trademark registration, says name is disparaging. The Washington Post. Retrieved from


Also of interest:

Profile of Hilary Weaver

Bisco, J. (2013, Fall). Indigenizing Academies: Promoting Native American presence in higher education. Mosaics: News from the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Retrieved from



  • This post brings up a great topic for conversation. The use of this word (in addition to other derogatory terms) is a perfect representation of the process through which traumatized populations go through, and the power of the oppressors. Trauma is not only experienced through violence but also through cultural degradation. Oppressors can control the oppressed in many ways, but one of the most pervasive tools oppressors use often involve the dismantling of cultural identity. By “naming” a culture through the use of these words, the culture is attacked from the inside out. Their identity, their fundamental makeup, is synonymous with something negative. Not only do outside players see the culture as bad but the culture in question can begin to internalize this identity. This type of process is incredibly damaging and can cause generations of harm.

    This article reminds us that words are powerful, and human rights are often ignored, no matter how small these transgressions may seem. One way a culture can combat this is through education and naming of these transgressions. While some of those outside of the oppressed culture may not be able to understand this at first, its important that the oppressed begin to heal by being able to remind the rest of the world of their suffering. The video in this article is extremely powerful and is a wonderful representation of the process of taking back the power.

    While the native peoples featured in this article are doing much work on this subject, it’s also important that non native allies support this campaign. The nature of oppression is that one side is out of power (the oppressed) and one side is in power (oppressors). By becoming allies in this process, the harm of power differentials can be reduced, and the oppressed can begin to heal.

    With that said, this article is a great reminder of the importance of movements like these and how all of us, whether natives or not, have a responsibility to share this information and help work to heal from the traumas of the past.

    • Thanks, Sarah, for pointing out the role that allies play in confronting racism and addressing intergenerational trauma. I too find the video by “Change the Mascot” an effective defining of identity and naming. Please continue sharing.

  • I am (tardily) adding a comment I received via email from John Keesler, a PhD candidate in the UB School of Social Work. He adds an important note – That the “R” word has meant ‘retarded’ and used to disparage those with intellectual disabilities.
    Thank you, John!

    Received July 8, 2014
    “Good Morning Pat –

    I feel compelled to comment on your recent blog –

    The “R word” has significant implications for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families as well as the larger IDD community. I am not sure if it is used in the general media to refer to Red Skins, however, it is for those with IDD (referring to retarded). I am not sure if you were aware of this, but I wanted to bring it to your attention. I was slightly confused by the title referring to the “R word” and Hillary’s picture.


  • I agree with everyone and Dr. Weaver. Words, labels, and images are very powerful in society. They have the power to traumatize, hurt, or empower. The video was a wonderful way to show the culture as it is in a personalized and unique way. We need to advocate and recognize when words, labels are stigmatizing and hurtful with the hope of removing them, increasing awareness or both. It reminds me of a large statue that stood in my hometown. The statue was of a Seneca Native American holding a can of beer. The statue was huge and towered over the town. It was such a horrible, stigmatizing, unfair, untrue, and hurtful image that i am sure upset many. The good news is someone bought it and had it removed and eventually moved it to the reservation where the beer can was removed but the statue stands strong and can be easily seen from the express way. It is taken care of and well maintained as a piece of that culture. We all need to be mindful of the words we use and images that we paint or support as they can be tools that hurt rather than heal.

  • The video shows the strength and viability of Native cultures, and your example illustrates the way in which a negative stereotype -the statue with a beer can – was adapted to become a symbol of this strength. Resistance takes many forms!

    Here is an insightful Washington Post commentary, published Sept. 17, 2014:
    “Stop congratulating yourself for opposing the Redskins’ name. You’re not helping the real problem”
    by Robert O’Donnell –
    The subtitle, “We’re finally paying attention to Native Americans, but it’s for the wrong reason,” outlines the complexity of issues that exist in over 560 independent indigenous nations within the U.S. “The truth is, if the Redskins’ name changed today, the lives of Native Americans would be just as desperate as they were yesterday.”
    I recommend it for its overview of issues in Native America that have more immediate and visceral impacts on its members than that of the sports mascot.

  • Here is another ad from the Change the Mascot campaign, who produced the “Proud to Be” video embedded in this post – it is called “No Honor in Racism” –

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