Racism in branding

This story was originally published by AIGA Colorado.

Each year we seem to hear about the issue of racism in sports brands—par­tic­u­larly those with Native American mas­cots such as the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta Braves, and Kansas City Chiefs. Throughout the his­tory of each of these fran­chises, their logos have been altered. USA Today recently showed the evo­lu­tion of the logos for each team.


You’ll notice how the Atlanta Braves logo has depicted var­i­ous iter­a­tions of a Native American from cherry red-colored skin to a “scream­ing Indian,” and then finally drop­ping the icon alto­gether and replaced with a tom­a­hawk. The team has kept the Braves name which still is offen­sive to many people.

Chicago Blackhawks logo

Washington Redskins logo

Some teams have decided to keep Native American imagery while get­ting rid of red fleshtones.

Cleveland Indians logo

Kansas City chiefs logo

Other teams have replaced offen­sive imagery with other icons or let­ter­ing. But is this enough? In an inter­view with Co. Design, National Congress of American Indians’ Deputy Direc­tor Robert Holden explained that the “neu­tral­ity” of let­ter­ing and icons is purely subjective. “The team still owns the mas­cot or logo. Without a mean­ing­ful dia­logue with Native peo­ples that includes tribal offi­cials, Native edu­ca­tors, and oth­ers, these ‘changes’ are disin­gen­u­ous at best. They cer­tainly have not com­mu­ni­cated a will­ing­ness to broach the sub­ject with Native peo­ples. That gives rea­son to think that they are not vol­un­tar­ily going to change, and believe that their PR and brand­ing team can get away with what they may think is a more benign form of racism and stereotyping.”

This racism in brand­ing presents a unique design chal­lenge and an oppor­tu­nity to solve a prob­lem that has been around for decades. Where do we draw the line between tra­di­tion, her­itage, and racism? Is there a solu­tion that can honor long­time fans yet be respect­ful and non-offensive to Native peo­ples? Who should be involved in the design process if these team logos were to be rebranded? Clearly the con­tro­versy won’t be going away any time soon but thank­fully the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues. It will be inter­est­ing to see how and if these brands will evolve and how design will pro­vide the solu­tion to this impor­tant challenge.