Our country is no stranger to this question. In recent years we have heard many debates about whether a name should change or not. The most famous example would be the argument involving the NFL team, the Washington Redskins.
People tend to get pretty opinionated and heated around conversations like this, and I suspect the most recent initiative here in Denver to be the same. A Denver neighborhood, whose name was passed down by the Airport that once stood in it’s place, is now at the heart of this debate on a local level. Stapleton is a name that most Denver residents know only to refer to the fairly new and affluent neighborhood on the East Side of our city.
I was at a local church beginning my journey of disorientation at the feet of Black Lives Matter activists when I first heard someone suggest that the name of the Stapleton neighborhood should be changed. It was there that I learned about Benjamin Stapleton–Denver’s Mayor elected in 1923. Stapleton was running as the candidate from the political party known by many simply as the Klan–The KKK.
So, what’s in a name? Most of Denver’s residents (myself included until fairly recently) have no idea that the name of the neighborhood came from the KKK Mayor of Denver. Certainly the people who live in Stapleton would be the first to say that they did not move there as a pledge of allegiance to the racist and all together hateful ideals of the KKK. But still, many people are passionately calling for the name to be changed–and I agree with them.
It is no doubt a symbolic gesture, to name a neighborhood–building–airport–etc. after a person. Many will point to this as their reasoning for wanting to leave the name alone. They may say that the symbol has lost its relevance and changing the name would be giving in to the push to become overly “Politically Correct”. Those who are offended by the name, according to these people, are being offended by things that don’t really affect their real lives.
This argument may seem convincing, but take a moment to think about the power of symbolism. We see it everywhere. The American Flag. The Cross. The National Anthem. Our religious Creeds. These are all symbols that (by the above mentioned logic) shouldn’t impact anyone’s real life, but we know this to be the furthest thing from the truth. These symbols have tremendous power to unify people in ways that essays and arguments fail to accomplish. There is something deeply powerful about symbols. Symbols are often used to engergize a community around hope. Symbols are also used to oppress.
It is time for us, as Americans, to practice intentional critique. We should be willing to assess the implications of the symbols around us. For most white citizens of Denver, Stapleton is only a neighborhood, but for many People of Color it is a name that memorializes the pillars that helped build a system designed to oppress. It is tempting for me, as a white man, to ignore the cries of my friends calling for the change in favor of tension-less illusions of peace–the kind of peace defined by a lack of feeling uncomfortable. But I am learning to listen. I am learning to be willing to be uncomfortable. I am learning to stand beside my friends and ask the same question they are–what impact does this symbol have on the spirit of our community? It is a symbol rooted in hatred, discrimination, oppression, and violence. The impact lacks all potential for peace.
So, what’s in a name? In this case, it contains the opportunity for a community to take a step toward hope. I doubt very much that anyone would defend the character of Benjamin Stapleton. This is an opportunity for our city to take a step–a pretty simple step at that–toward a new direction of true Peace and Hope for everyone in our community. Let’s change that name.