I laughed out loud this morning reading this headline from The Washington Post, a reaction to their poll yesterday finding 9 out of 10 Native Americans don’t care about the name “Washington Redskins.”
So yeah, it turns out that for the past three years, when countless thought pieces and editorials demanded the Redskins change their name because of the anguish and deep offense felt by Native Americans, that was a load of bull. It’s actually offensive because it just is, and if actual Indians don’t care they just need to get with the program and listen to their betters.
In many ways, I’m happy the Redskins controversy has played out the way it has. It’s exposed a serious divide in the way most Americans and many liberal thought leaders and journalists approach the issue of racially insensitive language to begin with.
I suspect that if you were to ask the average American what’s wrong with using a racial slur, the response would be simple: it makes another human being feel degraded and offended. There’s nothing magically evil or good about words outside of how it makes other people feel. That’s why we stopped using terms like “Negro” and “colored” even though they used to be non-pejorative terms; black Americans made it clear they’d rather retire them and white Americans were happy to respect their feelings.
But for many on the left, what is more important is to address the systematic racism or personal racism behind a racial slur. That is to say, using a racial slur isn’t wrong primarily because it offends, but because it reveals the mindset or power imbalance that leads to someone using a racial slur. Racist slurs aren’t a problem, they might argue, they’re a symptom of a problem.
In many ways the emerging approach is admirable in its zeal to eradicate the source of racism rather than its expressions. But it also leads to the current absurdity where whether the Redskins name causes anguish among Native Americans is rather besides the point. What’s really important is Redskins owner Dan Snyder‘s insensitivity (to a word almost no one is sensitive about) and obstinance (in the face of activists that lack the support of their own community), and the history behind the term (that no one alive remembers).
(It also feeds into the all-too-common double standard where racially insensitive comments from people on the “right side” of racism are brushed aside. After all, if the purpose of word policing to eradicate racism, denouncing liberal allies like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton only hurts the cause. But that’s a post for another day.)
As a result, you saw a lot of explanations from white journalists yesterday of why “redskin” actually is offensive, even though actual Native Americans could care less (I’m told in conventional liberal parlance this is called “whitesplaining”). Here’s one from The Nation‘s Dave Zirin, the same genius who thinks that the Seattle Seahawks called that goal-line pass play in the 2015 Super Bowl because they’re racist.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) May 19, 2016
Just forward this image and send it to friends when they tell you that R**skins is a term of honor and respect. pic.twitter.com/DPyeTov2j9
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) May 19, 2016
Let’s set aside for a second the whole paternalistic white man’s burden thing going on. The Washington Post did an entire story on the history of the term “redskin” that gives a much more historically balanced take on the issue. Notably, the first two instances are a) uttered by Indians or b) used positively by a U.S. president to refer to Indians.
1769: The first unchallenged use of the word “redskin” occurs when a British lieutenant colonel translates a letter from an Indian chief promising safe passage if the officer visited his tribe in the Upper Mississippi Valley.
“I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life,” Chief Mosquito said in his letter, according to a 2005 study by Ives Goddard, the Smithsonian Institution’s senior linguist emeritus.
Aug. 22, 1812: At a Washington reception for several Native Americans, President James Madison refers to Indians as “red people” or “my red children,” prompting Little Osage Chief Sans Oreilles (No Ears) to voice his support for the administration: “I know the manners of the whites and the red skins.” Then, Sioux Chief French Crow also pledged loyalty: “I am a red-skin,but what I say is the truth, and notwithstanding I came a long way I am content, but wish to return from here.”
Indeed, the linguistic study the Post partly based its article off of states unequivocally that “the actual origin of the word is entirely benign and reflects more positive aspects of relations between Indians and whites.” The Smithsonian’s senior linguist Professor Ives Goddard concludes, “The word ‘redskin’ reflects a genuine Native American idiom that was used in several languages… this terminology was developed by Native Americans to label categories of the new ethnic and political reality they confronted with the coming of the Europeans.”
The problem with Zirin’s logic is that if “redskin” was just a generic term for Indians at the time, you could indeed find dozens of horrible things said about them using that term simply because people said horrible things about Indians. Two hundred years from now, you could find hundreds of tweets saying nasty things about “blacks” or “Mexicans” and determine they were racist terms. But you could only do so by ignoring the many instances where they were used in a positive or neutral context.
More to the point, let us assume the word was a slur two hundred years ago. Words change in meaning and context all the time, going from offensive to unoffensive and back again based on usage. If historians are accurate and “redskin” went from an affirmation to an offensive slur, are Native Americans really required to abide by the second definition until the end of days? When they choose not to (as they appear to have now), do we really need the media to salt old wounds and feign outrage on their behalf?
I will give some resilient critics of the Redskins name some credit, in that some do still see the debate in terms of the offense it causes. Even if it is true that the vast majority of Indians don’t care about the name, they argue, doesn’t good manners and empathy require that we heed the complaints of the minority? WaPo‘s Dan Steinberg puts it nicely: “If you invite 10 friends to a dinner party and one leaves in tears, was the night a success?”
Well first let me say that this analogy is imperfect. If I were in a room of ten people and one was an Indian who was offended by the use of “redskin,” I’d absolutely stop. It costs me very little to do so, and I value their friendship more than the need to make some silly stand about political correctness. In short, I’m not a jerk.
But if it would cost me hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing and if for over fifty years all my friends and family knew me as “that redskin guy,” I probably wouldn’t. His feelings matter to me, but not enough to torpedo my bottom line. If a U.S. federal agency then tried to use government force to make me stop saying “redskin” based off of that friend’s complaint, well, I might tell him to go to do something both impossible and unprintable.
It’s also imperfect because it muddles exactly how many people we’re talking about here. That one in ten figure is just among Native Americans. If you screamed the word “redskin” in a room of a thousand Americans, just one person would feel personally offended. There are still a lot of Native Americans who feel that way, but we’re taking about a vast minority of a vast minority.
So to modify the original analogy, if I were in a room of ten Native Americans, and one stood up and said “That’s offensive to Native Americans!” and the other nine laughed and shrugged, I’d probably just assume that one guy was kind of a killjoy who didn’t really speak for the rest of them. And yes, I’d continue to use the word “redskin.”
That might sound harsh, but we live in a world where adult college students call the police and need counseling because they saw the words “Trump 2016.” I don’t believe that public or private discourse should be subject to a heckler’s veto, where any word that any amount of people find offensive should be proscribed, no matter how specious their arguments or small their constituency. At some point, these things need to be subject to debate rather than blind obedience.
There is such a thing as hypersensitivity, and acquiescing to any and all requests to police your speech only serves to foster an environment where anyone can claim victimhood for the most minor of offenses. And now it appears that racial arsonists have decided to simply claim victimhood on minorities’ behalf, whether they like it or not.
[Image via screengrab]
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.