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As a fan of tradition, my knee-jerk reaction to the Washington Redskins controversy — should the name be changed out of respect for offended Native Americans? — was, well, knee-jerk.
As in, good grief, must we change every word to please every offended group?
Moreover, as an alum of Florida State University (Go ’Noles!), whose mascot is the Seminole, I’m accustomed to thinking of the invocation of Native Americans as a compliment. The best athletes and the winning-est teams wish nothing more than to display the qualities we associate with Native Americans: fierce, brave and noble.
There’s surely no insult intended by those cheering for the Redskins. Finally, haven’t we come far enough not to take everything so personally?
Spoken like a true paleface.
My more-considered response is that, yes, we should — under certain circumstances — relinquish beloved tradition to the mature moment. This seems to be the sentiment of President Obama, who recently said that if he were the team owner, he would consider changing the name.
Understandable as it is for fans to resist changing the name of their team, loyalty to a name isn’t really the point. The point is that “redskin,” unlike the Native American-related names of other teams, refers to a physical characteristic. It is implicitly racial and, through its usage, has been explicitly racist. We needn’t wander far into the maze of other offensive terms, many once considered humorous, that would be instantly unacceptable today.
Out of respect for my own survival, I’ll skip examples except as they pertain to my own skin. Since much of my kin hails from the land of shamrocks and leprechauns, let’s tweak Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” to reflect a familiar stereotype — the “Drunken Irish.”
Surely nothing in my childhood would suggest otherwise. We were . . . spirited, often thanks to spirits of the liquid sort. And, truth be known, most Irish I know would laugh and buy another round, but you get the point. We don’t, or shouldn’t, gladly assign derogatory nicknames to identify our public institutions, and that includes teams that represent cities or other swaths of diverse human populations.
Even the “Drunken Irish” is a failed analogue since it is a cultural stereotype, rather than a racial one.
In our discussions of athletic teams, we might also consider that reducing a group of human beings to mascots is demeaning and insulting. To have sidekicks acting as gimmicks is dehumanizing, as well as a vivid expression of objectification. Far less offensive to most are animals — cougars, panthers, gators — and leprechauns in the case of Notre Dame. Some are even comical, such as the University of South Carolina’s Fighting Gamecocks. You have a treat in store if you’ve never witnessed a stadium of gray-haired ladies alternately shouting across the field “Game!” “Cocks!”
Responding to Obama’s remarks, Redskins attorney Lanny Davis, formerly of the Clinton administration, argued that the president was basing his opinion on incomplete data. He cited an Associated Press-Gfk poll conducted in April showing that four out of five Americans don’t think the Redskins should change their name. He also noted that Obama hasn’t found fault with Chicago’s Blackhawks, who are actually named after a chief, or other similar team names.
There’s nothing inherently offensive about the name of a tribe or an individual. A racial or cultural identity isn’t necessarily a slur.
This is the way the Seminole Tribe of Florida apparently saw it. When questions arose about Florida State’s use of the name, Seminole leaders decided to embrace the honor intended and officially sanctioned it. In other words, they “own” it in the metaphorical sense.
Owning slurs is one way to neutralize offense. African Americans coopted the ugliest racist word and made it their own through musical lyrics and other media. Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” stole the hideousness of the C-word by having women shout it at the top of their lungs. Imagine a stadium of women screaming this word back and forth. You can’t do that for long without laughing — and laughter is the mortal enemy of mean spirits.
We might wish for more lightheartedness from Native Americans, but history sometimes makes humor difficult to summon. Jokes in any case are funniest when they are on oneself, not at the expense of others. As Native Americans consider their next moves, perhaps they should try to buy the Redskins from owner Dan Snyder, who says he’ll never change the name. Then they could change the name themselves — or even better, own it.
KATHLEEN PARKER is a syndicated columnist of The Washington Post, a regular guest on television shows like The Chris Mathews Show and The O’Reilly Factor, and is a member of the Buckley School’s faculty. She was the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary.
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