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On Offensive Words, Part Two

June 19, 2014 5 comments

This is the second in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

The word redskin is a crazy word. I’ve never seen an etymological debate get so heated, so public, so emotional, or so misleading. I wrote over 800 words earlier today in an attempt to set the record straight when I reached a point in my post when I actually typed, “but none of what I’ve written so far matters.”  At that point, I deleted it and decided to focus on the parts that do matter. But first I just can’t help but share some reading and a quick opinion on the etymological stuff that’s going on, because I hate when two sides feel like they need to bend, stretch, or fabricate the truth in order to make their point–and there’s a lot of that in this case. You are certainly welcome to trust me, but I strongly encourage you to click on some of the links in the following paragraph.

First, the most thorough and definitive history of the use of the word redskin was written by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institute. That study was the primary source used for this more-readable Slate article last December. These sources are specifically written to discredit claims by Suzan Harjo about the word redskin originating as a term for the scalps of dead Native Americans, but both admit a later evolution into a pejorative. The claim of scalp-origin was loudly repeated without substantiation in a bluntly-titled Esquire piece yesterday that relied primarily on oral history and followed up today with an attempt to verify his claims with this picture from 1863 that doesn’t actually prove the point he’s trying to prove (and comes far after the word’s origin). Meanwhile, the Redskins and their fans will tell you all about how the name must be accepted by all because of their Native American coach at the time of the naming in 1937, whose heritage was in such question that a court case attempting to determine his heritage actually ended in a hung jury… and created a pretty crazy story from his mom, too. It’s not hard to tell where I stand on the etymological debate. I think that the worst claims about the origin of the term redskin have never been adequately substantiated and have been, to me at least, adequately debunked. But remember, this is the point where I concluded that none of the above truly matters to the current debate. Word origins don’t mean much because language evolves, words take on new meanings, and public perceptions change–which has certainly happened in the case of the word redskin.

On the subject of public perception, a 2004 Annenberg Poll found that 90% of self-identified Native Americans did not find the team name Redskins to be offensive. Many criticize the findings because of the self-identification aspect, without differentiating at all who was living on a reservation or was more assimilated into mainstream culture and society. However, with such strong results and so little variation among subgroups, the results should be seen as at least somewhat reliable. These numbers line up fairly well with a 2002 Harvard/Sports Illustrated poll that found that 75% of Native Americans (and 62% living on reservations) did not find the name offensive. These numbers are certainly enough to give some pause to the people who feel that there is no need for discussion or debate and no argument against the viewing of redskin as an offensive slur. At the very least, in very recent history, the issue was less clear-cut. Or maybe I just resent a little bit any notion that there is no other side to an argument that has so much to do with emotion and perception.

But times have changed. A more recent poll, by The Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino found that 67% of Native Americans agree that “the Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.” While the shift has been less profound among the general population (especially white people), the tide of public perception has clearly turned on this issue. While I fully accept this new reality and have long expected the team to change its name soon after losing their trademark, which I believe that they will even after appeal of today’s decision, I am intrigued by the cause of such a shift. And I fear that, as I stated in Offensive Words Part One, the primary driver very well might be that people are being told how to feel.

One way that people are being told how to feel, which is obvious to notice and just as obviously failing, is that fans of the team and defenders of the team name repeatedly will tell us that Native Americans should be honored by the team name. While it’s certainly true that people don’t name sports teams after cultures or animals they find embarrassing or disparaging, the intent behind the naming is simply not at issue here. The perception of the word and the feelings it evokes are at issue, and you can’t simply tell someone to be proud of something that offends them.

The other way people are being told how to feel, though, troubles me as well. I want to present a series of quotes:

I hate to tell you what would have happened if you had polled African Americans in 1900. Totally irrelevant, because Native Americans, just like Washingtonians like me, have grown up using the name. Their consciences haven’t anymore been raised than mine have been, until I heard what Native Americans were saying… Now, when they know that some of their brethren—who they were really talking about, and what it meant and the history of that name, and the brutal history, very gruesome history, I don’t think you have the same answer.

– D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the uselessness of a 10-year old poll

[Dr. Michael Friedman] claimed that even if Native Americans say the name is not offensive, they do not realize it is hurting their self-esteem.

“Even a positive image, if it’s stereotypical, will lead to psychological distress, lower self-esteem, lower sense of achievement,” Friedman said.

The Free Beacon in an interview with Native American Activists

Native American activists dismiss such opinion as misguided (“There are happy campers on every plantation,” says Suzan Harjo), or as evidence that Native Americans’ self-esteem has fallen so low that they don’t even know when they’re being insulted.

Sports Illustrated in an article interviewing several Native American activists

The common thread here is that some activists opposing the use of the word redskin believe that Native Americans are not offended by the term only because they lack knowledge or fail to understand why it should offend them. This notion, especially coming from Harjo who routinely states factually unsubstantiated claims about the word, strikes me as incredibly condescending toward the affected populations. And while the campaign to educate the population about the terrors associated with the word redskin is proving effective in changing public perception, something about that kind of attitude turns me off to the arguments. As I stated in Part One, I believe that the decision to find something offensive or not to find it offensive should be an individual one. These are examples of a population being almost belittled for not understanding why they should be offended by a word.

All of this leads me to wonder if perhaps this education does more harm than good. If, as has been asserted by Dr. Friedman above and the American Psychological Association, the word Redskin has a potentially “negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children,” is a greater awareness of the negative ways in which it was once used a healthy outcome or an improvement? I tend to believe that in almost all circles, the word redskin had all but lost its more problematic meaning and become simply associated with a sports team. It may have made the incredibly rare journey from a word that once offended and now was accepted, like queer (albeit under vastly different circumstances).  And if it had, is returning it to a word of hate and re-wrapping an ugly history of negative treatment toward Native Americans into a word the best outcome?

At this point, my questions can only be hypothetical. The damage is done. The tide is unlikely to turn again. Redskin has become, again, a dirty word. For some it always was. For others, they didn’t realize it ever had been. The Redskins will likely change their team name eventually. The delay will likely place them on the wrong side of history. It’s just a sports team name, after all. It isn’t worth offending so many people so badly. But I, for one, wonder if the price of reviving a polarizing word that had been all but forgotten by society at large (and apparently, 75-90% of Native Americans, too) will be worth the gain of changing the team name. I hope so.

My thoughts on this matter continue and are clarified in my first comment response below… if you’re interested in even more words on the subject.

On Offensive Words, Part One

June 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Disclaimer: The language used in this blog post may be offensive and hopefully makes readers at least as uncomfortable as it makes the author to write. However, it felt important to write this particular post free of euphemisms. I have been thinking of writing this post for over a year and was constantly worried about being viewed as insensitive. I can only hope that I have worded my thoughts appropriately.

To my knowledge, the word nigger is the most powerful word in the English language. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve uttered it aloud, and all were quotations; and all were whispered no matter the setting. Typing it feels strange. I’m certain that when it comes time to press “publish” on this post, I will think more than twice about it. My father wrote for a newspaper and once made a typo writing the word “bigger.”  The n-key is just next to the b-key, you see. It slipped through the cracks and somehow got published. Our whole family was tense for days about the potential consequences. I’ve retold that story dozens of times. I always manage to do it without speaking the word. One little word, six letters–they fill me with fear.

But to focus on my fear is missing the point of the word’s power. Wrapped up in this little word, to borrow from a recent Atlantic magazine cover, are 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of separate but equal. Wrapped in that word are lynchings and cross burnings. Wrapped in that word are oppression and segregation and violence. It’s all right there packed into one word, giving it so much charge, so much bite, that a single utterance can label the speaker a racist and ruin the day (at least) of the spoken-to. It’s a word further complicated with reclamation attempts, generational gaps, cultural appropriation, music…. but the complications do nothing to mitigate the power of the word. It is a terrifying and devastating word.

There’s something about that power that I resent a little. I hate that a word so heavily-charged exists that it can eviscerate someone’s self image or career in a heartbeat. I find the power of the word potentially damaging. I find it harmful. No one likes heavily-concentrated power. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to prevent putting so much power into any single word. It’s too late for nigger. The power is there. It’s real. It’s palpable. I honestly can’t think of another word like it in that respect. Maybe faggot comes the closest (I can tell by how uncomfortable it makes me to write it), but by and large, few words–if any–have become universally known by their more acceptable euphemism, in this case “the n-word.”

But that may not last for long. A funny thing is happening. These days, it seems everyone is trying to create more n-words. You’ve likely all heard about the pledge to end the r-word, retard(ed). And today there’s a big headline about the other r-word, Redskins. Just yesterday, a reality television star who is a little person stated that the word midget is as offensive as the n-word. Of course, you can always tell that a word isn’t there yet when people say it out loud in comparison to “the n-word.” These PR campaigns to equate words with nigger are, to me, short-sighted and harmful. The idea is that they want fewer people to say these words, and I agree; let’s not go around calling people retards, please. But in order to get that result, they are also charging the words up with greater and greater power. They are creating vernacular monsters.

All of this is part of a cycle of name-changing and euphemizing that has always confused me a little bit. There was a time when black people in the United States were officially referred to as negroes, or colored people, or African-American, or black. There was a time when people were referred to as slow, and then retarded (the Latin word for slow; really creative, guys), and then mentally disabled or challenged. Midgets or dwarfs are now little people… or dwarfs, sometimes; I found mixed signals on that. Indigenous people to the United States were red skins and Indians and Native Americans and American Indians. In some of these cases there needs to be a distinction between official terms and slang terms. But in most of these cases the official terms became slang terms, and thus the “need” for a new official term was created. However, these changes in vocabulary serve in large part only to mask the attitudes that turned words into pejoratives in the first place.

I understand that language evolves, meanings change, and connotation especially can change. But it seems that when PR campaigns need to be launched making the most extreme verbal comparison available in order to affect that change, that maybe we’re missing the point a little. Maybe we need to look a little deeper at the practice. Yes, it’s easy to view me from my perch of privilege and write off this opinion, but to me–and this is what confuses and bothers me the most–people are being told how they must feel about words in order to retain status as decent and compassionate human beings. It’s one thing to have the feelings of an oppressed community explained to you and to feel empathy. It’s quite another when a small group within that community claim to speak for the entire community and tell both the outside population and members of their own community how to feel about various words and labels.

My basic understanding of how these labels come to change is that usually, a very small group of people within a minority community advocate to those of power within a majority community to tell the overall population what they now must call a smaller group of people. The rank and file of the minority community being re-branded rarely has much of a say–and generally don’t care, according to polling. However, one year you’re African American… the next year, you’re black again. It must be somewhat of a weird phenomena to experience from within; to be told that your label or your identity is now changed. It has been changed for you.

How many people within a community need to find something offensive in order to change that community’s label and identity? Is their sense of what is or isn’t offensive the new standard? Are you a bad or lesser human being if you find the labeling game to be a mostly fruitless endeavor?  I’m not certain about any of this. But I think that whether or not we find something offensive can be an individual choice, and that can be ok. And I think that charging words with all the power of the word nigger is a disservice to language and to society. And I think that you don’t have to re-brand a community to feel genuine empathy for them and to work to improve their lives.

This is the first in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

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