Home > Politics, Sports > On Offensive Words, Part Two

On Offensive Words, Part Two

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.

  1. June 19, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    I wonder if the two polls can exist simultaneously. Maybe Native Americans think the team name is racist but it doesn’t offend them. Like – American Apparel billboards are misogynist, I feel, but they’re also particularly bad examples of a whole industry full of misogyny, so I shrug them off, and am not personally offended by them.

    Interestingly, the last bit of your post here echoes something in regard to feminism I read too long ago to source it. It was an article that quoted several housewives who had been adults through the feminist movement of the 70s and said that they were happier before they were liberated. Their attitude was that in knowing their role – even if it was subservient – they were comfortable and secure, whereas once they had freedom, they felt confused and directionless, uncertain in an existential way about the course of their lives. That’s a side of women’s lib I’d never thought about.

    Yet the movement was and is for the greater good. Now women have the freedom to do what they want, even the choice to be subservient, if they desire, instead of automatically being so. I don’t know if I can really cite a circumstance where I think ignorance of something ugly is worse than the knowledge of it, even if it haunts the knower. But that’s actually a principle on which my own mother and I are directly opposed, so I know it’s not the only point of view.

    • June 20, 2014 at 4:18 pm

      The feminism parallel is a really interesting one, and valid. And yes, I think the two surveys can exist simultaneously. It reminds me of a survey in Afghanistan where something like 80% said that the border police did a good job and something like 70% said that the border police had made them pay a bribe in order to conduct their business. Bribery was just an accepted standard. Like racism, in this case.

      I used the polls, though, in lieu of “anecdata.” Many people are sort of new to this issue or haven’t been following it. I’ve been paying attention to it for at least 15 years now. The reason I can quote a 1999 Sports Illustrated article is not because I stumbled upon it, but because I remembered a quote that always bothered me and specifically went looking for it. And as someone who has followed this for a long time, I am very confident that there HAS, indeed, been a large perceptional shift taking place, including in-group perception, as well as coverage and public perception.

      Another place you can find evidence of this is in the media. Writers like Bill Simmons and Peter King recently stopped using the word Redskin (within the past year). Simmons has been writing about sports for 20 years and King for over 30. I’m sure they both have encountered this issue before. Something changed their mind. King even addressed this aspect when he made the announcement, “Some of you will wonder: You’ve covered the NFL for 30 seasons, and just now you realize this nickname is objectionable? All I can say is, you grow in your business, and you grow as a person, and you try to always be open to ideas and to what others are thinking.”

      Something is changing people’s minds, and I have witnessed a very apparent shift. Presently, it’s true that the objectionable nature of the word seems obvious. Because words mean whatever feelings, thoughts, and emotions they are perceived to convey, and the perception has changed as such. I guess my point here is that, for better or for worse, this word’s evolution could have gone either way for a while. And to hear people tell me now–people who were alive and well and didn’t bat an eye in 1999 the last time the trademark was not renewed (prior to an overturn on appeal)–that this is “so obvious;” that there is “no argument.” Yes, it is obvious today. But there was a time when it was not obvious–among Native American Populations, even. There was a time when 75-90% of Native Americans polled had no objection.

      Native American populations are, of course, not homogeneous. Trying to speak for the entire community is a tall task. As perceptions change, and now 67% of Native Americans on reservations oppose the name and the word, it may be clearer and more easy to understand the wants and needs of a minority community. But when this started–when there was a great deal of polling and anecdotal data that refuted the loudest voices of the activists on the issue–it was very cloudy. Even an empathetic person, willing to listen and to understand, could go either way on the issue. That’s why John Stewart didn’t take his position 20 years ago. That’s why Peter King didn’t. That’s why Bill Simmons didn’t. Because the issue was legitimately unclear for quite some time.

      Now, the issue is clear. I always like to question “how many people need to find something offensive before it needs to be changed?” (and I’m talking about among the affected populations, not just the population as a whole) The standard clearly cannot be “nobody finds this offensive,” and it clearly cannot be “everyone finds this offensive.” I feel confident that, at this point, we’ve crossed that rubicon–enough people find it offensive; change the thing.

      But I wonder if the shift in perception isn’t, in large part, due to a vast campaign of misinformation. And that’s why I get hung up on the etymology. Even though a word’s origin shouldn’t matter, misleading people in order to affect change does bother me. It’s like in math class when you’d get the answer right, but you’d lose credit because the work you showed was an incorrect process. Even if the end result is the “right” result, it bothers me that it is being accomplished by telling the general public that the word redskin is a synonym for “a bloody scalp of a native.” It was used in an ugly manner, to be sure. It was used on fliers advertising compensation for bloody scalps, yes–and that’s awful. But it was never the name of a bloody scalp. It was the name of a kind of person, and the word came from direct translations of native languages in a certain region of the country and was used originally in circumstances where showing extra attention to their culture was beneficial, rather than calling them “Indians.” It was popularized in novels by Cooper who used the word neutrally and appropriately, and then white people ran amok with it. That’s what happened. It got derogatory. It became a pejorative term. It hurts many people to hear it.

      So if a word means what it is perceived to mean; and if perception is shifting in large part based on an etymological falsehood; I feel the need to point that out. It honestly doesn’t bother me that the perception is what it is. It won’t bother me when the Redskins change their team name. I have been privately advocating for Warriors without a logo change for a couple years. But Suzan Harjo bothers me; because I think she is very condescending and elitist in her manner of claiming to speak for a heterogeneous community, belittling those in her community that disagree with her, and I think that she is either wrong or openly lying about the word’s history. Her process bothers me.

      And the people who now claim that a word so complex, with such an interesting history, and with so many varied opinions within the Native American community, is “obvious,” and there is “no argument” bother me. It bothers me that, as a white person, speaking on behalf of those Native Americans who take offense and seek change makes me empathetic and enlightened, but simply pointing out the Native Americans who do not take offense, or the nuance involved int he word’s history makes me a racist cherry-picking his information. Because I have watched the argument play out; I have seen the shift; and I have heard the nuance. I have visited, just last month, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center in South Dakota and saw a Native American selling Redskins jewelry. Opposing points of view DO exist. They are not illegitimate. Polling and surveys show that it used to be true of the vast majority of Native Americans.

      But as more people learn more about the word and its history, they are changing their minds. In addition to my question as to whether or not that is healthy or beneficial and worth the prize of eliminating the team name, I also wonder if it is the word’s true history that is changing their minds or the more extreme, more newsworthy, but unsubstantiated version of the word’s history. Either version could get the job done. But my familiarity with the work of one of the lead activists and advocates for name change gives me pause. Again, the result may be right. I question the process. And it took me years (and far too many words) to finally figure out exactly what I’ve been trying to say on the topic.

  2. June 19, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Oh, crap, I got my whole last point wrong! I meant to say that I BELIEVE ignorance is worse than knowledge in virtually all cases. It should’ve read:

    “I don’t know if I can really cite a circumstance where I think ignorance of something ugly is better than the knowledge of it, even if it haunts the knower.”

    • June 20, 2014 at 4:19 pm

      Don’t worry, I know you well enough to know exactly what you meant (-:

  1. June 19, 2014 at 2:44 am

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