Friday, 20 June 2014

Why “Washington Redskins” is offensive whether you think so or not

Most of my life I’ve had teachers, friends, colleagues, consultants of various native North and Central American ethnicities.  Most don’t identify as “native American”; most identify with some specific ethnicity: Kootenai, Cree, Cherokee, and so on.  But most will use ‘native American’ as a catch all.  Some will even use (American) (or in Canada ‘Treaty’) Indian in a pinch.  My impression is that sometimes it is important to identify with a larger community of American aboriginal peoples, particularly in the context of shared history of repression, and other times it is just not relevant (or worth the effort) to explain how you are a Hopi and your friend is Navajo. 

But in case you were wondering what the big deal is with “Washington Redskins” (and I didn’t want to get into a lecture specific to anyone in particular) here’s what I have come to understand.
  • The word “redskin” is and has always been use pejoratively.  You’d only call Tonto the Lone Ranger’s redskin friend if you wanted to emphasize his non-whiteness.  If you were being respectful, you’d refer to him as the LR’s Indian friend, or Native friend, or Choktaw friend, or Ute friend, or whatever he is.  If you're being really respectful, you'll just call him the LR's friend, since his ethnicity is probably not relevant.  Or you'd just call him Tonto, rather than referring to him as 'just' an appendage of a white man.  As a word, 'redskin' picks out a specific and not entirely definitional or universal trait of a wide group of people. So not only is it just intrinsically ‘Other’, like ‘spic’ or ‘dago’, it reduces membership in the group to a particular trait which is neither sufficient nor necessary for inclusion in the group. 
  • Some people object to the dehumanizing effect of a reference like ‘redskin’ in the context of a mascot.  These people point out that many sports teams are named for animals.  So ‘redskin’ for many suggests something non-human, akin to ‘lion’ or ‘bear’. (Interestingly, sometimes these people don’t have the same trouble with ‘Spartan’ or ‘Hun’.  But…)
  • It may not be intrinsically offensive to refer to historical groups of people who no one (or very few) living people identify as, e.g. ‘Trojan’, or to a non-ethnic group (again primarily historical) like ‘forty-niner’, ‘saint’ or ‘buccaneer’.  On the other hand, when it comes to current ethnicities and nationalities, things get problematic.  How offensive ‘fighting Iroquois/Swede/Barbadian’ is depends on how those particular ethnicities relate to whatever the mainstream culture is.  And aboriginal peoples are always in a vulnerable position with respect to dominant colonial cultures.
We don’t seem to be bothered by ‘fighting Irish’ (though many are), but a lot of people up here are concerned about ‘fighting Sioux’.  I remember someone asking if they should support a team called “the Kansas City Jews”.  So while ‘Irish’, ‘Sioux’, ‘Seminole’ may be in use, and are problematic, at least they refer to a specific group of people, with at least a more culturally neutral term than ‘redskin’. 

So it comes down to this.  If you don’t understand why “Washington Redskins” is offensive, think about what it would be if it was the “Cincinnati Darkies” or the “Denver Wetbacks”. Because basically that’s what we’re dealing with.