Who Decides – Considering the Offensiveness of Language

A few weeks ago there was a discussion on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” specific to the nickname of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Originally the team was called the Braves but roughly 80 years ago it was changed to Redskins, a word which The Free Dictionary defines as:

  • Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.
  • (Linguistics / Languages) (Social Science / Peoples) an informal name, now considered offensive, for an American Indian [so called because one particular tribe, the now extinct Beothuks of Newfoundland, painted themselves with red ochre]

Some sports writers have ceased using the term Redskins when referring to Washington’s NFL team as they feel the term is just as offensive as the word nigger. It is a sentiment shared by a number of people if you read recent news stories, message boards or any social media outlet. However, there are also a good number of folks who disagree, fact which is cited per a recent AP poll in which 79% of respondents did not favor Washington changing their nickname. It is worth noting that the survey did not give a break down of how many of those in favor of changing the nickname were of Native American descent but per this USA Today response to the survey the data is confusing:

But among the two-thirds of adults who said the team shouldn’t change the name, 56% of those said “Redskin” is an inappropriate way of to describe a Native American. The numbers for Redskins fans were 79% in favor of keeping the name and 53% who believe in the word’s inappropriateness, respectively.

The question of offense in this context has been debated for some time. St. Johns University and Miami of Ohio University are examples of institutions who have dropped Native American nicknames while many more continue using them, some with approval from the tribe for which the team is associated with. The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, are not a target by any majority to change their nickname as is detailed in the Chicago Tribune article. In fact, as John Keilman writes, white Americans of the late 19th century associated Black Hawk (who was a leader of the Sauk and Fox Indians) with “courage” and “nobility”.

The obvious distinction, and one that is still an element of debate, is that the aforementioned examples are terms for which history has a working definition of bad and good respectively. Miami of Ohio, ironically, were once nicknamed the Redskins. The history of the name is briefly noted in the following:

The first university generated public references connecting American Indians to athletics didn’t appear until March 1930. However, in the October 1936 Alumni Newsletter it stated, “Miami reveled in the name Big Reds until 1928 when R. J. McGinnis, Miami publicity director, coined the name Redskins.” It is assumed that McGinnis himself wrote this passage since he was the editor of that publication at the time. It is highly possible that McGinnis was the originator of the term, and he might even have coined it in 1928 as is stated, but it wasn’t used publicly that early.

The history of how Washington got their name is summarized here:

Fenway Park will be the scene of the home games this Fall of the Boston Redskins, formerly known as the Braves, the local club of the National League of Professional Football, George Marshall, president of the Redskins, announced last night.

In his communication Mr. Marshall emphasized that the change was made solely because of the more intimate advantages of playing in the Red Sox park, where the gridiron may be plotted closer to the grandstand and pavilion seats, and the 5000 temporary field seats are almost flush with the sidelines. (source)

For any sports fan, the team nickname and mascot are something you hold dear to your heart. It represents, in an indirect way, you through association. As the owner of the team you are not going to select something which does not install a sense of dignity for those who wear the uniform and battle on the field of play.

The question to be asked is who gets to decide whether the term/nickname is offensive?

As a guest on “Outside the Lines”, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton noted:

The perpetrator doesn’t get to take the say whether the term is derogatory. Who gets to say that is the recipient of the term.

In my earlier example I noted that “Redskins” and “Blackhawks” have a history which gives the terms a normative absolute within an ethical context. I can attest to this through direct experience. While I grew up knowing that Redskins fans loved their team I was also educated to the fact that redskin was not necessarily a positive term. Yet in investigating the linguistic history of the word I came across this 2005 article in the Washington Post by Guy Gugliotta. In it he notes:

Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard spent seven months researching its history and concluded that “redskin” was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white “other” encroaching on their lands and culture.

When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, “it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level,” Goddard said in an interview. “These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves.”

It was not until July 22, 1815, that “red skin” first appeared in print, he found — in a news story in the Missouri Gazette on talks between Midwestern Indian tribes and envoys sent by President James Madison to negotiate treaties after the War of 1812.

The envoys had rebuked the tribes for their reluctance to yield territory claimed by the United States, but the Gazette report suggested that Meskwaki chief Black Thunder was unimpressed: “Restrain your feelings and hear calmly what I say,” he told the envoys. “I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.”

Goddard’s view, however, does not impress Cheyenne-Muscogee writer Suzan Shown Harjo, lead plaintiff for Native American activists who, for the past 13 years, have sought to cancel trademarks covering the name and logo of the Washington Redskins.

“I’m very familiar with white men who uphold the judicious speech of white men,” Harjo said in a telephone interview. “Europeans were not using high-minded language. [To them] we were only human when it came to territory, land cessions and whose side you were on.”

Goddard, aware of the lawsuit and Harjo’s arguments, said that “you could believe everything in my article” and still oppose current public usage of “redskin.”

As a heterosexual white male of Irish, English and German descent I cannot think of any term that I find disparaging as it relates to my race, gender, sexuality or heritage. It is also true that I have never experienced any institutional oppression at any level. But as you can see from the quote directly above there is ambiguity when speaking of what a word means. As such it does warrant consideration of how committed we are to holding onto our meaning of the word in light of the offense taken by others. Is there an obligation on my part to be sensitive to how a specific group defines the word regardless of my use and qualifications?

Simply put, does someone own the word?

This is further elaborated in a recent NPR article by Lakshmi Gandhi titled “Is it Racist to Call a Spade a Spade?” Her piece starts with:

What happens when a perfectly innocuous phrase takes on a more sinister meaning over time?

Case in point, the expression “to call a spade a spade.” For almost half a millennium, the phrase has served as a demand to “tell it like it is.” It is only in the past century that the phrase began to acquire a negative, racial overtone.

Here we have a phrase, which for all purposes is grounded in something not at all racial but through the progression of language within a cultural context now contains words which some find offensive. University of Vermont professor Wolfgang Mieder, while recognizing the grounding of the phrase, takes a “better safe than sorry” approach to whether it should still be part of the American language landscape.

Rather than taking the chance of unintentionally offending someone or of being misunderstood, it is best to relinquish the old innocuous proverbial expression all together.

Where does that leave us? Are we to be so cautious about our phraseology that meanings of the words must necessarily be understood within a varied social/cultural/historical context? Such a requirement would surely find us spending more time considering the act of speaking/writing rather than actually performing.

It seems irresponsible to not consider origin and equally irresponsible to perform surgery on phrases in order to influence meaning through slang or a myriad of possible definitions. Yet we still find ourselves consumed by the problem of ensuring what we say is understood within a specific context. To an even greater degree we want people to see our intent. Is the intent of the word “spade” racial? Is the intent of the nickname “Redskins” racial? And to Congresswoman Norton’s assertion who gets to make the decision?

It is easy to tell someone to “get over it”, to not empower the word with past negativity. Maybe a stronger person can do just that but who wants to tell the person for which a word has a long history of pain and sorrow to “get over it”? In turn who wants to tell the person for which the word holds a lifetime of happy memories that you are not allowed to see it as a positive reference? Which ever side you find yourself on there seems to be no easy answer.


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