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”.

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