The R-Word

team-0Quite some time ago a woman I’d met read me the riot act over my use of the “R” word. When talking about taboo words, one immediately hits the problem of whether to mention the forbidden word, and if so how and how often? A serious discussion can acknowledge the discomfort people have using a term, but usually must refer to it clearly at least once.

In this case the word was “retarded.” My use was descriptive, not pejorative, so I’m not entirely certain I was out-of-bounds. It seems like one of those fuzzy boundary zones where being respectful and polite gives way to being needlessly constrained by the overly sensitive.

But today I have a different ‘R’ word in mind.

protest-1The word is ‘Redskins‘ — the name of the National Football League‘s Washington, D.C., team. Many consider the term an ethnic slur against people for whom the most correct polite label is Native American.

The controversy over the team name goes back many years, but lately it seems to be catching fire. A number of sportscasters have said they will no longer use the name. The FCC may brand the name offensive for on-air use. The US Patent Office cancelled the team’s trademarks due to the name.

I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. I’m not a football fan. In fact, recent events (concussions, domestic violence, child abuse, drug use and various other brushes with the law) have me rather down on professional American football right now.

protest-2The fact is, not everyone defines the term as pejorative — there is some dispute as to its origin and true meaning. Yet most dictionaries label it as “usually offensive,” and a respectable segment of society does see the term that way. That includes people coming at it from an intellectual point of view as well as those with a personal view.

I think that’s a key point: the segment of society that finds the term offensive covers all types of people. It’s not a specific group with special interests. This tends to legitimize the term as offensive.

At least to some. A counter-argument is that only some people are offended and majority rules in a democracy, so if only a minority are offended, then tough luck, Charlie. (Note, though, that this argument implicitly agrees the name is offensive.)


White house, red skins,… is there is a connection?

It’s worth pointing out that this is the name of the football team of our nation’s capital. And that the NFL is the most popular sports league in North America. Or that (American) football is the most popular sport in the USA (has been for years — breaks a baseball fan’s heart).

So if there was ever a good time to play your cards as wisely as possible, it seems like this would be it. I don’t really fathom the resistance. I don’t quite understand the attachment to a name — especially a name that is a known problem for others.

It’s clear to me why the owner won’t change: doing so would cost a bundle.

keep the name

Old is good! New is bad! Down with digital! Give up your internet and cellphones now!

But I really don’t understand the resistance of fans. Is the name of the team so important that it outweighs the potential offense and just cannot be changed? Exactly what noble traditions are so vital here?

There was an interesting bit on The Daily Show about this. Two groups were interviewed, one composed of Indians, one composed of team fans. The team fans argued the name was no big deal and no one they knew was offended… until confronted with the first group, and then the stammering and red faces and embarrassment began. Even those pro-name fans knew, in their hearts, the name was wrong.

Defending the name, as far as I can see, is inexcusable. There seems no rational basis for its defense.

South Park

Even South Park weighed in.

As to names such as “Braves” or “Chiefs” or “Indians” or even “Fighting Irish” (all of which have been raised as counter-examples), these things are not the same.

The first two, and the last, terms present those groups in a strong light — the words have obvious positive value.

The third term, “Indians,” seems fairly neutral to me. “Native American” is a funny term to me in that I’m a native American. So, technically speaking, is someone born in Mexico or Brazil.

Chris C

Hi! Got any spices?

I recall reading about a multi-tribal council once where the consensus was that the preferred term was to identify a person with their tribe: Navajo, Hopi, Cheyenne, and so forth.

If you didn’t know a person’s tribe, Indian was an acceptable backup term. They are, after all, named (in English) for the country that Columbus thought he’d found.

One panelist quipped he was just glad C.C. wasn’t seeking the Virgin Islands.

As for the lady friend, I decided she was right. It is another word to be careful about in public speech. It’s not so much that I completely agree, but that I understand the sensitivities involved. Not everything is equal, and you have to think about what things mean to others.

respectLife is hard for those with mental disabilities as well as for those who are part of their lives. Trying to be mindful of what I say seems a pretty minimum way of giving them a break.

Trying to be respectful of others, in general, seems like a minimum contribution to the human condition. I suppose, in the end, the name of a sports team is a drop in the bucket of that condition. What really matters isn’t the labels, but the actions.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “The R-Word

  • Hariod Brawn

    No sports team would get away with a name like that in England W.S. – not a chance. Frankly though, it’s not always so easy to know in advance what terms might cause offense. For example, I only learned fairly recently that the term ‘coloured’ was unacceptable to many black people here, though apparently only so when used by white (coloured) people – black people refer to themselves as ‘coloured’ quite frequently in the British media. And when I think back to terms that were used non-pejoratively just a few years ago, and how they would cause uproar now, it’s quite evident that huge shifts occur in what is deemed acceptable over fairly short time spans. Disabled people here now are fighting back against politically correct terminology, such that the very term ‘disabled’, as well as ‘handicapped’, are once again largely acceptable, whereas terms like ‘differently abled’ and ‘visually challenged’ are now scoffed at for their self-consciously stilted correctness.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Good points! It ties in a bit with a conversation I had a while ago with someone about changing social mores. There are things that go back and forth (e.g. hemlines, acceptable words) and things that seem to evolve in a single direction (e.g. “equality is good”).

      (The pity about the stuff that swings back and forth is that they sometimes seem to swing back and forth between extremes. There’s a “too much!” counter-reaction, and the pendulum swings too far the other way. Or when society finds a new mode it sometimes over-reacts before things settle down to a new level.)

      There’s an interesting phenomena in the world. Due to the large number of people, when something does catch their interest, it goes “viral.” It has the potential to leverage great weight and cause change. (Unfortunately, people today are increasingly easily distracted and quickly bored. Nothing holds their interest long (or deeply), and that really mitigates the potential power.) It will be interesting to see how this changes the social dynamic with its back-and-forth tides and longer evolutions.

      • Hariod Brawn

        When you mention over-reactions, I think particularly of the comedy scene over here in England. Political correctness, which undoubtedly has its place in some degree, is currently stifling comedic output; and I daresay the same is occurring in the States.

        I know you are sensitive as to what you care to have displayed here W.S., and wonder if the following might be acceptable? It is an innocent depiction of stereotyping by Spike Milligan, though one that could never be broadcast in the MSM these days:

  • Doobster418

    I was raised in the DC area and was, for most of my youth and adult life, a rabid Washington Redskins fan. But even I have come to believe that it’s nothing but a team name and there’s no reason — other than, as you noted, what it will cost the team’s owner — for not changing it, since it is considered to be an offensive slur.

    There is a strong precedent to change a professional sports team name, and it happened right in Washington, DC, too, after the Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington in 1973. Yes, they kept the name “Bullets” for about 20 years after moving to Washington, but in 1995, owner Abe Pollin announced he was changing the team’s name because “Bullets” had acquired violent overtones that had made him increasingly uncomfortable over the years, particularly given the high gun homicide and crime rate in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C.

    So if the Washington Bullets could become the Washington Wizards, why can’t the Washington Redskins become the Washington [anything else besides the Redskins]?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think it’s the Washington Post that refers to them as the Washington Pigskins. Keith Olbermann has made up a lot of new names (Diplomats, Politicians, etc.).

      Interesting story about the Bullets. See, right there a team changed their name for community sensitivity reasons.

      I wonder if a Washington [insert name here] fan will come by with a defense other than just “tradition.” What’s in a name?

  • E.D.

    I see nothing wrong with the name Redskins. Seems like a “sporty” sort of name to me. I like it. During my lifetime I’ve visited India many times, now they have some pretty fancy names for white skinned people. Some very crude indeed. I never took their name calling to heart – just would not have been worth the time. Eve

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hi Eve — I know you’re not from, or in, the USA, so let me ask: were you aware that some believe the name ties back to the bounty paid for “redskin scalps” in the early days of the United States? As such, that it is a symbol of how Europeans came and nearly totally wiped out the indigenous peoples? (There is some question about whether the name actually does link that strongly, but many believe it does.)

      • E.D.

        i lived in dc for some 8 years.. but no, i had no idea the name originated from scalps. I am aware of the damage the first Europeans inflicted on the Indians. We called the Indians heathens – but in truth who were the heathens? – Eve

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, exactly. So are you still okay with the name, then? No big deal?

  • reocochran

    I may have written a post or comment about this subject. I do agree and feel life in this world should include respecting one’s neighbor on this planet. I feel that the names aren’t so much that were a problem, in my state, at least. The logo for the Indians looked like a witless or silly one. Chief Wahoo to some looks like the black faced livery boys or black faced Mammies. It was offensive to people who were considering themselves, “Native Americans.” (I do agree, Indians is shorter and more precise, except when one is trying to talk about India citizens, which makes a short little talk a little bit more detailed as to which Indians one is talking about…)

    My brothers gave up any t-shirts to Goodwill which had Chief Wahoo on them. We like the scrolled cursive Indians logo, which resembles the handwriting of someone for the Coca Cola company. I like the colors of red, white and blue. So All-American, W.S. but I won’t try to defend or go into other states’ and cases, this is the only one my family had to deal with…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Agreed, the caricature of Chief Wahoo needs to be consigned to the past, but as I mentioned in the post, the name of the ball club, Indians, at least isn’t disrespectful or a known epithet. It may be that someday we’ll also go after names like “Indians” and “Braves” in trying to be as respectful as possible, but I’m not sure I quite see the point in those cases. Has anyone ever picketed or protested the name of the Cleveland baseball team? (I’m asking — I don’t know.)

      Good for your brothers for giving up the tee-shirts! Bravo!

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