About the R-Word
I typically write posts a while ahead of time, so it’s entirely possible that by the time this post gets published, the Washington Redskins will have been stripped of their intellectual property protections and Daniel Snyder will give in to the growing chorus of people offended by the obvious racism of the team name. Then maybe we can move on to the Chiefs, the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Blackhawks, and a plethora of other names that offend…well, someone.
To be clear, you would never have a team in this country called The Blackskins. That, of itself, would be offensive. But some of the trend lines around this story are troubling. For instance, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is quoted as saying that “If one person is offended, we have to listen (about changing the Redskins name).”
We’ve written about offense before. If one person being offended means it’s time to change–or think about changing, that gives every single person the ability to potentially cause you to approach your work differently. Anyone offended, for any reason, has to be taken seriously, including people offended because they just want you to shut up.
It’s a difficult line to walk sometimes. For me, the name Redskins isn’t as offensive as the people who make headdresses out of chicken feathers, slather on war paint (in the colors of their favorite team, of course), drink a lot of beer, and generally jump around like idiots. That doesn’t honor the hardscrabble heritage of this country’s original inhabitants, it’s insulting. Some of those things are, in some Indian cultures, considered sacred. It’s kind of the equivalent of going to a Saints or Cardinals game and seeing a drunken pinhead with a caricature of a bishop or pope’s uniform running around with a foam scepter and baptizing people for the amusement of the crowds.
And the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate, playing wide receiver Bobby Mitchell in 1961, although owner George Preston Marshall vowed not to suit up black players an integrate his team. (Which lead to sportswriter Shirley Povich’s wry observation that black Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown had integrated the Redskins end zone, making the final score separate but unequal.) Marshall’s racism seems more offensive.
In no case would I (or this blog) favor government censorship of such activities, but if enough people want it to go away to persuade the leagues or team owners to make the change, that’s a different story. And you can still have and root for the Cleveland Indians, for instance, without the image of Chief Wahoo on your baseball cap.
But if you look hard enough, you’ll find one person, at least one person, offended by anything. Animal rights activists have shown offense to the Green Bay Packers–because they’re named after meat packers–and any team named after animals, because you shouldn’t be able to make huge sums of money off the backs of animals, many of them endangered. If you want to move from the sublime to the ridiculous, short people could be offended by the San Fransisco and New York Giants. People from the South and from England could be offended by the Yankees (along with all other right-thinking baseball fans).
Enough people were offended by the name of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1950s, that for a few years, they were known as the Redlegs, to avoid any Communist connotation. And the Washington NBA team changed its name from the Bullets because of the violence in DC. The new name, the Wizards, seemed odd because of the number of people in the District who could be excused for hearing the title and thinking of KKK management positions.
Overall, it’s a tightrope we all walk, especially when dealing with sensitive issues. You can’t deal with the issue without, you know, dealing with the issue. But you don’t want to overdo it and drive readers away unnecessarily.
Personally, the names of the teams don’t offend me. And if the words Chiefs and Braves are, of themselves, to offensive to be used, what of the words chief and brave?
But the issue isn’t as easy as dismissing the whole thing as political correctness (again, how would you feel about drunken fans baptizing each other?). And it’s not as easy as dismissing all those who disagree as irredeemably racist, either.