Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Washington R-Word

by Max Faille
(Guest Contributor)

Max Faille is a law partner. He's a great lawyer and practices in the area of Aboriginal Law. 

Under the editing standards of this and most websites, and respectable publications across the English-speaking world, I would not be able to write that ugly racial slur to describe African-Americans, commonly referred to as the “n-word,” under any circumstances. Even if to denounce its use. Yet under those same standards I can readily use an equally ugly racial slur, directed at Aboriginal people: Redskin.

It’s used all the time, mostly to describe Washington’s NFL team, whose owner Dan Snyder insists will continue to be called that name, despite the fact that it is a racial slur. Despite the fact that a growing number of publications and sports writers have denounced it or decided that they will refuse to use it in their sports coverage: Bob Costas, Sports Illustrated’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” Peter King, Slate Magazine, USA Today Sports’ Christine Brennan… 

People will say that this is “political correctness” run amok.  It’s not.  Throwing out the term “political correctness” should not be a conversation-ending nuclear bomb that stops us from actually thinking about an issue. 

Look at it this way:  Tyler Bray is a third-string rookie quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs, after being a standout at the University of Tennessee.  He also happens to be a tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma.   If someone on the field were to call him a “redskin,” that person would almost certainly be disciplined by the league – fined, maybe suspended.  Rightly so.  Just as someone would be disciplined if they called an African-American player an “n-word” or “monkey” or some other equally despicable term.  These and other racial epithets have no place in any athletic contest that purports to be honourable.  This begs the question: how can a professional sports league tolerate having one of its franchises be called a name that if used on the field of play would result in disciplinary action by that same league?

Let’s be clear.  When the term “Redskins” was originally chosen in 1931, it was not intended as a slur.  Franchises obviously select names that they feel will honour their team, not disgrace them.  But times change.  The meaning we attach to words evolve.  There was a time when we used the word “coloured” or “negro” to describe African-Americans.  Martin Luther King Jr, in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech used the word “negro” eight times.  In baseball, we had the famous “negro leagues.”  But can we imagine a team today called the New York Negroes?  No.  Word meanings change.  Thinking and society evolve, hopefully for the better. 

One thing that has evolved, hopefully for the better, is that we no longer use skin-colour to define people.  “Coloured,” “negro,” “n-word” – these are all references to skin colour.  Even “black,” while still used, is falling out of use, in favour of “African-American.”  We don’t call Asian people “yellow” (at least, not anymore).  We aspire, in those soaring words of MLK, to judging people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  We should do so in deeds and in words alike.

Words take on meaning, and it is meaning that matters.  Arguably, there is nothing inherently offensive about the “n-word.” They are letters on a page.  But it has come to be used as a vicious slur.  The same is true of “redskin,” or what I should actually refer to as the “r-word.”    It is offensive to millions of Native American/First Nation people.

True, other team names refer to peoples: Minnesota Vikings, Notre-Dame Fighting Irish, my beloved Montreal Canadiens...  But none of those are a race.  None refer to skin colour.  And, most importantly, none of those is an ethnic slur.  It’s not the Notre Dame Mics or the Montreal Peppers. 

There are other team names that refer to Aboriginal people: Blackhawks, Seminoles, Fighting Illini, etc.  The issue when it comes to those names is much more subtle.  Some are not a reference to race but to a Nation -- Seminoles, Illini – and are similar in that sense to Fighting Irish or Canadiens.  In many cases, appropriately, the teams have consulted with and obtained the consent of those Aboriginal Nations to use their name.  

We also have the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Golden State Warriors, and the aforementioned Kansas City Chiefs.  Some Aboriginal people are not offended by those names, because unlike the “r-word” they are not racial slurs.  Others are offended and, in my opinion, they have a point.  Those names stem from and perpetuate a stereotype: the brave and/or bloodthirsty, noble savage warrior, dressed in loin cloth and feathers, ready to scalp the enemy.  Aboriginal people are not one-dimensional, mythological creatures. They are modern peoples, with proud histories, who occupy all walks of life: factory workers, truckers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers.  The use of these names as a sports team moniker is dehumanizing.  And it spawns behaviour that is profoundly disrespectful: fans appropriating sacred symbols of honour such as eagle feathers and headdresses, and converting them into costumes.  The Cleveland Indians logo – “Chief Wahoo” – is perhaps the most racist, stereotyped image of Aboriginal people you could possibly design.  We would never tolerate a similar depiction of any other race.

As a sports fan, I understand the resistance to change.  I’m a lifelong, passionate Montreal Canadiens fan.  If someone told me tomorrow our team name had to change, I’d be pretty upset.  And I would want to be convinced that there was a damn good reason.  But I’d like to think that the fact the name was a racist slur would be pretty much the best possible reason you could give me. 

And although at times it’s easy to forget, it’s just sports, and it’s just a name.  Is it really worth disrespecting millions of people across North America, who are already deeply marginalized?

People were upset in Baltimore when they lost the Colts; when they got a football team back, they wanted the name back too.  They didn’t.  But time, and two Superbowl championships, heal all wounds.

Ultimately, what is at stake is not so-called “political correctness.” It's whether owners, leagues, players and fans believe in upholding certain values that are at the heart of professional and amateur sports: honour and respect.  

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