For years, I’ve argued with certain African-American people about their insistence upon using the so-called N-word which, to my ears, is, inalterably, a statement of self-loathing. They say I don’t understand. They say the word no longer means what it has always meant. They say it’s just a friendly fraternal greeting.
I say one cannot arbitrarily decide that a word — especially an old and bloodstained word — suddenly means something other than what it always has. I say that, while language does change over time, it doesn’t do so because a few of us want it to or tell it to. And I say that if I call you an “idiot,” but say that “idiot” now means “genius,” you will be no less insulted.
Does that seem logical? If so, then perhaps you can understand my impatience with people who insist on defending the Washington football team whose nickname is a racial slur.
The latest is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He recently responded to a letter from members of the House Congressional Native American Caucus questioning the appropriateness of the name “Redskins.” That name, wrote Goodell, “is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” The team took the name in 1933, he noted, to honor then-coach William “Lone Star” Dietz, who was reputedly (it is a matter of historical dispute) an American Indian.
“Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group,” he wrote. In other words, we have changed the meaning. It no longer means what it has always meant.
Goodell’s letter follows a novel effort earlier this year by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to ban Indian team names and mascots at primary and secondary schools. The complaint filed with the Education Department argued that such things are not merely insulting but damaging. It cited the work of Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona who has studied the effects of the team names and imagery on Native American students.
She has found empirical proof that those names and imagery lead to lowered self-esteem and sense of community worth among American Indian kids. They also damage aspirations and heighten anxiety and depression.
In other words, seeing their people reduced to mascots is toxic to Indian children. And if the names and images in general are damaging, how much more harmful is “Redskins”?
That name, after all, was never neutral, but was, rather, a hateful epithet hurled by people who were stealing from and committing genocide against, those they saw as savage and subhuman. So calling a football team the “Washington Redskins” as a way of honoring an Indian makes precisely as much sense as calling a soccer team “The Warsaw Kikes” as a way of honoring a Jew.
This is not about honor and even less about “strength, courage, pride and respect.” It is rather, about moral integrity, intellectual honesty and the immutable weight of certain words. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, or never do, doesn’t change the fact:
“Redskins” is a curse word.