By David Frantz
We have heard, mostly in popular culture, notions of the so-called hive mindset of bees, wherein an entire population of bees functions with one conscience, one purpose, all centrally controlled by the Queen. Forgive the rudimentary nature of the science here; the accuracy of the notion is less important than its potential as an analogy for the way ideas course through society.
Take, for instance, the word Redskin, namesake of the Washington NFL team and a source of ongoing controversy in the seat of government in the U.S. as well as the seats of sports arenas across the country. Here, I guess Bob Costas is the Queen, as his monologue on one of NBC’s broadcasts of Sunday Night Football serves as a touching off point, not of the original conflict of course, but of the large-scale public awareness of the issue. Costas was incredibly matter-of-fact in his homily, exclaiming that “Redskin is a slur,” a conclusion only shoddily supported by real evidence.
It was that lack of evidence, namely that a large number of Native Americans were actually offended by the term, that led a federal appeals court to overturn a decision invalidating the cancellation of the Redskin’s trademark rights around 1999. There were a lot of consecutive words of negation in that last sentence, so allow me to simplify: In 1999, after a court cancelled the Redskin’s trademark for being offensive, a superior court reinstated the marks because they determined that the evidence presented showed too small a number of Native Americans that were offended by the term.
Easily ignored in the debate is this piece published by Slate.com, which presents the research of Ives Goddard, a Native American linguistic expert at the Smithsonian Institute. To summarize, Goddard controverts the fiction that the term originated as a slur with hard evidence, namely that the term was actually coined by Native Americans, among other revelations such as fabricated history about the word. I would be remiss if I did not also mention his assertion that the offensive nature of the word should be determined by modern feelings about it. But trotting out history in support of calling the term a slur is at best misguided, according to what scholarly peers have recognized as the “exhaustive” research of Goddard.
Goddard also mentions the mistreatment that the Oxford English Dictionary has afforded the term, labeling it offensive merely as an unfortunate result of violent U.S.-Native American relations over the past 300 years. But it is precisely at this point that more complex theories about perception and reality come into play; after all, if the argument is that the word is offensive because our veritable authority over the English language has called it offensive, how much of that has translated to truth in the present, even if it was baseless in the past? Commonly held notions, even ones that are demonstrably incorrect, can become prevalent enough in society that they become true; this is the hive-like function of society at work.
This sort of chain-reaction of public perception can almost render the true history of the term irrelevant, which is ironic considering the masses of anti-Redskins individuals who have been so eager to coopt history in opposing the usage of the term. But to go into a real analysis over whether the term has actually taken on the constructs of a slur within society would be to barge into an argument that is simply not for us “white people” to decide. After all, it’s only logical to gauge the offensiveness of a term based on whether or not the person the word represents is actually offended by it.
And so, by the same logic, it makes absolutely no sense for any person such as myself, who claims not a drop of Native American blood in my ancestry, to do anything but wait patiently on the sidelines while those actually contemplated by the word decide for themselves. It is not up to Bob Costas to proclaim that “Redskin is a slur” to a national television audience. It is not up to pundits or play-callers to advocate their own personal opinions on the word. It is, however, a symptom of our moralistic society that we tend to jump into the fray preemptively on issues like this, perhaps in part because speaking out on morality makes one feel, well, moral. But in our rushed crusade against injustice, I fear we have ignored what, and more specifically who, is really important here.
A friend of mine, with whom I have had impassionate debates about the subject, has always said one thing that I think no one could disagree with: If the name is truly offensive, it should be changed.
So, with our only real evidence to that point being the thoughts and feelings of Native Americans about the connotation of the word “Redskin” today, the one and only question is this:
How do they really feel?