Yesterday the A’s gave the royal smackdown to the Reds. This got me thinking about team names and mascots, and how ridiculous and racist they are. Of course, I don’t know where the Reds came from, but the Braves are pretty unambiguous, as are the Redskins, the Fighting Illini, etc. How is this not patently offensive and racist? Is it merely the money invested in the franchise (and appeasing alumni in the case of college sports) that prevents us from looking at these cariacatures and recognizing them as demeaning and offensive? Have we sufficiently marginalized the Native American population that it is now safe to ignore them?
I grew up in Urbana, home of the Fighting Illini, and as long as I remember there have been protestors outside games, denouncing the use of the “Chief” as racist. At football games he’s come out during half time, high kicking and doing a dance that resembled a cross between ballet and Russian bear dancing, presumably to rile the crowd up. For the longest time I was ambivalent to the issue of the Chief. Despite my strong opposition to stereotyping and racism, I made a special exception in my heart for the Chief because he was part of my childhood. I justified it by saying I found him inspiring, hardly the negative stereotype suggested by his detractors.
Now that I’ve achieved some distance from the issue, I can think about it from a more principled stance. These cartoonish stereotype of Native Americans are rarely flattering to the tribes whom they purport to represent. Those who find these depictions personally insulting are a disinfranchised minority, and thus their complaints can be ignored. It is financially and politically expedient to maintain the status quo.
Here’s a thought experiment — suppose we had a football team called the Birmingham Sambos. Would that be ok? Of course not! African Americans represent a large enough demographic that even if this team had been around for 100 years they would still have to change their name. How about the Freso Fags? Perhaps we only find these examples offensive because the name is derogatory. There is little redeeming value in the name Sambo, and Fag is regularly used as an insult (although it has been appropriated by the queer community). In contrast, we don’t find Brave offensive because it connotes strength and dignity. Thus we can say that our representations are uplifting and an honor to Native Americans, regardless of how they feel about it. This is just another manifestation of the Noble Savage argument, where we exalt the purity of “primitive cultures.”
Whenever we appropriate the signs of another culture, we necessarily reduce them. They are meant to stand for the original culture, to borrow aspects here and there without being faithful to the whole. Can this reference in and of itself be racist? Of course it can. But should the test be given to representatives of the original culture or are there overarching principles? I’m not sure how to answer this, but I do take care to be sensitive to the feelings of others. For example, I now inform others that the locution “that’s so gay” is not appropriate. Cultural sensitivity is a tricky thing, but the naming of sports teams is pretty clear cut, I think. And completely disgusting.