PC nonsense? I think not.

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.

0 thoughts on “PC nonsense? I think not.

  1. The “Reds” used to be the “Cincinnati Red Stockings,” like the “Boston Red Stockings.” But whereas Boston became the Red Sox, Cincinnati became the Reds. Nothing to do with Native Americans whatsoever.

    Painting all use of Native American imagery as de facto racist and offensive is, at least in my view, a gross oversimplification. Indeed, I’m not sure that even the protestors view the name “Braves” as offensive, or, if they do, it’s not on the level of “Indians” and “Redskins.” “Braves” is a name that is not functionally different from “Trojans,” “Spartans,” “Warriors,” or any number of other militaristic names that are given to sports teams. There’s a serious slippery slope you can get on when you start to declare all Native American references taboo in popular culture unless “authentically” represented.

    Names like “Redskins,” “Indians,” mascots like Chief Wahoo and fan rituals like the tomahawk chop are in a very different category than “Braves.” It’s a sliding scale.

  2. Here’s another thought experiment. Suppose there was a well known university whose nickname and symbol unmistakenly implied that all citizens of Ireland are drunken bar-brawlers. Is that also offensive? Or does Notre Dame get off easy because it’s acceptable to offend white people?

  3. I bet if you took a poll of Irish and Irish-descendants and their attitudes towards Notre Dame, you’d probably find that most don’t view Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” mascot as all that offensive. It’s a historical oddity in part – if memory serves, Notre Dame was one of the few schools that would take Irish Catholic students back in the days of rampant discrimination in college admissions. So the attitude of Irish Americans towards Notre Dame is not one of hostility. (Intriguing question – what do recent Irish immigrants think of Notre Dame?)

    Furthermore, there was never the kind of sustained, calculated, imperialistic, and militaristic effort to eradicate Irish culture, heritage and people in North America that there was to eradicate the culture, heritage, and people of Native American tribes. The Irish in America don’t have the equivalent of Wounded Knee, or the Trail of Tears. So the attitude of many Native Americans towards Native American themed sports mascots is that of someone whose culture and way of life was systematically destroyed and then has to watch as a few scraps of their culture and heritage are played for laughs at a sporting event.

  4. as an insensitive anti-PC southerner and someone with too much time on her hands, i’ll add my 2 cents.

    imho, there really are approximately 3 categories into which these behaviors (for lack of a better word) fall:

    a.) grossly offensive: i would say that the tomahawk chop and your dancing chief fall into this category.
    b.) mildly offensive: naming of teams such as ‘redskins,’ a term which could be a slur in common speech, but i don’t actually know. if it’s actually a slur, it should go into the grossly offensive category.
    c.) not offensive but not necessarily supportive: naming of teams as ‘braves’ or ‘orioles’ or ‘illini.’ i don’t feel that these names encourage the ‘noble savage’ stereotype at all. more accurately, they reflect the strengths of a group without saying anything about any other aspect. because team names like the fighting irish and the minutemen and the musketeers and the vikings exist, i don’t think that you can argue that naming a team after a native american group is a form of marginalization as long as that name is not inherently offensive.

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