The majority of the people who I hear talking about this issue—the ones calling the nickname offensive and labeling it a slur—are not Native Americans. They are white people and black people. (And we’ll table for another day the difference between referring to someone by the color of their skin—a white person—or calling them the color of their skin—a redskin.) And so my question is thus? Why are non-Native Americans offended on behalf of Native Americans?
Several points need to be made here. 1) Native Americans are not without a voice. This is not a case of people with a voice protecting those without, say adults standing up for children who aren’t able to defend themselves. While Native Americans may be a minority in the United States, they certainly are able to have their views and opinions heard. 2) No one is being assaulted or attacked. A sports team is using a nickname and a logo. The argument is made, I suppose, that hearing that “the Redskins beat the Eagles 24-17” is causing mental and emotional stress to Native Americans. I would suggest that if that is the case, there really isn’t much that we can say that won’t cause mental and emotional stress to someone. And while we do need to be careful that our words and actions don’t offend others, there is a line. To misquote Abraham Lincoln, “You can offend some of the people all the time.” 3) We (non-Native Americans) are not elitist authorities on what is best for Native Americans. In fact, to even suggest that we are, would be considered a rather appalling statement to, I think, just about everyone.
So where does that leave us? Asking very important questions. First, is the term “redskin” truly a slur? Was it originally meant and understood as a slur? If not, what has changed? Have we as a culture “evolved”? Or have we as a culture become oversensitive? Is the offense taken by some Native Americans offset by the fact that other Native Americans feel honored by the Washington Redskins? Is “redskin” different than “white” or “black”? Is referring to someone by the color of their skin worse than by the color of their hair or eyes? Does the intent behind the reference matter?
Admittedly, I am not a Native American…well, not a full-blooded Native American. I am 1/16 or 1/32 Stockbridge, I believe. And so it is a fair point to argue that I do not understand all the ramifications of certain remarks. I’ve never been singled out because of the color of my skin. I’ve never been the recipient of a slur. I cannot accurately put myself in the place of a black man in the 1960s South or an Arab post 9/11, or of a Native American watching the NFL to determine if they should or should not be offended. And that is precisely my point. I cannot feel what they feel. So it may not be appropriate for me to say that they shouldn’t be offended. But it is then also not appropriate for other non-Native Americans to say that they should be offended. Shouldn’t it be up to Native Americans—not primarily (to my observance) white men—to determine if the term “Redskins” is a derogatory slur? And everything I’ve seen and heard indicates that, at the very least, Native Americans disagree on the matter. Until they come to a consensus—or at least a majority opinion—shouldn’t we (as non-Native Americans) stay out of it?
The other question that needs to be asked is what is the government’s role in this matter? The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” Freedom of speech does not mean that you can say and do whatever you want without repercussion. The standard example is that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. But the First Amendment does mean that the government is not supposed to create a list of acceptable or banned words or phrases, and thus I interpret, logos and trademarks. Even if the term “redskins” is truly a derogatory slur, the Washington franchise has a constitutional right to still use that nickname. And we the people have a right to cheer for the Cowboys (after all, they are America’s team) and not attend Redskin games, buy Redskin paraphernalia, or otherwise support the team. I believe this, at its core, is as much a “free market,” First Amendment issue as it is a matter of whether or not the term is offensive and inappropriate.
I also believe that I likely hold a minority opinion (at least of those opinions being publicly voiced). And I realize that I am, as mentioned above, not the foremost authority on the subject. I welcome dissenting opinions. I welcome a good debate about the topic. But I also feel that the tide of this country is, that if anyone is offended or put off by anything, to rush to the far extreme as quickly as possible, and to label anyone who doesn’t also rush to that extreme as ignorant and insensitive. And the only way that tide is going to be stemmed is if we take a stand against that mentality, if we examine the facts before we rush to conclusion, and if we not let the feelings, opinions, beliefs, and values of a minority—particularly a small minority—dictate the feelings, opinions, beliefs, and values of the majority. That doesn’t mean that minorities should be ignored—please don’t misinterpret me to be saying anything close to that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have had the civil rights movement because blacks were a minority. But I am saying that if (and I’m speaking generally here, not of a specific situation) 1 person in a group of 10 is offended by something, before we mandate that the other 9 hold the 1 person’s beliefs and offenses, shouldn’t we first examine the facts thoroughly to see if there is a legitimate grievance or if perhaps the 1 person is oversensitive, uninformed, misreported, or just wrong?
If not, I have one more question: Where will we ultimately draw the line?