Redskins – Political Correctness or Cultural Sensitivity?

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The debate continues over the name of the Washington Redskins football team. By now most know the basic stances of both sides:

  • On the one hand, you have a team that has used that name since the 1930s. Claims are it was never meant in a derogatory fashion but instead to encourage a sense of pride, strength, and warrior spirit. To change it would cost millions in re-franchising and close the chapter on almost a century of sports history.
  • On the other hand, you have a team using a name that was wildly used as a pejorative throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Regardless of the frequency of use today or its archaic nature, the term is offensive and is inconsiderate to a large population of people. To not change it would be to turn a blind eye to the feelings of others and to support a precedent toward apathy in an already divisive society.

One recent suggestion was that to change the name was simply trying to be “politically correct” for the sake of being such. The name is not the source of any discriminatory acts against Native Americans, who are likely unaffected by some football team on the East Coast. I disagree with this assertion and so do over 250 distinct nations represented by the National Congress of American Indians.

“Political Correctness” would be about whether someone is called “American Indian” versus “Native American”, or if it’s OK to use any Native American iconography. Instead, this is about the insensitive use of a term that even the apathetic agree is a racial slur; 56% of those in favor of keeping the name still agreed it was an “inappropriate way to describe a Native American Indian.” Although archaic and not holding the same strength it once did, “Redskins” is no more acceptable than the terms “Coolie” or “Spearchucker”. Such a word has no place in common parlance, no matter what the current connotation or usage.

To understand different ways to use words, let’s look at semantics, political correctness, and cultural insensitivity:

  • Semantics is all about intent versus literal meaning. This has nothing to do with offense, it’s simply arguing about the literal nature of words, like whether the word “gay” only means “happy” or that an “electric eel” is not an “eel”. Claiming a naturalized citizen from Africa is the only true “African-American” is semantics, because we know what the intent of the word was regardless of its literal definition.
  • Political correctness is the claim that a given meaning is offensive, regardless of its prior unoffensive usage. This may be done because of new information, like the fact that “Eskimo” turned out to be a pejorative by the original French settlers, leading to the use of the term “Inuit”. Claiming that “Black” is offensive where as “African-American” is not, despite its widespread, non-pejorative use (even among that population) is being politically correct.
  • Cultural insensitivity is the use of a term that is (or was) a pejorative, regardless of its current status or the target population’s feelings on the matter. Claiming you were “gypped” is insensitive because it originated as an accusation against the supposed thievery by the Roma or “gypsies” (a politically incorrect term). Using a term like “Spearchucker” in conjunction with anything related to African-Americans (toys, media, organizations, etc.), while claiming nothing ill is meant and its done in honor of them, is being culturally insensitive. (Not to mention stupid.)

Regardless of what one believes, the term Redskins is neither semantics or politically incorrect; it is an offensive term applied to a people who still find it insulting. Changing it is not because of political correctness but an attempt to to change the system of modern racism and individual discrimination; to do this we need to recognize when words or acts are inappropriate and remove them from everyday society. Although some of us are smart enough to understand common sense, recognize our own bias, and avoid such behavior, we must accept that much of the population lacks that critical thought and education. So, to teach younger generations cultural sensitivity we have to start with basics… such as accepting that this team’s name is inappropriate, offends a significant portion of the population it refers to, and has no place in a diverse, intercultural society.