January 31, 2014

End of the Month Controversy: Change the Mascot

Jim Thorpe- one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Professional Baseball Player, Professional Football Player,
Olympic Gold Medalist, and Native American.
This being America, you can tell the change in the season by what sports are on television.

In March, that first time I'm flipping through channels and see baseball, it's like the first time the sun has ever shone. I cry, most years. That's not an exaggeration. Because baseball means spring, and dear lord are midwestern winters long.

So I know it was just around the twins' birthday, when baseball was lagging and football only just getting started again, that my husband narrowly avoided having a very uncomfortable conversation with his children.

M loves sports. And, poor guy, he loves his home teams. So he lives in a perpetual state of nervous disappointment, half heartedly hoping that the Vikings will actually lose every single game so they get the best draft picks, while genuinely wanting them to win. And, poor guy, he's also a Twins fan. So these past few years have been rough on him.

A part of our national culture, identity, and heritage
Nothing, not even the colossal failures of his favorite teams, could keep him from sharing his love of organized sports with his children. And his children, being inquisitive and intelligent four year olds, want to sit with him and quiz him about the games, as they understand them.

And so it was, not long after their birthday, that he sat watching football with his children, and found himself answering questions about the teams.

"What is that team wearing orange pants?"
"Those are the Broncos. They're from Denver."
"Is Denver on my globe?"
"Sure is."
"What's a Bronco?"
"It's a name for a horse. See the picture of the horse in the corner? That's a Bronco."
"What's the team wearing yellow pants?"
"Those are... that's the team from Washington."
"Like where Aunt Something Funny lives?"
"Yes, exactly. They play where Aunt Something Funny lives."
"We have a book about Washington!"

I could see him breathe more easily. He thought he'd avoided the worst of it. But no.

"Daddy? What are their names?"
"That guy's called RG3! Isn't that a funny name?"
"But what's the TEAM named?"
"They're called the Redskins."

He said it so calmly, as though if he completely ignored it he'd just be able to gloss it over. And then he waited.

He waited because he knew she was going to ask him, "What's a Redskin?" and he'd have to answer. He'd have to come up with something to tell her a "Redskin" was that would still let her know that it's not okay to reduce people to racial slurs.

We live in a very diverse city. A diverse neighborhood. Heck, a diverse building. And one of the best parts of living somewhere with a culture of diversity is that it's nearly impossible to avoid learning to be respectful and sensitive of people's differences, and of thoughtless offenses people make against them.

I would be pissed as hell if somebody used a racial slur to describe my neighbors. I should be pissed as hell whenever anybody uses a racial slur of any kind, towards anyone.

But you sort of get used to it. People sort of say to themselves, "Oh, it's nostalgic," or "It's not like there's anybody here who would take offense."

And that's bad logic. Because, like in my home, there's always somebody who can be hurt by learning something ugly. And my husband sat on the couch in front of a football game quietly panicking because he was sure he was about to have to tell his four year old daughters that there was a game they were watching, on television, for fun. starring a team who's name was a way to dehumanize not just one race of people, but dozens (if not hundreds) of specific indigenous ethnicities.

I got my children this WONDERFUL book that I loved
as a kid, so that next time we talk about this we'll have
a better frame of reference.
And you know what? She didn't ask. She miraculously accepted that "Redskins" was their name, and left it at that. And he was relieved. For a few hours.

That night he got riled up before bed. "I should have told her," he said. "I should have told her that it's not a nice word, and she shouldn't use it."

And I fell in love with him maybe just a little bit more.

All over this country, we have a problem with offensive language. I'm not talking about swear words and bleeped out songs on the radio, I'm talking about something deeper and more insidious. I'm talking about governors who have "colorful" names for their family ranches. I'm talking about rural high schools with predominantly white student bodies that have a caricature of an Arab for their mascot.

In America, we've worked through some of these issues. We no longer have professional sports clubs with names like "The New York Kikes," but for some reason breaking down indigenous people to these stereotypes runs rampant. It's everywhere. "The Redmen," "The Chiefs," "The Brownies," and even "The Savages" are all remarkably common names for sports teams, with correspondingly dehumanizing mascots.

And why is that okay?

It's not okay.

One of the things about being a parent is you never stop teaching. Just yesterday I was driving the girls to preschool, and we were talking about not hitting pedestrians with the car. SI pointed at one person crossing the street and shouted, "IT MOVED!"

And I gave her a lecture on how we NEVER call people "it." People are people, so we call them "they" or "who" or "he" or "she" or whatever else they want to be called. But never "it." "It" is a word for things that are less than human, in our own estimation, and when we call somebody an "it," we deny them an element of their own humanity.

Did she understand all of that? Probably not. But she won't go around calling people "it," of that I'm certain.

And reducing all the native peoples of the United States to one offensive "it" for the sake of continuity in a team history....

Well, if Dan Snyder was in the back seat of my minivan, he'd get a similar lecture.

But the real question of whether or not something is offensive isn't whether it's uncomfortable for me to talk about with my children. (Although that's a pretty good indicator.) It's whether or not anybody is hurt.

This ad makes it pretty clear what the answer is.

The time has long since come and gone for this type of dehumanizing characature to leave the spotlight of American culture.

It's time to accept that we, as a culture, have made a lot of mistakes in the past, and commit to change.

And this is as fine a place to start as any.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, as a part-Native American and a believer in human equality. My mother did a great job of teaching me that all people are important and equal (and that different cultures are really interesting and none are less significant than others). I hope to pass this down to my son, as well.



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