Saturday, August 06, 2005

Political Correctness -- A test case

Yesterday, I caught a wire story that is in our morning papers today that was quite startling -- the NCAA has decided to ban any use of a set of Amerindian names and logos by teams playing in NCAA sanctioned events starting in 2006. The NY Times writes

Starting in February, any school with a nickname or logo considered racially or ethnically ''hostile'' or ''abusive'' by the NCAA would be prohibited from using them in postseason events. Mascots will not be allowed to perform at tournament games, and band members and cheerleaders will also be barred from using American Indians on their uniforms beginning in 2008.
Specifically, the names banned are
Braves,Indians,Chippewas, Seminoles, Utes, Redmen, Illini, Choctaws, Fighting Siouxx, Savages
This ruling has been met with considerable anger and anguish by the universities affected and their alumni and fans.

Over the years, such universities as Stanford, Miami of Ohio, Marquette, and others have voluntarily rid themselves of such nicknames, which, of course, upset the Alumni at the time. Its as if the university was taking something valuable away from their college experience though it is hard to say what it is.

We have here a clear case of what is referred to as "political correctness" to debate. What we may not do is simply label this as an instance of political correctness and think we are done with our critique. That would be as stupid as labeling a proposed Congressional bill as liberal or as conservative thereby condemning it to failure without actually debating its merits.

Some of these nicknames are clearly problematic. "Redmen, "Fighting Siouxx, and Savages (if it is somehow made clear that the reference is to Amerindians). It seems that there are no "Redskins" in college any more except, of course, for the Washington pro football team. "Redmen' and "Redskins" are transparently offensive, as is "Savages." The "Fighting Illini" and "Fighting Siouxx" might reasonably be regarded as an offensive way of referring to Amerindians, focusing on their hostile side as they do, as is the Tomahawk Chop used by the Florida State Seminoles.

Florida State University alleges that the Seminole Indians left in Florida approve of their use of the name "Seminoles" and naturally are offended that the NCAA would think it knows better about its offensiveness than the Seminoles themselves. The University of Illinois has someone dressed as an Indian Chief (with a beautiful head dress) who does a dance of some sort and during the five years I taught there, I always saw this as a respectful demonstration little different from the sorts of dances that actual Indians put on themselves. But that is the rub. If a member of the Illini tribe came to games and did that dance one might feel differently about it than if some white kid dresses up as an Indian and does it.

The question that goes to the heart of this issue is: "Who gets to decide what is and is not offensive to Amerindians?" When White men and women have declared that an Amerindian reference is or is not offensive, a smile comes to my face. That is like leaving it up to White men and women to decide whether "nigger" is offensive. In this case, White people (at least those of a nonracist disposition) have deferred to African Americans. White people have also deferred to African Americans in regard to the use of "Negro." Why, then, do White people feel that they don't have to defer to American Indians in regard to whether or not a reference to them is offensive? The issue is identical.

White men who are WASPS of a heterosexual nature simply do not get a vote on the question whether or not a reference to women or African Americans or Amerindians is offensive, the reason being that we have no experience of this sort of discriminatory practice. How do you insult those who have long been at the top of the social pyramid for being at the top? During the Good Old Days, African Americans coined "Honkey" to refer to people like me. I'm am terribly sorry to report that I felt nothing. My response was less feeling bad than feeling amused. Indeed, the closest I have come to feeling insulted by a reference to the group of which I am a member was when a couple of gay friends told me that they called people like me "breeders." I felt a little bit dehumanized for a split second and then I laughed. This is what I meant by saying that heterosexual WASPS have no experience of how it feels to be put down by a racial or ethnic slur. You just can't insult me by calling me "White" (which is not to say I don't feel ashamed at what White people have done to others over the centuries). Ergo we don't get a vote.

I feel pretty secure in the belief that my Ohio State Buckeyes will get to keep the reference to "Buckeyes" since currently at least there is no nut special interest group though some will surely think that the special interest group that persuaded the NCAA to make this move is nutty. My high school sports teams were called the "Enid Plainsmen." When I first recalled this name in the context of thinking about the question of the offensiveness of names refering to Amerindians, my memory was that it referred to white settlers in the Great Plains of the Midwest. Someone remarked that they would have thought it referred to Amerindians who roamed the Great Plains. Now, I ask whether this name would be offensive as applied to White settlers in the Great Plains? My answer would be, "No." Wouldn't it have to be the same if it referred to the Amerindians of the Great Plains? It seems that it if it is not offensive in the one case it should not be offensive in the second so long as we are talking only about the names rather than corresponding logos and mascots. But, then, I, being a heterosexual WASP don't get a vote as to its potential offensiveness to Amerindians as I said.

My private feeling is that the NCAA, as it always does, has used a bludgeon where a scalpel would be a better tool. If the Seminole Indians take pride in Florida State University chosing to use their tribal name how is it the the NCAA should overide their feelings. On the other hand, FSU ought to lose the "tomahawk chop" they used during the chanting they do.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Except that "Buckeyes" started as "Bugeyes", an insensitive reference to Ohio women with thyroid problems. A Tipp City attorney has filed an action seeking class status.

12:40 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Claire, I have since heard that the Oklahoma Seminoles are in favor of FSU using the name despite earlier reports. Thanks for your note.

7:38 AM


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