When George Marshall changed the name of his football team from the Boston Braves to the Boston Redskins in 1932, he may or may not have meant it as a tribute to the team’s coach William Henry Dietz. Glen Beck thinks that he did, but then again Glen Beck thinks a lot of things that I am dubious about. Coach Dietz may not even have been part Native American. The only thing I do believe about this legend of the origin of the name “Redskins” is that the word was not considered offensive at the time, at least not by the general population. But things change.
Bitch, once considered an offensive word for a woman, is so common now that is seems to be in the lyrics of every other song. My mother, a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement of the sixties, would slip sometimes and refer to African Americans as “darkies”, the word she had been taught as a child. She died still confused about why her word was so offensive and the phrase “people of color” was not.
It comes down to how a word or phrase is perceived, most importantly by those whom it describes and to some extent by the others using and hearing the word as well. We could start a campaign today to refer to all blue eyed people as “water eyes” and say it in a fashion that implies a great deal of disrespect. After awhile it would become pejorative and children would rightly be taught not to use the term. Silly? Not really. It’s not the literal meaning of the words that matter or even the history of the phrase. It is the generally accepted meaning of the word now that determines if a term is hurtful and needs to be avoided .
Yes, it is true that some days this seems like rough ground to navigate. I have learned to use Inuit not Eskimo. I’ve realized that there are South Asians. I’ve dropped “retarded” from my vocabulary along with “third world country”. In the end, it isn’t all that difficult and I am glad to refer to people as they prefer. I want to stop using words once they become offensive, or once I realize that they always were and I just didn’t know it.
So I just do not get Daniel Snyder. The name of a sports team is not just about history. It is very much about the present. Whether Mr. Synder likes it or not (and clearly he does not) the name Redskins has slowly come to offend a lot of people. It particularly offends many Native Americans and the fact that it does not offend every single one of them is besides the point. Things change. Once it became clear that his team mascot had become offensive to many, it was time for it to go.
However, Snyder has made quite a point of the fact that he cannot be forced to change his team’s name. Okay, he can’t. He has a right to be an asshole if he insists on it. (Wait. Is “asshole” an offensive term?)
Imagine my delight tonight when my like-minded husband started yelling at the TV. Generally he yells because somebody playing some sport has done something inept and he is displeased, but tonight he was yelling his support. CBS football analyst Phil Simms and NBC football analyst Tony Dungy declared that they are going to refuse to use the name “Redskins” on the air. If no one can make Snyder behave with compassion, then Snyder cannot force these newscasters to behave without it. On September 25, the Giants will play the “team from Washington” and even I will be watching.
Things change. Today was a good today because there was at least one change for the better.