What is a slur? Redskins case forces us to decide

Something is happening just beneath the fight over the name of a certain Washington, D.C., pro football team: America is working through the process of determining what is - or is not - racially offensive.

What is a slur, and who gets to decide? How many people must be offended to tip the scales? Why should some be forced to sacrifice their traditions out of respect for others?

Americans are a long way from consensus on these questions, judging by the response to a federal ruling that the “Redskins” team name is disparaging and its trademarks should be canceled.

The team is appealing the decision, and even if it loses its trademark, it can still use the name. But this latest development highlights the limitations of how America wrestles with certain racial statements, and the struggle to balance free speech and social good.

A rapidly diversifying nation has more need than ever to figure out what is racially offensive.

Some offenses are undeniable: NBA owner Donald Sterling earned universal condemnation for asking his mistress not to bring black people to Los Angeles Clippers games.

Yet in an era of blunt and sometimes coarse online discussion and political debate, Americans continue to disagree about the nature of calling Hispanics who cross the border without documents “illegals,” or the propriety of images that depict President Barack Obama as a “witch doctor.”

And it took years of discussion to win makeovers for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, the stereotypical black faces used to sell syrup and rice.

Jim McCarthy, a lawyer who followed the Redskins trademark case, said he is not offended by the name, but “there’s no denying the fact that a certain percentage of Native Americans are offended. We don’t know if it’s a minority, a majority, but it’s a fact.”

“If we want to be the best version of ourselves in our society, do we want to promote that, or do we want to minimize that?” he asked.

“I’d love it to be different where people just cooperate to effect change,” he said. “But we’re a very adversarial society.”

Michael Lindsay, who was lead attorney for Indians in a prior trademark case, said there are two ways to determine if something is offensive.

“The first is the legal path. The other is out in the real world. The legal test, it seems to me, actually does have something to teach the real world,” said Lindsay, of the Dorsey and Whitney firm in Minneapolis.

Here is what the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, ruling Wednesday in a case first filed more than 20 years ago, tried to show the real world:

— What matters is if “Redskins” is disparaging to Native Americans — whether other ethnic groups are offended doesn’t matter.

— A “substantial” percentage of Native Americans must be offended — not a majority. The judges defined that threshold at 30 percent.

— A disparaging term does not require intent: “Redskins” can still be disparaging even if the team says it is intended to show honor and respect.

Based on testimony from linguistics and lexicography experts, and a review of how the term was used in dictionaries, books, newspapers, magazines and movies, the board ruled 2-1 that the term was disparaging to Native Americans.

The dissenting opinion was not a ringing endorsement of the term: “I am not suggesting that the term “redskins” was not disparaging ... Rather, my conclusion is that the evidence petitioners put forth fails to show that it was,” the judge wrote.

All of which left Paul Calobrisi, co-founder of www.savethewashingtonredskins.com, quite unsatisfied. In his opinion, there’s a simple way to determine whether something is a slur: The majority rules.

“I think an overwhelming majority of Native Americans should be against the name before we change it,” said Calobrisi, who grew up in Virginia rooting for the team.

He resisted the idea that a few people could decide something is offensive when he did not intend to offend them.

“If they think we’re demeaning them, if they think we think they are mascots, if we were doing it in any negative way, they are wrong ... As Redskins fans, we love them. Cowboys and Indians, we were the Indians. We cherish these people.”

But intent is irrelevant to Lindsay, the attorney: “When a substantial percentage tell you this is offensive, you should stop. It’s really that simple.”

“Even if you meant no offense, if you keep using it, what does that say about you?”

It says that some people care more about their traditions than determining what is offensive, said Gillian McGoldrick, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

Neshaminy’s nickname is the “Redskins.” Her newspaper recently chose to no longer print the name, but school administrators ordered them to do so. When McGoldrick and her staff resisted, administrators briefly confiscated the newspapers.

At first, McGoldrick thought the name honored Native Americans. But when an Indian school parent objected, she researched the history and usage of the word and changed her mind. She doesn’t think those who support the team name have fully investigated the issue.

“I don’t think they want to,” she said. “I think they want to decide the word for themselves. But that’s not how this works. We have dictionaries for that.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says the term is “very offensive and should be avoided.” But again, given today’s confrontational discourse on the Internet and in politics, do people really care about giving offense? Or has that value gone the way of curtsies and tipping hats?

“As a general culture, I think we care about offending certain people,” said Karmit Bulman, executive director of the Conflict Resolution Center in Minneapolis. “We are still very much a power-based society. We care if we offend those in power. We don’t care if we offend those who we see as irrelevant and invisible.”

“You can look at this (Redskins case) as a trivial dispute, it’s just a name,” she said. “Or you can look at it as demonstrating how we still have huge clashes between people who we see as different than we are. And that our systems that we use to try to address those issues are really unsatisfactory.”

___

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http:www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington@ap.org.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Jesse Washington
Jesse Washington
  • 1

    Nat Turner

    We cannot compare the bile that is said on the internet, with what can be said in the flesh, for in the flesh it would cause endless violence and murder.

  • -9

    fanofjapan2005

    I think a lot of this is malarkey. Why? Have any Native Americans -- individually or in groups -- ever griped about the MLB Cleveland Indians' grinning, goofy-looking VERY red-skinned, one-vertical-feather-in-his-hair Indian? That's the graphical version of "redskin. Talk about disparaging! "Redskins' owner, Daniel Snyder, heels dug in, is red-skinned from anger, not from embarrassment, so there's no way he will win.

    We need to resolve this no-win situation. I suggest that "Potomacs" would be a good name. The Potomac River, running through/alongside Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, was once called, along stretches, many other names, until various tribes huddled and decided on its present name. The problem is: there's a Minor League baseball team by the name of Potomacs, which is in an immediate area just outside of D.C.

    The 'Skins' venerable logo is heroic and noble. But if it can't be, and the "Redskins'" name goes with it, here is my humble, workable suggestion. It's a very football-ish word, AND we could also "honor" America's Legislative body, those elected officials who do nothing but wallow in mud, fling mud at each other, and whose bulging pockets make them look fat from the tons of money fed to them by hundreds of lobbyists. Ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for our 2014(??) "Washington Pigskins!"

  • 2

    Pandabelle

    Have any Native Americans -- individually or in groups -- ever griped about the MLB Cleveland Indians' grinning, goofy-looking VERY red-skinned, one-vertical-feather-in-his-hair Indian?

    Yes, many. There have been protests outside the stadium, protests which MLB simply ignores. There's even a movement to black out or remove Chief Wahoo logos from clothes as a protest.

  • 2

    Yogi Zuna

    It is shocking that in this day and age, we still have so many people who are not Native Americans who believe they have the right to control how words referring to people not of their own race can be used.

  • -1

    Reckless

    Yogi, yeah it is called free speech.

    I think it is time for Washington to enter the 21st century and change the name but there is a lot of money at stake, the brand is huge for them.

  • 1

    jonobugs

    I think it is time for Washington to enter the 21st century and change the name but there is a lot of money at stake, the brand is huge for them.

    So, you're saying that they should change their name, but it's okay if they don't because it will cost them money?

    Maybe they should just call it black skins or white skins. That shouldn't bother anyone, should it?

  • 0

    Lowly

    To me,

    A slur is the confluence of when I feel someone is talking down to me and using my race or nationality or whatever as evidence of my inferiority with the intent of the other person to talk down to me and insult me. i.e. I think I should be careful of being too sensitive, or misunderstanding someone whose communication I haven't confirmed.

    The Redskins logo is in a grey zone as it is not necessarily meant as insult and it is also not one person, but an organization. It does reduce a whole bunch of very different people to one ID, however, and as a whaddayacall, social phenomenon or whatever, it has a great influence on non-native americans as to how they view people grouped as "redskins".

    To me this would be eminently annoying! In Japan, if they had a sports team called "The Gais!" and a furrener were the mascot, would I like it? The history is different and the symbology is different too, but in general, This isn't for the greater good.

    On the other hand, the team's been around a long time, has its own mythology, and is a kind of self-referential icon at this time. Is it possible that it has post-modernized itself?

  • -1

    fanofjapan2005

    How 'bout Pale Faces? Then the majority could get mad!

    Speaking of linguistic racial outrages, here are a few "Pecos Bill" movie-cartoon lines from dear, sweet, innocent Walt Disney in the 1940s:


    Now, the Indians were having a war dance. Pecos started shooting up their little game. He gave those injuns such a shake up That they jumped out of their make-up, And that's how the "Painted Dessert" got its name.


    No protests back then.

  • -2

    Fadamor

    I live in the D.C. area and therefore I'm in "Redskins' Country". I generally root for the team, but the only merchandise I have with the Redskins' Logo/Name are four plastic tumblers. As such, a change in the name of the football team isn't going to affect me in any significant way. It's still going to be Washington's football team regardless of what name the team goes by.

    With that said, I have to pose this question: "Other than in movies depicting the Old West, when has anyone used "redskin" in the last 81 years and referred to a Native American?" My father hails from Raton, New Mexico (Pueblo and Hopi Indian country) and in all the times we went out there to visit my grandparents while they were alive, "redskin" meant someone was talking about Washington's football team. I lived for 8 years in Liverpool NY up near the Onondaga and Oneida Indian Reservations and I never heard the term used once that wasn't about Washington's football team. The English language constantly evolves - with usages fading into and out of our lexicon. It's my belief that the only ones keeping the racial slur aspect of "redskin" alive are these Indian activist groups. It certainly isn't in use by the general public.

  • 0

    Yogi Zuna

    It's my belief that the only ones keeping the racial slur aspect of "redskin" alive are these Indian activist groups. It certainly isn't in use by the general public.

    No, actually the "only" one keeping the slur "redskin" alive now is the owner of the football team with that racial slur for it's name.

  • 0

    Reckless

    Yeah Yogi Zuna I agree with you, my point is that the football franchise is a business and they and only they will lose a lot of money in the change of names, so I understand their resistance.

  • 3

    JTDanMan

    For what it is worth the National Congress of American Indians objects to the term.

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