California s of the use of the name Redskins by schools is likely the beginning of a trend. Native Americans have been decrying the term Redskin as a slur for a good while now, and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder s refusal to change the name of the team is looking increasingly callous and antique. Many will celebrate that Redskin is likely starting to go the way of Oriental and well, you know. Yet some may quietly be harboring another question: What s so terrible about referring to the fact that many Native Americans have a reddish skin tone compared to other people? It s not as if having red skin is a negative or even humorous trait. It isn t illogical to wonder, deep down, whether Native Americans are fashioning a controversy. They aren t, though, because words can come to have meanings quite different from their literal ones, and when it comes to matters of insult and dignity, meaning counts. For example, the term Oriental for Asians became impolite 25 years ago. Yet it s true that Asian heritage, for Chinese, Japanese and Korean people, is in the Orient, traditionally a Western word for Asia. One now and then hears someone, usually of a certain age, grousing that Well, now they want to be called Asians with an air of dismissal, as if people go around willfully creating confusion and feigning hurt. But actually, Oriental came to be associated with stereotypes of the people in question, such that it was felt that a new term was necessary. Long ago, the same thing happened to Chinaman. What s wrong with it calling a man from China a Chinaman? Nothing, in the literal sense but as always, life is more than the literal. Chinaman signifies the subservient, exotified Ah, sohhh! figure from Charlie Chan movies; out it went and few miss it.
Oriental was next. These things can be subtle. I once had to inform a foreign student that in class discussion it was unseemly to refer to another person directly as a Jew, rather than as a Jewish person. To be American is to internalize that a Jew has an air of accusation and diminishment (ironically the student was from Israel! ). That makes no literal sense, but it is a reality, as it is that to many, blacks sounds abrupt and hostile compared to black people. We are faced with something analogous to what Steven Pinker has artfully called the. When something has negative associations, the word referring to it gradually takes on implied meanings connected with that contempt. This happens under the radar, but after about a generation, the reality becomes impossible to ignore. What was once called home relief became more politely called welfare after a while, for example. But it s easy to forget what a positive and even warm word welfare is, given the associations it had amassed by the 1970s. Today one increasingly speaks of cash assistance and that term will surely have the same bad odor about it among many sooner rather than later. Yet all of these terms mean the same thing literally. The literal is but one part of language as we actually live it. Crippled, for example, is in itself a neutral, descriptive term taken literally, it even harbors an element of sympathy. However, the realities of discrimination meant that crippled had a less neutral connotation after a while, upon which handicapped was a fine substitute. But after a while, we needed disabled, and of course now there is differently abled, and indeed there will likely be something else before long.
This, then, is why Redskins qualifies as slur despite not being a literal insult. Words have not only core meanings, but resonances of the kind that may not make it into the dictionary but are deeply felt by all of us. Sometimes we need to get back down to cases with a new word. It may not be mean to tell someone their skin happens to be reddish. But it s mean to call someone a Redskin. There s a difference.
The Washington Redskins football team has come under increasing pressure to change its name and stop causing offence to Native Americans. A visit to a reservation in North Dakota helps explain why there is such strong feeling over the word \”redskin\”. It was the fastest $50 I ever lost. Late at night I wandered the smoke-filled floor of the Sky Dancer Casino, way at the top of frozen, flat North Dakota. In a back room, a poker game was in full swing. Now I can mostly resist the dumbly flashing lights of slot machines, but given the chance to play cards, I\’m all in. I gave my money to the cashier and got a stack of chips in return. As I sat down at the table eight pairs of eyes looked me up and down. You might say the locals saw me coming. In their leather jackets, baseball caps and jeans, they were friendly – but business-like. http://www. bbc. co. uk/programmes/b04tljk6 I didn\’t really get the chance to chat. Because within 15 minutes they had entirely cleaned me out. My chips all gone, I slunk away to the bar. The next day I sheepishly recounted my losses over breakfast with Jordan Brien, the young Native American who was my guide around the reservation. \”Let me ask you this,\” he says, \”were they all Natives around the table? \” \”Yes,\” I guess, judging by skin colour and accent – the Native American one is just slightly different from the upper Midwest honk that will be familiar to fans of the movie Fargo. \”Think of it this way – you probably fed a family for a week.
Some of those guys make a living like that,\” says Brien. I guess that made me feel a little bit better. Jobs at the Sky Dancer casino – whether they be fleecing visiting poker players, or more conventionally, working behind the bar – are one of the few economic bright spots on the reservation. If you arrive, like I did, after driving half a day along straight, paper-flat roads, you\’ll notice that those mountains aren\’t really mountains at all – it\’s a stretch to even call them hills. Still, any rise in the Great Plains landscape gives you a glorious panoramic view. This is \”big sky\” country, almost exactly at the centre of the North American continent. Brien grew up here and it almost killed him: alcohol, drugs, wayward relatives, a broken home. He\’s 30, but in a hoodie he looks a lot younger- it\’s almost as if moving off the reservation took years off his life. He now has a musical career, a steady job, a wife, and a child on the way, but something keeps drawing him back to Turtle Mountain. I find out what it is when we visit Brien\’s old school. The kids greet him with high fives and confidential asides – part pop star, part older brother. He\’s greeted warmly by one of the teachers who points out the students she\’s most worried about. \”That one\’s been abandoned by his mother,\” she tells me. \”Over there, she shows up to school with bruises. That one there, he\’s a father – he\’s just turned 14. \” The obvious question is, with all the problems on Turtle Mountain, does the name of a football team in Washington DC, 1,500 miles (2,500km) away really matter?
The team\’s fans say the word \”redskins\” means honour and respect, and that it\’s a decades-old tradition that unites their city. The team\’s owner says he\’ll never change it. Some argue that the row about the name is political correctness gone mad or, as they might say around these parts, \”gone crazy\”. Jordan Brien\’s uncle, Kenny, died in his 40s But political correctness is a strange thing – often a straw man for those who would prefer the comfort of old ways to the difficulty of changing their minds. The history of Native Americans is certainly a bleak one of depopulation, exile and brutality. I\’ve been shown a newspaper advert from Minnesota, dating from 1863: \”The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every redskin sent to purgatory. \” To underline the point, the advertiser added: \”This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth. \” One fan of the team – who\’s open to changing the name – tells me: \”If you don\’t think the word\’s offensive, next time you see a Native American, go up to them and say \’hey redskin, how\’s your day going? \’\’\’ I can think of many things to call those poker players at the Sky Dancer casino. Shrewd maybe. Slightly richer for sure. Right after dropping those $50 I could have spat out much worse. But \”redskin\”? – somehow, I don\’t think so. Listen to which was broadcast on Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4, or browse Crossing Continents. How to listen to : BBC Radio 4: or. BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday – see World Service. Subscribe to the to get articles sent to your inbox.