Are you a member of the Tribe?

Today, I watched a football game (Washington at Chicago). I don’t watch football much anymore. Between the amount of injuries and the number of games that seem to be decided by the referee’s judgement instead of the players’ skills, football just doesn’t seem to be all that interesting anymore. But, I used to really love the game. As a teenager, I played nearly every day and watched both pro and college games whenever I could get control of the TV. My favorite team was the Washington Redskins, which was our local team. They were usually pretty good, and had some great characters. Art Monk and Darrell Green were two my favorites. I didn’t really think about the team name, despite being part Choctaw. It had always just been there.

Now, whenever I watch one of their games, one of the things I think about is how to view the team’s name. Is Redskins offensive? My short answer is that depends upon the context of when it is used. To illustrate, I want to share a couple of anecdotes. The first is an occasion many years ago when I called my frog supplier in Wisconsin to order more frogs for our experiments. He started to explain why they would take a day or two longer than usual and wound up going on a several minute rant about how the drunken indian cowards were jealous of his business and slashed his tires just to be mean. He never even seemed to pause for a breath until he asked me something about how much I hated them damn stinkin’ Indians. I answered, yes, we’re just a bunch of drunken liars, aren’t we. He went silent for a few seconds, then asked what tribe was I. Then he told me the Choctaw were fine people, it was the Menominee who were so horrible and was back off on his rant. I found another supplier that afternoon.

The second story is rather embarrassing, but helped me to learn a lesson. I generally ate lunch with a group of women scientists and thought of myself as part of the group. One member of the group got pregnant, and she was not happy about it. She was planning to wait for several years until she had established her career. She decided to have the baby, but complained about every aspect of her pregnancy and how it was affecting her lab work. (At that time tumor cell biologists used a lot of radioactive tracers.) I got tired of her attitude and constant complaining, but kept quiet since I didn’t really want to hurt her feelings or ruin what had been a nice friendship up till that point. Then one day at lunch as she complained of putting weight on her stomach and thighs since she couldn’t work out like before, another luncher suddenly said, “Why don’t you try rubbing vanishing cream on your stomach, maybe the whole thing will vanish?” Which sounds harsh, but she said it in a joking way, so everyone laughed (although I suspect the laughter was more uncomfortable than I realized). Another one of the women chipped in with, “If all else fails, you could try eating a little less.” Finally in a moment of supreme stupidity, I chipped in with, or you could try liposuction. Suddenly, the entire table went silent. Half a dozen very hostile stares turned to me, as my former friend asked if I was suggesting she have an abortion. I tried to stammer out an explanation that she was complaining about fat building up on her stomach and thighs and people were using liposuction to get rid of fat. But finally I just apologized and said that I didn’t mean to be an ass, but that I was. And then I left. The other women from lunch seemed to forgive me, and one even said she understood my frustration with her, but that it was the wrong way to say it. I thanked her, said she was right, and started eating lunch at my desk and reading papers. It was easier that way.

So where am I going with this? Well, many of you may remember a comedian named Jeff Foxworthy. His act included jokes like, “If you think loading the dishwasher means getting your wife drunk, you might be a redneck.” Foxworthy told those jokes in a southern accent, wearing jeans and boots, and implying that he was describing some of his family members or friends. In other words, the jokes were about his tribe (or group) so they are somewhat self-deprecating and funny. But imagine someone like Mitt Romney telling the same joke in public. It would come off as an insult because he is clearly not a member of the redneck tribe. Although, I don’t think of myself as native american most of the time, when I hear someone insulting native americans I get angry. And even though I thought of my lunch friends as accepting me, I am not a woman and saying something that could be insulting to all women pissed them off because – I was not a member of the tribe.

So, is the Redskins name offensive? It really does depend upon who says it, and when they say it. If a reservation school uses Redskins as a team name that is no different than the Fighting Irish or Ragin’ Cajuns. It is group of people basically naming the team for themselves in a humorous way. But if you are not a member of the tribe, it is likely to come across as an insult. Even if you think it is a compliment, and that you are using the name to show how you respect the strength and courage of Native Americans, it isn’t. Because you aren’t a member of the tribe and any potential insult is not self-deprecating.

Personally, I would suggest to Dan Snyder that he change the name of his team to something like the Washington Warriors. It’s not perfect, but at the least Warriors doesn’t have the negative baggage and would allow him to keep some of the Native American imagery without it being an automatic insult. Better yet, have several mascots and bring in imagery of all military people in America. Have your charitable foundation develop scholarships available to both Native American children and Military Veterans’ children. Talk about how the team name honors all the warriors, both the Native Americans and the American military. Then we are all members of your tribe, and can proudly support the team if we so choose.

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