By Any Other Name

How to build a group 101: Find people who share a common bond, like say, self-governance and liberation from British Monarchy. You make statements about your values, for example: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Standards of behavior will assert themselves, or if your group is large, those might need to be codified and given a proper name, like the Articles of Confederation. But when you march into battle, you won’t be waving your parchment and quill pen. To tell the us from the them, you need easy-to-identify symbols. Flags, eagles, stars, snakes, stripes, team colors, catchy phrases like “give me liberty or give me death.”

From the Smithsonian

Unfortunately, as a member of the group, you don’t get to decide what is attributed to your group. And the bigger your group gets, the longer it exists, chances increase that other members will use the symbols of the groups to promote values which fall outside of your subset.

So I might look at your bright yellow Hummer with an American flag waving on the antenna and thing, “There’s someone who loves his country.” The person in the next car might think, “Gas guzzling selfish pig who invades sovereign nations for oil.”

Or maybe you drive around with the Confederate stars and bars hanging from the back window of your pickup truck as a symbol or your support for states’ rights. Others might see it as you pining for a time when you could head back to your plantation and trade your slave girl for a new cow.

Confederate Rebel Flag – public domain

That’s the responsibility that comes along with joining a group. Good and bad, better and worse. You don’t get to pick and choose which attributes are applied. That’s in the eye of the beholder. And if the beholder chooses the one you didn’t want, that’s not the beholder’s fault. You probably feel passionately about your choices, so that a misinterpretation of them might make you angry.

Still not the beholder’s fault.

Your only choice is whether you want to continue participation in the group.

Belgium

No one creates group cohesion better than the professional sports industry.  Logos, mascots,licensed merchandise.  And fans, oh boy, are they ever passionate. Here in Cincinnati we love our Pete Rose and hate those Pittsburgh Steelers. University of Kentucky fans claim to bleed blue. Wisconsin folks wear cheese hats. World Cup Soccer fans dress up and paint themselves all sorts of crazy.

Just like blind nationalism, making your identity so enmeshed with any group can cloud thinking, so much so that people will sometimes go to great lengths to defend things which defy reason.

In 1932, the voices that defined our society were somewhat homogeneous. There weren’t a lot of seats at the table. Women had only been allowed for vote for a little more than a decade and the civil rights movement was more than 30 years in the future. Our table is bigger now. We know more than we knew then. Yes, you know where I’m going. We might not have known in 1932, 42, or even in 1992 what we know now.

Redskins is a racial slur.

Consider what Baxtor Holmes, writing for Esquire, understands the term to mean.

The story in my family goes that the term dates back to the institutionalized genocide of Native Americans, most notably when the Massachusetts colonial government placed a bounty on their heads. The grisly particulars of that genocide are listed in a 1755 document called the Phips Proclamation, which zeroed in on the Penobscot Indians, a tribe today based in Maine.

Spencer Phips, a British politician and then Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Province, issued the call, ordering on behalf of British King George II for, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” They paid well – 50 pounds for adult male scalps; 25 for adult female scalps; and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under age 12.

These bloody scalps were known as “redskins.”

There is debate about etymology but knowing that history bears out this possibility is good enough for me. If that doesn’t work for you, I’m sure you can believe that the best case scenario is that it was originally a neutral way to identify a race. There’s no way to argue that it retained a harmless connotation throughout history.

So why is the opposition to changing the name so virulent? I understand the team owner — he’s trying to protect his pocketbook. Rebranding and remerchandising would be expensive, I’m sure. (it’s cold-hearted, soulless, and sociopathic, but I understand it.)

But why is the common fan so upset?

Miami University’s logo since 1998.

I was at Miami University for graduate school during the 1990s as it undertook the name change from Redskins to Redhawks. Despite doomsday predictions, the world didn’t end. Donations didn’t disappear, the university continues to thrive. Today’s students athletes today were barely out of diapers when Chicken Littles were on the loose in Oxford, Ohio. A team by any name still plays.

I currently have three theories:

1. Since we so closely identify with our chosen group, accepting that the name is racist transfers to us. And we aren’t racists, dammit.

2. We are still unwilling to examine our conscience. It’s a lot harder to fancy ourselves the City on the Hill if we admit genocide. Or so we think.

3. We white folk see our privileged birthright receding. Someday soon we’ll be outnumbered so to acquiesce on this point is bring us one step closer to obsolescence.

Maybe it’s all three of these or maybe I’m way off base. From my perch “redskins” means football and “Chief Wahoo” means baseball. But I’m not the one who bears the weight of these stereotypes.  NCAI, a broad coalition of Native Americans, has spoken clearly on the issue. They’ve detailed the harm inflicted.

In that way, what I think doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we now know better. Now it’s time to do better.

3 thoughts on “By Any Other Name”

  1. “Your only choice is whether you want to continue participation in the group.” Aren’t there other choices for people who feel their group has been mischaracterized, ridiculed, berated et al by others?

    1. Sure, you can choose to try to change the perception. But that isn’t always in your control, especially with big groups that are heterogeneous. I guess you have to decide if it’s worth it or not. Or I suppose you can stay and not care but you need to have the eyes wide open, I think. Sometimes people in those situations tend to try to play the victim which drives me nuts.

  2. Good ones. Would offer that ‘stay and not care’ (ignore voices/walk away) and ‘stay and play victim’ (pander for pity) seem separate choices.

    Other possibilities that come to mind:

    Retaliate by hurling words calculated to be hurtful back toward the originator (classic playground volley).

    Seek to apply social pressure (e.g., “don’t buy their products”) to silence voices that you dislike (intolerance by social control).

    Seek to apply force (personal, group, govt) to silence voices that you dislike (intolerance by aggression).

    Choices could be combined as well (e.g., intolerance by social control + pander for pity for added effect).

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