Wednesday, 25 June 2014

How are People Still Talking About This?

Washington's football team lost the trademark on their name because it is a racial slur. It turns out trademark laws a pretty weird. You can certainly name your company something that people will find offensive, but you can't expect the government to protect that name, so the thinking goes. At the same time, trademarks are grandfathered out, so Dan Snyder's team was not in court arguing that "redskins" wasn't an offensive term, they were arguing that it not an offensive term in 1967 when the name was trademarked.

Through boingboing I came across a very good article on why the term is and was always a slur. It contained lots of interesting information about the racist team owner who used faux Native American dancers and face paint to mock Native Americans at half time and of the team fight song which included the words, "We take'um big score." There is no doubt that this name was a slur in the 60s.
But what if it hadn't been so obvious that the team's reference to Native Americans - and to indigenous North Americans more generally - was degrading? What if it really had been intended to honor, say, the Native American heritage of the owner at the time?

They may have won the trademark case in law, I'm not sure, but I don't think it would make a difference to why they should change the name of the team now.

Reading a completely unrelated thread I came across some history of the racist comments of Jeremy Clarkson - one of the hosts of England's popular Top Gear. Clarkson has gotten into trouble on more than one occasion for making offhand remarks that seem racist or homophobic.

In one particular case while the show was visiting Burma/Myanmar the hosts built a bridge across the river Kwai. From the Gaurdian:
As an Asian man was seen walking along the bridge, Clarkson said: "That is a proud moment, but there's a slope on it." Hammond replied: "You're right, it's definitely higher on that side."
I relayed this to someone and they were confused. Apparently they had never heard the term "slope" used as a racial epithet. To be honest, I'm not sure I had either. I had heard "slant" for sure, and if I hadn't heard "slope" I made the connection immediately. At any rate, there was an apology and there was some bizarre explanation:
"We were not aware at the time, and it has subsequently been brought to our attention, that the word 'slope' is considered by some to be offensive and although it might not be widely recognised in the UK, we appreciate that it can be considered offensive to some here and overseas, for example in Australia and the USA."
Which to me just makes them sounds ignorant and insensitive. Could they really not tell that refering to people of east Asian descent as "slopes" might offend someone?

So let's just put this in terms that anyone can understand: there is no such thing as a non-offensive slang term for a racial group. Suppose I were to make up a new word, one no one had ever heard before. Imagine I refered to white people as "blanks" or calls christians "nailers." Or what if I didn't even use a word that had any connotation at all. What if I started refering to a racial group, chosen at random, as "erdies" or any other combination of syllables.

I could protest that I really liked people from that racial group, that I had lots of friends with that colour skin, or even that my own great grandfather was from that part of the world. It wouldn't matter. As soon as you use slang you are infusing that slang with your own feelings towards that group, and that means you have a special set of feelings directed towards that group, and that means you're being racist, even if you think you are being racist in a nice way.

There's no amount of history the name of a sports team can have that cancels out any of that. And there is no doubt that white people in 1967, when they said "redskin" were speaking of people who they mostly regarded as inferior to themselves. If the word wasn't considered offensive, it is only because those same people couldn't think of anything offensive about their belief that white people were better than other people. That didn't stop that belief from infusing the word every time it rolled of their tongues.

I said this before, but it's worth repeating: When someone tells you a word you chose is offensive, and you feel you want to defend yourself, stop to ask yourself why it is so important that you do use that particular word.

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