On the ethnic slur watch

From a column on September 24th by the Kansas City Star‘s public editor, Derek Donovan:

A caller this morning expressed his incredulity that The Star doesn’t normally print the name of Washingon’s NFL team: the Redskins.

“With all of the other things there are to worry about in the world, like homelessness and wars, why does anyone worry about this?” he asked.

As I’ve said many times, I’m not big on comparisons unless they’re awfully close parallels, and I fail to see any relationship between war and the name of a football team.

And here, I also agree very strongly with The Star’s longtime policy on this matter. I remain unconvinced by every argument I’ve ever heard that the name is not a racial epithet, plain and simple. And I’ll even break my usual rule about commenting on issues outside The Star’s journalism to say that I find it inconceivable that the NFL still allows such a patently offensive name and mascot to represent the league in 2012.

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer.)

The story was picked up by lots of papers and blogs. Here’s Isaac Rauch in Deadspin on the 30th:

The Kansas City Star Tries Not To Print The Word “Redskins” Because It’s A Racial Epithet

An interesting note from the public editor of The Kansas City Star on the paper’s policy of avoidance when it comes to the mascot of the NFL team from Washington

… Sadly the [Kansas City] Chiefs won’t play the Redskins this year, so we won’t get to see any awkward tip-toeing around the name in full-fledged game previews or summaries, but as noted here [Media KC blog], when followed, the rule occasionally makes for some weird copy.

Before you ask, the Chiefs are named for one-time Mayor Harry “Chief” Bartle.

Two issues here: the claimed awkwardness in avoiding Redskins; and the source of the names Redskins and Chiefs.

I don’t see the awkwardness; just use Washington instead of Washington Redskins. Media KC cites this 2009 passage about a Chiefs’ victory over the Redskins, which seems unproblematic to me:

The postgame meeting and a different kind of news conference behind him, Haley took a breath and absorbed what it meant to get his first victory as Kansas City’s head coach, a 14-6 win Sunday against Washington.

The Redskins’ name is unquestionably Indian-related:

The team originated as the Boston Braves, based in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932. At the time the team played in Braves Field, the home field of the Boston Braves baseball team. The following year the club moved to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, whereupon owners changed the team’s name to the Boston Redskins. The Redskins relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1937. (link)

The team’s logo:

As for the Chiefs, the story about Harry “Chief” Bartle is widely disseminated. It’s repeated in Wikipedia on Bartle:

Harold Roe Bennett Sturdevant Bartle (June 25, 1901 – May 9, 1974) was a businessman, philanthropist, Boy Scout executive, and professional public speaker who served two terms as mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. After Bartle helped lure the Dallas Texans American Football League team to Kansas City in 1962, owner Lamar Hunt renamed the franchise the Kansas City Chiefs after Bartle’s nickname, “The Chief.”

with a longer story on the history of the team name:

[Lamar] Hunt agreed to relocate the franchise to Kansas City on May 22, 1963 and on May 26 the team was renamed the Kansas City Chiefs. Hunt and head coach Hank Stram initially planned on retaining the Texans name, but a fan contest determined the new “Chiefs” name in honor of Mayor Bartle’s nickname that he acquired in his professional role as Scout Executive of the St. Joseph and Kansas City Boy Scout Councils and founder of the Scouting Society, the Tribe of Mic-O-Say. (link)

Note the Indian associations, which were exploited in the team’s previous over-the-top logo:

(In back of the chief, starting at the upper right and going counterclockwise, we have the states: Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri.)

This has now been toned down to an arrowhead:

Enough of this background; on to the slur status of Redskin.

Reactions to the Kansas City Star‘s resistance to the name were predictably mixed, with some siding with the Star and others ridiculing it. The dispute has been going on for a while:

Some consider the namesake and logo of the Washington Redskins insensitive towards American Indians. There have been movements by certain groups to change the name, but the attempts have been unsuccessful. Others make the case in defense that the Redskins name is intended to honor the bravery and dignity of Native Americans and that, regardless of past usage, the word redskins today refers to the football team. (link)

And here’s Geoff Nunberg on Language Log in 2009:

Some years ago I served (pro bono) as the linguistics expert for a group of Indians who petitioned the Trademark Board to cancel the trademark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that federal law disallows the registration of marks that are disparaging. I wrote a report arguing that redskin had a long history of use as a derogation, and that it retained those connotations now, as witness the contemporary dictionaries that label the word “offensive slang” and the like.

Ronald Butters of Duke was one of the two linguistic experts engaged by the Redskins organization. He wrote a report arguing that redskin was a neutral, if informal, synonym for Indian that did not have and had never had any disparaging connotations — the dictionary labels, he said, were just capitulations to political correctness.

The focus of Geoff’s piece was on the disclosure of works for hire (like Geoff’s and Ron’s reports), in connection with possible conflicts of interest, but there is still the question of the status of redskin: was it ever derogatory; if it was, has it lost its derogatory connotations; if it wasn’t, has it picked them up? [Added 10/3: See the links supplied by Joe Foster in the comments below for discussion of the history.]

Putting history aside, the issue for the Star and for many fans these days is whether the word, as used as a team name (with accompanying cheers, slogans, etc.), evokes the Wily and Bloodthirsty Savage figure or the Noble Red Man of Nature figure. The sports context itself evokes warfare, so it’s a matter of which aspects of warfare Redskins picks up connotatively — as opposed to (Kansas City) Chiefs and, in major-league baseball, (Cleveland) Indians and (Atlanta) Braves, whose ethnic-reference names, so far as I know, haven’t been seen as problematic. (Indians is neutral in reference, Chiefs and Braves positive, though still ethnic.)

Obviously, different people see different connotations for the common noun redskin. I myself find it somewhat  objectionable, though I have no idea where my judgment comes from. But others, including Derek Donovan and some Indian groups, have much stronger judgments. So if the Star wishes, it ought to be free to avoid the word; that editorial decision doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s practice. (If you want, you can consider it to be an editorial idiosyncrasy, like the NYT‘s passion for periods in initialistic abbreviations — though no social judgments accompany the Times‘s periodophilia.)

If someone would like a serious, non-trivial research project, they might consider looking at all (or a suitable random sample) of the uses of the common noun redskin (referring to human beings; put aside redskin potatoes) in some very large corpus, attending to all the contextual details — and there are a great many — that might be relevant to the choice of this noun as against  the alternatives.

Bonus: the baseball teams and their mascots and logos. The Indians and the Braves, which turn out to be connected.

The Cleveland Indians:

The “Indians” name originates from a request by the club owner to decide on a new name, following the 1914 season. In reference to the Boston Braves (now the Atlanta Braves), the media chose “the Indians”. (link)

The logo, “Chief Wahoo”, over which there’s (unsurprisingly) been some controversy:

The Braves:

The Atlanta Braves are a professional baseball team based in Atlanta, Georgia. The Braves are a member of the Eastern Division of Major League Baseball’s National League. The Braves have played in Turner Field since 1997.

The “Braves” name, which was first used in 1912, originates from a term for a Native American warrior.

… The club is one of the National League’s two remaining charter franchises (the other being the Chicago Cubs) and was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1871 as the Boston Red Stockings … After various name changes (such as the Boston Beaneaters), the team operated as the Boston Braves for most of the first half of the 20th century. In 1953, the team moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and became the Milwaukee Braves, followed by the move to Atlanta in 1966. (link)

The Boston logo, a stylized Indian head:

and the Atlanta logo, less elaborate, but with a tomahawk to keep up the Indian theme:

One Response to “On the ethnic slur watch”

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Readers may find useful and interesting this link to Ives Goddard’s article on the origin of the redskin term and the relative recency of its pejorative connotations.


    This link is to a discussion of the topic on Language Log some 6+ years ago.


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