Monday, October 14, 2013

Redskins and Palefaces: shedding old light on a new controversy

Let's face it, some people just love to be offended. They're not content with just waiting to be insulted, they actively search for offense, often finding it where none was intended or even exists. Remember the "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" incident on a Southwest flight some years back? Basically, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant got on the intercom of a plane during boarding and said "eeny, meeny, miny, mo, pick a seat we gotta go." Two passengers were deeply offended by this, claiming it was racist. First they complained to the airline, then they actually filed a lawsuit, asking for monetary damages.

One of the two women--who were sisters--claimed that hearing the ryhme caused her to have seizure on the flight, which was then followed by a larger seizure some days later. Both claimed to have been "humiliated" by the rhyme, their lawyer characterized it as a "racial slur," and believed the jury's decision--in finding no discrimination--was wholly unfair (leading to an appeal that was subsequently denied).

Years later--in 2007--a teacher at a Wisconsin middle school was suspended for using the "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" rhyme during class, apparently because a parent complained to the school after hearing about the rhyme being used. It's unclear, however, what the full story is here, what version of the rhyme was used by the teacher. Because there is a very offensive version out their, with the second line being "catch a nigger by the toe," as opposed to the now-common "catch a tiger by the toe."

In the case of the Southwest attendant, who made up her own second line, things are quite clear. The lawsuit was based on the idea that using "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" alone was racist and therefore offensive because of the existence of the above version, which was cited as the (more) original version of the rhyme. But is it? The rhyme goes back a long ways in both the United States and England. It has taken--and continues to take--many forms. There's no evidence that any one particular version is the oldest and given the English roots of the rhyme, it is highly unlikely that a version with "nigger" in it could possibly fill that role. Indeed, versions of the rhyme exist in other European languages, including German and Cornish. I'm given to think the English-language versions that uses "where do all the Frenchman go" as the second line is very possibly the oldest version that is not wholly gibberish, given the less-than-friendly relationship between England and France during long periods of the past.

Regardless, the point is that the rhyme did not originate as a racist thing, at all. It originated to serve the same function it continues to serve today: as a means of helping children differentiate and count. My kids know it and use it (with "tiger"). So do their friends, friends from all sorts of backgrounds. The central issue here--aside from the actual choice of language--is intent: when my six-year old uses the rhyme to decide who goes first in a game, there's no ill will, whatsoever. To suppose that there is requires one to step away from reality completely. And that's exactly what the two women on the Southwest flight did, since it's obvious there was no intent to offend on the part of the flight attendant, not to mention the fact that no racist/insulting language was actually used.

So what was their game? I remember stories with them--and their lawyer--saying things like "it's not about the money." I think that's exactly what it was about. These two sisters may honestly have not liked hearing "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" because it reminded them of the racist version that perhaps had even be used to taunt them when they were younger. But certainly they must have had the intellectual capacity and honesty to recognize that there was no such intent here, that the words did not include any sort of slur. Yet, they also had the intellectual capacity and dishonesty to imagine a big payday. Like "victims" of minor fender-benders, they tried to exploit the situation, exaggerate their "injuries," and mount a high-horse of righteous indignation. They were aggrieved; ridiculed, and humiliated before a plane load of people, they demanded justice! In the form of cold, hard cash.

This game is nothing new. It's repeated constantly these days in our overly litigious society. But it's not just about finding a payday. It's also about stroking one's ego, about justifying an inflated opinion of one's own self-worth. Because acting offended by the words or deeds of others is about putting them--or at least trying to put them--on the defensive.

Which brings us to the current offensive thing du jour, the nickname of the NFL's Washington, D.C. franchise: the Redskins.

The President has weighed in on this critical issue, as have many other politicians and talking heads. Bob Costas even used his Sunday Night Football platform to opine on the matter:
"Think for a moment about the term 'Redskins' and how it truly differs from [other team nicknames based on Native American images]," Costas said. "Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed [at] African-Americans. Hispanics. Asians. Or members of any other ethnic group. When considered that way, 'Redskins' can’t possibly honor a heritage, or a noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. 
"It is an insult, a slur, no matter now benign the present-day intent," Costas continued.
It's interesting that Costas is commenting on this now, given his 30+ year career as a "sportscaster." He was covering NFL games as far back as the late seventies for CBS. He was also a co-host of HBO's Inside the NFL for some five years, as well as the host of On the Record with Bob Costas for HBO Sports, two venues completely suited for controversial issues, yet I can't remember him ever jumping on this particular one, that of the offensive nature of the moniker "Redskins." Did he not recognize the word was a "slur" until quite recently? Doesn't say much for his supposedly impressive intellect, does it?

But let's take his reasoning seriously, no matter how obviously self-serving it might be. He supposes the term must be offensive by attempting to fashion an imaginary parallel with other ethnic groups and assuming any similar term would prove his point. But would it? Let's take the obvious counter example: "paleface." For that is the historical dichotomy here: cowboys versus Indians, palefaces versus redskins.

It is interesting however to note the "reclamation" of the word "redskin" in the realm of academia (reclaiming words is a significant thing for marginalized groups; the point of it is to rob the words of their derogatory character by embracing them). In 1939, Marxist literary critic Philip Rahv penned an important essay in that field. Entitled "Paleface and Redskin," the essay drew a sharp line of division with respect to American writers: there were palefaces and there were redskins. Rahv did not suggest one was better than the other. Indeed, his point was to show that both could produce brilliant works as well as awful works. He described their divergent natures thusly:
The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends towards a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level, the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest level he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst, he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology. 
In Rahv's view, writers like Whitman and Twain are redskins. Melville, Henry James, and Hawthorne are palefaces. But look again at the dichotomy Rahv presents and consider it with respect to the arguments about the name "Redskins" as a moniker for a football team. For Costas' diatribe is nothing, if it is not "genteel, snobbish, and pedantic." Similarly, there is this piece at the New York Times by William C. Rhoden. Look at some of his rhetoric:
[original franchise owner]Marshall and Wallace were on the wrong side of history. Wallace created an atmosphere of fear, hatred and divisiveness. Marshall barred players who could have helped his franchise avoid mediocrity during the 1950s and 1960s.

Snyder might object to being placed alongside Wallace and Marshall. By his insistence on using a term that offends even one person, however, he contributes to an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry. Snyder has an opportunity to get on the right side of history, though I don’t expect someone as vain as he appears to be to change his team’s nickname voluntarily.

His refusal to change an offensive name is emblematic of our society’s tendency to wrap ourselves in the armor of self-interest regardless of who might be wounded or offended.
Wait, what? Snyder is being compared to George Wallace? And using a term that "offends even one person" is wrong as a matter of course? The logic is compelling, if non-existent. Regardless, with his rhetoric, Rhoden places himself firmly in the paleface camp, the lowest level of that camp, just like Costas. Both are more concerned with establishing their own moral superiority than with reality.

That said, it is most certainly the case that some defenders of the "Redskin" moniker are, themselves, acting very much like the worst sorts of redskins in the Rahvian sense: allowing emotion (anger) to rule the intellect, bordering on--if not crossing over into--the vulgar, and insisting on the status quo.

Personally, I don't care about the name. Not at all. If Snyder chooses to change it, fine. If he chooses to keep it, fine. But let's be fair here: the name, contrary to Costas' assertions, is not a slur with respect to its present-day usage. Intent does matter (though so does the past) and in this particular case, the intent is the glorification of Americanism, the celebration of its frontier history and all that goes with it as a source for the redskin-style mythos (at its best) Rahv describes. Or at least it can be taken that way. Those who refuse to do so are more worried about their own egos, in my opinion, not about any sort of actual justice.

Cheers, all.


  1. C'mon, Rob, Everyone knows "Eenie Meenie" is a song by Justin Beiber.

    But honestly, I don't see how you can compare false ire over a child's nursery rhyme that can have or not have offensive lyrics in it, to an honest to goodness racial slur that should have been changed years ago when America first started trying to be sensitive to these things.

    Many teams that use Native American names try to be respectful, the Seminoles, the Chiefs, the Braves (although that chant and tomahawk chop are borderline racist). But a few names need to be addressed. The Indians. Do we want to keep using a name that was applied to a race of people over 300 years ago out of ignorance, thinking they'd landed in India? No, it isn't overtly racist, but it is historically inaccurate. Like the Vikings wearing helmets with horns. There has never been any archaeological evidence that Vikings ever had horned helmets, so it just makes Minnesotans look stupid.

    And I agree that sometimes people go overboard trying not to offend anyone. Take Marquette University. Their team was called the Warriors. And it had a Native American logo. Nothing racist at all, but the Dean at the time went and changed it to be "sensitive." To what? The name "Warriors" doesn't even suggest Native Americans. If you're that offended, change the logo for Cripe's sake, but don't go claiming it's done to appease some imaginary offense.

    But Redskin. Red Skin. Really? That isn't racist? Should we then have teams called "The Darkies" or how about "Slant Eyes?" You have to admit those would be racist, but why are so many people having trouble accepting the fact that "Red Skin" is racist, too?

    Because of white privilege. "What about the Fighting Irish? No one finds that offensive?" We aren't offended. We can't figure out why someone else would be offended. Well, guess what? Other people are offended and they have every right to be, whether we agree or not.

  2. Per your last paragraph, Ed, look at this:

    The problem here is that people like Costas are telling NATIVE AMERICANS how they should feel about this, that it's offensive based on their (Costas' and others') opinions and psuedo-analysis. This is the point of my piece. Costas and others are playing the role of palefaces, deciding--intellectually--what is right and what wrong in the name of everyone else in general and native Americans in particular. THAT, my friend, is white privilege. That is the basis of the dichotomy I'm addressing.

    And it's a product of a need to be seen as superior, to able to look down on those who might disagree. At least the ladies on the Southwest flight were actually members of the group they claimed would be offended by the rhyme. WTF does Costas know about it? And if it's so obvious, so true--his position--why has it taken him 30+ years to say something about it?

  3. Costas has always felt superior. It's been his most irksome quality. Probably part of a Napoleon complex or something. But honestly, I could care less what he thinks. I wasn't arguing that we should follow his lead. I was simply arguing that Red Skins is a racist term and probably should have been addressed decades ago. Costas be damned.