What's in a name comes wholly from one's perspective


I found myself reading another article today on the Internet about how the (National Football League franchise) Washington Redskins have a racial slur as a name. I have been watching this story for a while now, and I honestly thought it would die out by now. I’m am curious as to why, as the years go by, I see more and more special interest groups making huge fusses about small issues. I mean, come on, I have been watching football since I was a very young boy. I was always aware of the term “redskin” as a derogatory term used toward Native Americans in the past but never once thought to myself that the Washington Redskins football team had any motive to name their team the Redskins in order to put down or taunt the Native Americans of the United States. I honestly feel that with each generation passing, the skin of our children gets thinner and thinner. Pretty soon you won’t be able to do anything without offending some small special interest group.

I consider myself a Christian. When I hear people making jokes (about Christianity) or even burning bibles, I don’t for one second get offended. That’s their business. I don’t care whether they like my religion or not. It doesn’t affect me at all. My point is, in the day-to-day life of the Native Americans who are protesting against the Redskins’ name cannot look anyone in the eye and say, “I was treated unfairly or discriminated against because of that pro football team.” Not one. I guarantee it.

— A.K., Las Vegas

I’m all over the map about this one. I’m a huge fan of professional football and an old-world traditionalist at that. I hate it when teams change cities. The bronze of Johnny Unitas belongs at the entrance of a stadium where the Baltimore Colts play … not the Ravens. I generally hate it when teams change their uniforms. A few weeks ago, the Cleveland Browns, a team steeped in legend and tradition, actually succumbed to the gawdawful modern fad of wearing dark pants and dark jerseys together. Seriously. Orange helmets sitting on top of a brown jersey and brown pants. They looked like grown men in footie pajamas.

I’m saying that if the Washington Redskins change their name, I’ll feel a loss. I get your point and am even inclined to agree with parts of it. I’m not persuaded that “redskin” is a whole lot different than the Sioux referring to George Armstrong Custer as Yellow Hair. Historically, when different ethnic groups crossed paths, it was nearly universal to tag each other with some easy, admittedly often shallow, identifier. Shallow identifiers are not necessarily slurs. Sometimes they are tragically accurate. My anthropology professor, for example, told us one Native American tribe’s name for “white man” translated to “the men who beat their children.”

My mother says I have a “Roman nose.” Is that a slur to me? To Romans?

I love George Carlin’s perspective on stuff like this. He, of Irish descent, observed the team name of Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish. He said, “Leave it to the Irish to be so naively honest. We fight. We’re known for that. You don’t see any college teams named The Murdering Italians or The Bargaining Jews.”

But, while I get your point, I must say I mostly disagree with the way you go about making your point.

A 2002 “Sports Illustrated” poll found that 75 percent of Native Americans surveyed did not object to Washington’s team name. In 2004, an Annenberg Public Policy Center (The University of Pennsylvania) poll reported even higher numbers of Native Americans without argument regarding the name. So, this contradicts your speculation that, with every generation, our “skin gets thinner.” If anything, it suggests that a significant majority of Americans (of any ethnic origin) have, today, much thicker skins.

Furthermore, I wince at the idea that ethnic groups become (for you) “special interest groups” just because they are sensitive to a protracted history of injustice. I mean, if I told an Auschwitz joke in this column, evoking the predictable storm of outrage that would rain down from local Jewish leaders, we could hardly call Jews in that instance a “special interest group.” They would understand themselves to be advancing a human cause, not a Jewish cause.

I understand and have compassion for why and how members of historically oppressed groups might latch on to customs, symbols and language as iconic of a greater evil. Taken in isolation, the latching on seems misplaced, strident, even sometimes silly: “Making huge fusses about small issues.” But, seen from the historical experience of suffering peoples, you can understand why some folks are still a might sensitive. To quote Richard Rubenstein (author, “After Auschwitz”), “When people say they are going to kill us, we take them seriously.”

And last, I think your analogy of folks making fun of your religion (Christianity) is doomed. There’s simply no comparison to be made between a white, middle-class Christian born in the modern United States and, say, the Sand Creek Massacre, the Trail of Tears, etc.

Now, had you been born a Christian in Italy during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, you might have an argument. You might also have a very different perspective.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.