The Nickname Game

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11, 1999

quit following football long ago, so I didn’t care one way
or the other when the Redskins finally made the playoffs. But it
was an occasion for downright gloom for a Muskogee Indian woman,
who the Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy says has
“sensitized” him.

Guess how?
She takes strong exception to the team nickname Redskins.
It’s “so racist” and reminds her of “genocide.”
She takes umbrage at seeing a team mascot, a black man, dressed
in what Milloy describes as “a white man’s version of
an Indian outfit,” implying, I suppose, that real Indians never
wore feathered headdresses and war paint.

What then does
the Indian woman think the team should be called? “Wild Hogs,
because they suggest the real sport in Washington, which is pork
barreling.” This cynical joke inadvertently touches the real
point: that team nicknames are supposed to suggest admirable qualities.
It would be hard to root for the New York Swindlers, the Chicago
Butchers, or the San Francisco Misfits.

Our local team
used to be the Boston Braves, till the owner changed the nickname
to the Boston Redskins to distinguish it from the baseball
Braves, then also in Boston. When he moved the team to Washington
in the 1930s, he kept the new nickname, which has persisted through
several changes of ownership.

Redskins is
a colloquialism that wouldn’t be picked today. But for that
matter, no ethnic organization founded today would say it was fighting
for “colored people.” Yet nobody seems to object that
NAACP still stands for National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People.

Once upon a
time, colored people seemed preferable to the usual slang
term, which, as Mark Twain attests, caused little offense. But in
time politesse came to prefer Negro. Then, in the late 1960s,
we were told that Negro had somehow become “offensive,”
so everyone adopted black (which had formerly been considered rude).
In the 1990s (remember them?) black was widely replaced by
the clumsy African-American, in keeping with the vogue for
pride in African “roots.”

Why Africa
should be sentimentalized by the same people who damn the Confederacy
remains a mystery, since Southern slavery was imported from Africa,
where slavery still persists. But of course we are supposed to believe
that Africa was the Garden of Eden – the land of the Afro hairdo,
the dashiki, and Kwanzaa – while the white man invented slavery
and genocide and stuff.

We are dealing
not with genuine refinements but merely with revolving stereotypes.
For all we know, the phrase African-American, may, in its turn,
join the long roster of “offensive” epithets, when the
descendants of American slaves realize that their ancestors were
originally enslaved by their African brethren, who realized they
could be swapped for the finest fruits of European civilization,
such as whiskey.

But far from
being univocally racist, the white man has romanticized the American
Indian since the days of Fenimore Cooper, naming baseball and football
teams – Indians, Braves, Redskins, Seminoles, Cherokees, Hurons,
et cetera – in honor of the Indian’s prowess as a warrior.
The notion that such names are ethnic slurs is one of the many absurdities
of this era of victim politics. Who’d have guessed that the
descendants of those stoical braves Sitting Bull and Pontiac would
become such whiners?

It does honor
to both races that even during the era of violent hostilities between
them, the white man could see heroism in the red man. The noble
profile of an Indian used to grace the nickel. Even little English
boys used to love pretending to be Indians; they seldom pretended
to be African warriors.

As we all know,
the American Indian has no roots in India, so “Indians”
have lately become “Native Americans.” But American is
a word of Italian derivation, so there may be more trouble ahead
when it sinks in with “Native Americans” that they have
been renamed – irony of ironies! – after a European paleface.

At this point
let us pause to thank our Scandinavian-American friends for not
allowing their little feelings to be hurt by the fact that a certain
Midwestern football team is named after the Vikings. The sons of
the Norsemen never caught onto the silly fads of the twentieth century,
and they are the better for it.

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