Eleven Little Redskins

Last night my youngest daughter wanted to watch Ten Little Indians, Agatha Christie’s top-selling mystery, and possibly the top-selling mystery of all time. I asked her if she knew the original title, and she answered, “And Then There Were None.” But that was actually the title of the first American edition. Christie’s original 1939 title was Ten Little Niggers. That and Ten Little Indians were songs written for minstrel shows in the late 1860s. With less explicit lyrics, Ten Little Indians became a popular nursery rhyme. Christie felt comfortable with her title just as Lewis Carroll saw no problem with writing, “all Jews have hooked noses,” to contrast logical arguments and syllogisms. Eventually Christie’s estate approved the less offensive title.

We are now urged to even avoid the term ‘indians’ in favor of ‘native americans,’ and the argument that ‘redskins’ is a racial slur rather than a term of tribute is gaining momentum in the media. And that momentum is convincing some DC football fans to avoid the name of their own team, as one fan explained in A Washington Football Fan Breaks With Tradition:

Forget for a minute all the other problems with football, a sport that can cause grievous injury, irreversible brain damage and violent death. Forget, too, how silly it seems that grown men should run around calling themselves by names fit for the childhood world of make-believe: Giants, Cowboys, Eagles.

When people tell you they are offended by a word describing an ethnic group, they do not have to prove it. You have the right to continue using that word. But then you are responsible for understanding the consequences of shifting from unintentionally to intentionally giving offense.

I’m not happy about this. But the value of my nostalgia has a limit. Knowingly asking my children to embrace a racial slur crosses that line. Our family tradition will thrive in a new light, I hope.

Racial slurs are not equal. When I was a kid in Long Island, other kids whispered the ethnic and sex jokes they had heard at home. We didn’t understand why removing part of your brain made you Polish, and removing more made you Italian, but we gathered that it was supposed to be funny. We repeated some of the ethnic jokes we heard at school, but in mixed company were careful to repackage them as little moron jokes. After we moved to Maryland the jokes we heard were all about profoundly stupid or horny negroes – “give me a nickel I will” – and we already knew better than to try to repackage those in mixed company.

For the last several years I thought that calling the team the Skins might take away the racial connotations but keep some sense of continuity. On the radio, Sonny Jurgensen usually calls them the Skins anyway. I recognized though – in my internal dialogues – that the fiercely-visaged Redskin logo didn’t fit with Skins and would also have to go. I also worried that Skins would lead to something like the PBS logo.

On Friday, I ran across a rebuttal to a proposal of the name, Skins, by a conservative pundit. In Redskins and Reason, Charles Krauthammer takes great care to grouse about those objecting to Redskins (language police, Obama, Bob Costas) before admitting that the name should be changed:

Let’s recognize that there are many people of good will for whom “Washington Redskins” contains sentimental and historical attachment — and not an ounce of intended animus. So let’s turn down the temperature. What’s at issue is not high principle but adaptation to a change in linguistic nuance. A close call, though I personally would err on the side of not using the word if others are available.

How about Skins, a contraction already applied to the Washington football team? And that carries a sports connotation, as in skins vs. shirts in pickup basketball.

Gawker takes Krauthammer to task in The Stupidest Solution to the “Redskins” Controversy, but seems to be objecting more to his tone than his proposed name change.

Before Charles Krauthammer gets to the part of his column where he acknowledges that the Redskins’ name should be changed, he has to first establish that he loathes anyone who would advocate changing the Redskins’ name. Got it.

So what is his reason for wanting to change the name? Because words “evolve,” you see. Fifty years ago, people said “Negro.” Now people do not say “Negro.” Charles Krauthammer sees this as a perfect parallel for the word “Redskin.”

I don’t pretend to have the perfect answer, but it is becoming clearer that the current name will not survive.

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