Should the Washington Redskins change their name? (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
I don’t like being lectured by sportscasters about ethnic sensitivity. Or advised by the president of the United States about changing team names. I don’t like the language police ensuring that no one anywhere gives offense to anyone about anything. And I fully credit the claim of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and many passionate fans that they intend no malice or prejudice and that “Redskins” has a proud 80-year history they wish to maintain.
The fact is, however, that words don’t stand still. They evolve.
Some 50 years ago the preferred, most respectful term for African-Americans was Negro. The word appears 15 times in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Negro replaced a long list of more insulting words.
Then, for complicated historical reasons (having to do with the black power and “black is beautiful” movements), usage changed. The preferred term is now black or African-American. With a rare few legacy exceptions, Negro carries an unmistakably patronizing and demeaning tone.
If you were detailing the ethnic composition of Congress, you wouldn’t say: “Well, to start with, there are 44 Negroes.” If you’d been asleep for 50 years, you might. But upon being informed how the word had changed, you would stop using it and choose another.
And here’s the key point: You would not stop because of the language police. Or because you might incur a Bob Costas harangue. But simply because the word was tainted. You wouldn’t even use the word in private, where being harassed for political incorrectness is not an issue.
Similarly, regarding the further ethnic breakdown of Congress, you wouldn’t say: “And by my count, there are two redskins.” It’s inconceivable, because no matter how the word was used 80 years ago, it carries invidious connotations today.
Growing up, I thought “gyp” was simply a synonym for “cheat,” and used it accordingly. As an adult that I learned that gyp was short for gypsy. I stopped using it. Not because I took a poll of Roma to find out if they were offended. If some mysterious disease had carried away every gypsy on the planet, and there were none left to offend, I wouldn’t use it.
Why? Simple decency. I wouldn’t want to use a word that defines a people — living or dead, offended or not — in a most demeaning way. It’s not a question of who or how many had their feelings hurt, but whether you want to associate yourself with a word that, for whatever historical reason having nothing to do with you, carries inherently derogatory connotations.
Years ago, the word “retarded” emerged as the enlightened substitute for such cruel terms as “feeble-minded” or “mongoloid.” Today, however, it is considered a form of denigration, having been replaced by the clumsy but now conventional “developmentally disabled.”
But 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. 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.
Choose whatever name you like. But let’s go easy on the other side. We’re not talking Brown v. Board of Education here. There’s no demand that Native Americans man the team’s offensive line. This is a matter of usage — and usage changes.
Charles Krauthammer writes for The Washington Post.