The political correctness warpathWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Jan. 27 column, “The White Deer,” I made a reference to women wearing so-called “squaw gear.” The joke that contained the reference isn’t worth repeating out of context, but it garnered an email from Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, an associate professor of geography at Bowling Green State University.
“The use of the term ‘squaw’ is considered demeaning to Native Americans,” he wrote. “This derogatory term, like a number of others referring to Native Americans (e.g., Eskimo: a derogatory name used by others that has been replaced with their own term for themselves: Inuit), is no longer being used. In fact, place-names containing ‘squaw’ are being replaced all across the U.S.
“Consequently, it would be appreciated by Native Americans and others if you would please discontinue its use.
“Thank you for your serious consideration of this request.”
I do take such requests seriously — whether or not I adhere to them — and wrote back to Gordon that I appreciated and respected his information and would be more careful in the future.
Political correctness has been taken to extremes but I know how powerful words are, especially labels. If “squaw” is now the equivalent of “chick” or “broad” or “dame” or “skirt” or any number of derogatory names, it should be retired out of respect for those who are offended by it.
Daily Telegram Staff Writer Dan Cherry reported, “A complaint filed [Feb. 8] by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is asking the federal government to step in and prohibit the use of American Indian mascots and imagery in K-12 schools across the state. The department filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint cites 35 Michigan K-12 school districts — including Clinton and Tecumseh — responsible for ‘alleged discrimination.’ The schools are known as the Clinton Redskins and the Tecumseh Indians.”
I contend the state of Michigan, the federal government in general and the U.S. Department of Education in particular have bigger and better things to do than persecute communities for their school mascots, but with my own “squaw” transgression fresh in my head, I read the story with an open mind.
As Cherry reported, “Leslee Fritz, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said [Feb. 8] a study conducted by its legal team shows ‘there is now substantial amounts of evidence that American Indian imagery use and continued use is harming students and therefore in violation of federal law.’”
Fritz said the complaint focuses on K-12 schools, not colleges and universities, which of course are more financially capable of fighting legal distractions.
I can trace full-blood Cherokee heritage just a few generations back on my mother’s side, so in addition to having a stake in the communication element of this issue, I have some heritage pride on the table as well. I obtained a copy of the study referenced in the complaint to outline the state’s case.
“A sincere, thorough, and fair examination of the use of American-Indian imagery by schools must begin by understanding, and accepting, two underlying and indisputable truths,” the study states. Any deployment of the phrase “indisputable truth” makes me nervous, especially when applied by a government agency. But, open mind here, what are those “indisputable truths?”
“First, mascot advocates see their actions as positive reflections of the admirable strengths of American Indians as a People, and therefore as something opponents should look at with great pride,” the study states, then adds, “Second, mascot opponents do see the imagery’s use as offensive.”
Specifically, “They know the word redskins in particular has a long history as a racial slur that they do not believe can be erased simply by using it so often that it loses its sting. They see some of the imagery used (particularly eagle feathers) as holy objects, the misuse of which blasphemes both American Indian history and its beliefs. Opponents point out that team logos are often drawn as cartoon caricatures, which at best trivialize Indian history and culture. They note that the combined use of the name Indians or Chiefs with logos depicting savage warriors, as does the use of the team name Warriors with logos depicting Indians or uniquely Indian weapons, equates one with the other and implies that all interchangeably refer to the same people.”
The study then, despite promising only two “indisputable truths,” offers a bonus one: “A third and equally indisputable truth is that the first two truths have led to a stalemate. Courts that have considered the question do not discount the genuineness or the depth of the pain felt by those who oppose the use of mascots. However, even while recognizing that many are offended by the imagery’s use, the courts have determined that such conduct is illegally discriminatory only when it is either done with bad intent or clearly understood to be offensive by all. Because it is unrealistic to believe either of the first two truths will change, the status quo will remain stalemated absent the introduction of new facts that change it. Fortunately, that time has arrived.”
The study then references a “growing and unrebutted body of evidence.” Any deployment of the phrase “unrebutted body of evidence” makes me nervous, especially when applied by a government agency. But, open mind here, what is that “unrebutted body of evidence?”
“That the use of American Indian imagery reinforces stereotypes in a way that negatively impacts the potential for achievement by students with American-Indian ancestry.”
That’s one hell of an unrebutted statement. But it’s topped by this one: “By looking solely and objectively at the effect a mascot actually has on students, the community’s intent in adopting it no longer remains at issue.”
Intent is no longer an issue? We should consider reaction to be 100 percent of the discussion with zero interest in intent? If intent carries no value, how can the law recognize the concept of a hate crime or discrimination?
I agree that a term like “Redskins” is racist and has no place in public discourse. I will even listen to your argument about “Indians.” But can the same be applied to “Braves”? “Chiefs”? Warriors”? Are there Native American students who are being held back and being denied equal opportunity because their high school uses any of those more innocuous mascots?
I concede it’s not just the name, it is the accompanying logo that can be an issue. You can’t look at the Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo, with his broad nose and exaggerated smile, and think that would be tolerated if applied to an Asian-American, Mexican-American or African-American mascot; try to think of any of those races used as a caricature to promote anything in this era.
The study singles out my home of Tecumseh for its high school’s use of a mascot, which the study depicts in an accompanying and admittedly unflattering illustration. Tecumseh Public Schools Superintendent Mike McAran, however, told Cherry that the school “worked to put the correct features on our mascot and adjusted the feathers, got rid of the hatchet.”
And that, according to McAran, was 15 years ago. You’d think the state study would have updated its files by now. It’s a lot easier for evidence to be “unrebutted” if it’s never presented.
Are you familiar with Godwin’s Law? It’s the Internet adage that posits, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” One of its oft-stated corollaries is, “The first person in an argument who invokes Nazis loses.”
On page 13 of the taxpayer-funded study, there’s this: “Few, if any, would not find it offensive if schools in Germany today were to adopt Jewish nicknames in ‘honor’ of those who perished in the Holocaust. Nor will the passage of another 50 or 100 years make it appropriate for them to do so. Even if enacted with good intentions and tasteful images, we would immediately recognize that they were at the very least trivializing (if not ignoring or even denying) their past and, in doing so, insulting the descendants of their victims.
‘In fact, Hitler studied the way America dealt with its ‘Indian problem’ in great detail. He was a great admirer of the methods used to make land available for a ‘superior’ people and is believed to have used it as model for his solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ in Europe. There is no question that he believed the most significant lesson to be learned was how soon people would forget.”
I sense the author of that passage feels he or she just played an unrebuttable trump card. It is dangerous rhetorical ground to start comparing holocausts, but is it legit to equate the American struggle to reconcile its shameful past with its native citizens to the German purge of a culture and way of life its country did not share?
Moment of truth
The 34-page study offers one moment of begrudging honesty: “To date, it has not been possible to establish that a school’s use of American Indian mascots constituted legally impermissible harassment or created a hostile learning environment absent a showing of some intent to harass or a near universal understanding that a particular conduct is offensive.
“While the Department joins those who believe that the misappropriation of American Indian imagery and/or terminology has created environments that should reasonably have been seen as hostile and thus illegal, we cannot dispute that existing case law holds otherwise.”
Well, so much for “unrebutted.”
Reasonable people can agree that no student should be subjected to institutionalized racism or endorsed cultural elements that inhibit education. So yes, “Redskins” should go. But the government has no business micro-managing communities to prohibit the use of mascots that no courts have determined are illegal.
Living in Tecumseh, I see constant reminders of the great chief who gave the city its name. Stripping away his visage or censoring generic nicknames does not advance his legacy, honor his descendents or improve opportunities for Native Americans.
Political correctness is one thing. Enforced government intervention is a far worse offense than any use of warriors, chiefs or braves on school logos.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.
Tags: Bowling Green State University, Jeffrey Gordon, Lighting The Fuse, Michael S. Miller, Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Tecumseh High School, The Daily Telegram, U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights