The debate over language,
meaning, and power has truly heated up. Network television,
under the banner of Foxs Boston Public, recently
pushed the word nigger to the foreground by attempting
to address the complexities of its usage, context, and
meaning. Whether or not the show succeeded in its mission
to inspire reasoned debate is unclear, but the very attempt
is a significant event. A compelling argument could be
made that no cultural problem can be solved until it is
addressed, with suggestions of solution, in the popular
culture. For better or worse there will be folks who simply
do not consider these complexities until their existence
is ratified in a popular form. If nothing else, events
like these get people talking.
The same issue has been
alive for some time now in the sporting world. Not a year
goes by without argument over the use of nicknames that
may or may not be offensive: Indians, Braves, Blackhawks,
Seminoles, Redskins, et al. There is no shortage of opinions
on the subject, with the general breakdown being that
those on the left want political correctness and those
on the right want to fight it. Very little of the debate
centers on the nicknames themselves. As with so many things,
it has come down to a question of who is offended, not
whether or not, and why, the names should be kept.
Perhaps they should be
changed, perhaps not, but it is past time that the debate
took on some semblance of intelligence. If humor is a
mark of intelligence, a group of students at Northern
Colorado University may have started something big.
Angry over the use of Native
American nicknames in sports and needing a name for their
own intramural basketball team, the students decided to
call themselves the "Fighting
drew up a clip-arty middle aged white man as their mascot,
and adopted the slogan "Every thangs gonna be all
This is good stuff.
Predictably, their mission
statement includes a lot of carefully worded hedges about
promoting awareness, making statements, etc. This is all
good, and judging by the extensive media coverage they
have already received (L.A. Times, Fox Sports, Rocky Mountain
News, among others) they may be succeeding. But theyre
asking a bit much. It is, after all, just an intramural
team at a small western schoolits not exactly
Florida State renaming themselves the "Crackers" and adopting
an old white man in overalls and flannel as their mascot.
In other words, their move will not cause anybody to change
their mascotnot anybody who wasnt already
considering it, at least.
But they have succeeded
at something else, something that is badly needed. One
of the favorite arguments of those who are opposed to
Native American nicknames in sports is that it would not
be appropriate for a team to call themselves the Niggers,
so why is it OK for them to stick with Redskins? Its
an argument not without some merit, but its clearly
designed more for emotional impact than for reasoned debate.
There are limits to what would be acceptable, as there
always are. In their quest to draw the line the Fighting
Whites have proven that the limits do not, in fact, lie
exactly where those who oppose these nicknames claim they
The appropriateness of
an action is, or at least should be, determined by the
communities in which the action occurs. The Seminole tribe,
for example, has expressed support for the Florida State
team. Now, if they are not offended, why should anyone
else be? The reason that so many of these nicknames exist
is because most people simply are not bothered by them.
The Fighting Whites have inadvertently proven this. While
some of the media reaction has been negative the public
reaction has, it appears, been overwhelmingly positive.
So much so, in fact, that they have been able to establish
a scholarship fund for Native American students with the
money theyve made selling Fighting Whites t-shirts.
Some people may still be offended, but that doesnt
make the students decision wrong.
The great thing about this
situation is that everybody is coming out ahead. The students
have succeeded in inspiring debate and have been able
to do something very positive with the attention theyve
received. And the culture as a whole has benefited from
another dimension being added to a debate that, while
it may never be resolved, is inching its way toward real