Every Thang's Gonna Be All White
By Neal Shaffer

The debate over language, meaning, and power has truly heated up. Network television, under the banner of Fox’s 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 Whites," drew up a clip-arty middle aged white man as their mascot, and adopted the slogan "Every thang’s gonna be all white."

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 they’re asking a bit much. It is, after all, just an intramural team at a small western school—it’s 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 mascot—not anybody who wasn’t 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? It’s an argument not without some merit, but it’s 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 do.

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 they’ve made selling Fighting Whites t-shirts. Some people may still be offended, but that doesn’t 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 they’ve 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 complexity.