Lester: Culture is not a costume - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Opinion

Lester: Culture is not a costume

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Neal Lester

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Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2013 10:45 am | Updated: 1:47 pm, Tue Oct 14, 2014.

As I follow the recent controversy over naming, identity, and cultural representation connected with the NFL’s Washington football team’s nickname and mascot, “Redskins,” I am surprised and confused that there is such vocal resistance to changing the name not just a few deem a racial slur that offends (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tag/washington-redskins-name-controversy).

Particularly disturbing is NFL Washington franchise owner Daniel Snyder’s defiance: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” Polling fans to gauge who is and who is not offended, as did Snyder’s camp, misses the point. Cultural awareness and sensitivity is not about numbers but about perspective; not about how many fans and non-fans are offended, but rather that folks are offended. This controversy is also not about whether or not all American Indians are offended. They are, and that matters.

Reporter William C. Rhoden’s assessment of this defiance is spot on: “Refusal to change an offensive name is emblematic of our society’s tendency to wrap ourselves in the armor of self-interest regardless of who might be wounded or offended.”

To respond that “folks shouldn’t be offended” because it is team “tradition” does not acknowledge the impact of words and names. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. says that “a word is … the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”

Taking pride in one’s heritage is one thing; romanticizing about another’s culture is a nostalgia that dehumanizes and mocks: http://www.ohio.edu/orgs/stars/Poster_Campaign.html. There is indeed offense to be taken with other college and high school team names and mascots and the accompanying Tomahawk chop gestures and visual reenactments by unthinking or unaware “Braves,” “Chiefs,” and “Indians” fans whose performances are not about respect and heritage but about fun and team spirit. When fans paint their faces and bodies red with exaggerated features to represent deeply offensive Hollywood images of American Indians, someone needs to listen to these concerns: http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/10/03/stay-classy-indians-fans-who-paint-their-faces-with-racist-caricatures/.

The fact that some American Indians are not offended by these cultural reductions does not negate the legitimate concerns of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI): “The Redskins’ trademark is disparaging to Native Americans and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as ‘blood-thirsty savages,’ ‘noble warriors’ and an ethnic group ‘frozen in history.’” Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Indian, clarifies: “We no longer want to be treated as targets of racial slurs. We don’t want our children to be treated as targets of racial slurs. We want to be treated as what we are: Americans.” NCAI cites research on the impact these images and behaviors have on Native American children: “Indian-based names and mascots lower the self-esteem of Native American children and perpetuates an inaccurate view of Native American culture.”

History affords myriad examples of how non-white bodies have and continue to be treated and mistreated because of skin color. Renaming the Crayola color of “Indian red” to chestnut in 1999, and recognizing that “flesh tone” bandages, nylons, and makeup exclude darker-hued persons indicates a willingness to recognize the issue in arenas in which we are not emotionally invested. While changing any aspect of a treasured sports tradition is difficult and emotionally costly for some, continuing traditions that threaten measures of progress and undermine cultural understanding is equally important.

Attorney Atticus Finch’s advice to his young daughter Scout in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is appropriate to this particular moment: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” To follow this advice does not mean painting faces and bodies and dressing in cultural costumes: “Cultural Appropriation and Racial Stereotyping in the 2013 Mummers Parade:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=85jzJkYgFKg. Surely, those aware of the 1800s American minstrelsy tradition of mostly white men in blackface mocking blacks — think Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” (1927) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIaj7FNHnjQ — see this “redfacing” also as cultural insult that belittles and degrades.

This “Redskins” conversation invitates a re-thinking of past neglects and insensitivity. Practicing and promoting cultural sensitivity, cultural literacy, and cultural awareness needn’t be casually dismissed as “hypersensitivity,” political correctness gone amuck, or abandoning meaningful traditions but rather respect for cultural difference.

Halloween has passed, but as Americans navigate Thanksgiving, perhaps this conversation will give pause to common public school reenactments between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, or Spirit Day dress up as “Cowboys vs. Indians” (http://www.myfoxphoenix.com/story/23785434/2013/10/24/cowboys-vs-indians-spirit-day-offends-students), or Fun World’s costume wigs like “Native Warrior Perruque de Guerrier” and “Indian Maiden.” We might well re-think childhood innocence when we sang and taught our children the song “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world — red and yellow, black and white...”

• Ahwatukee resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

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