Normally, I make it my practice to silently observe the discussion involving other social groups of America. The reason for this is simple: it is important for each social group to speak with its own voice. Even if I wanted to help, it is the better habit to refrain. I have seen too many cases in which good intentions were translated into stumbling, inartful words, setting back the agenda rather than advancing it. That was not going to be me.
Despite those reservations, I feel compelled to speak out in solidarity for the movement against having a racial slur, i.e. "Redskins," as the name of an NFL franchise. I feel the compulsion for two reasons. First, I am a sports fan and a resident of the Washington D.C. area, which makes the name of the local franchise more relevant than those living outside of the region who don't care about sports. Second, I am an Asian American, and I have been mired in the ill-advised hashtag campaign from a few weeks ago that distracted the national attention away from this important issue. Though I have been speaking out on the stupidity of the hashtag campaign, it is undeniable that I, too, contributed to the distraction.
How shall I express my solidarity with the campaign against "Redskins," without running afoul of my personal rule that I should not speak on behalf of others? Answer: I can speak about my own experience, which points toward the same result. Here is my attempt at doing so.
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I am a first generation immigrant, having emigrated from Korea to Los Angeles area in 1997. I will not bore you with the sob stories about my adjustment into American life at age 16, since I have already done that in this space already. It would enough to say that, the first year of my American life was defined largely by loneliness. In Seoul, I lived in the same neighborhood throughout my childhood. I had a close group of friends who attended the same elementary school, same middle school and same high school. The move to U.S. was the first major move I remember--and it had to be across the Pacific, in a new land where no one wanted to talk to the new kid who spoke broken English.
(More after the jump)
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But it did not take long for me to realize that, in America, there is a shortcut to forming a closer relationship with a total stranger. In Los Angeles, the shortcut came in the names of Dodgers and Lakers. I have always been a sports fan, watching baseball and basketball in Korea before I moved. The Lakers, in particular, had just drafted an exciting young rookie named Kobe Bryant. I watched the emergence of a legend with rapt attention.
"Lakers." "Kobe." I soon found out those were magic words. Hearing those words was an open invitation to everyone within the earshot to jump into the conversation. It is perhaps one of the few instances of American social etiquette in which it is rarely rude to jump into the conversation between total strangers. Say the magic words, and a conversation developed instantly, if only because some stranger was guaranteed to jump into the conversation. It did not matter that I was an awkward FOB with broken English. The congregation for the church of basketball can happen anywhere, and all those who followed the sport were equal participants.
The idea that pro sports in America promote social cohesion is hardly new. Less appreciated, however, is just how special pro sports can be to new immigrants and racial minorities. Jay Caspian Kang put it perfectly:
[M]y own stake in baseball comes from the fact that I am the foreign-born child of Korean immigrants, and that sometimes finding acceptance in this country is as simple as shouting out in a crowded bar that you know who started each game of the 1986 World Series because you, like the rest of the people there, watched every game on TV and talked about it the next day at school.
The word "acceptance" is the key. For all the claims of color-blindedness, there is an instinctive filter between people of different color and culture that makes the person in front of them not an individual, but a scale model of the various stereotypes we hold. Much like Christianity claims to work more for the meek and the downtrodden, the magic of professional sports--America's civic religion--works more for immigrants and racial minorities. Talk about the 1986 World Series, Derek Fisher's miraculous 0.4 second shot, or 17-1 Patriots and the Helmet Catch, and the filter disappears as if by miracle. Invoke the incantations, and one can instantly regain one's humanity in the eyes of others.
Which brings us to the Washington Redskins.
Here is something that one can only learn through experience: a group eventually comes to take on the character of the core around which the group has coalesced. The name of your sports teams matters, because the value embedded in the names will seep into the fandom. This truth can only be learned through experience because it is purely inductive. There may not be a logical compulsion leading to this conclusion, but the entire human experience is behind it.
Los Angeles sports fans are notorious in their reputation for being nonchalant about their teams. This is neither correct nor fair; visit the playoff games for the Dodgers or the Lakers, and the error of that notion will be made self-evident. But the notion does have a grain of truth, in this sense: Los Angeles sports fans realize that, ultimately, sports are not THAT important. Angelenos are not like Midwesterners, whose collective mood swings wildly depending on the performance of the Green Bay Packers or the Chicago Bears that week. And one cannot help but realize that the absurd names of the LA sports teams--Lakers, Dodgers--contribute to the mindset peculiar to the LA sports fans. There is no lake in Los Angeles to speak of, and there is no trolley to dodge in the streets. Saying those names as one talks about pro sports makes one realize that, at the end of the day, pro sports in America is a giant inside joke and we are all just playing along. This allows LA fans to become a bit more detached from their sports teams, allowing them to ration their emotion until they liberally spend it in the important moments that count.
Names matter, because the values behind them reach out and touch us. Another Washington sports team had already recognized this and changed its name. Washington Bullets, one of the oldest NBA franchises, changed its 34-year-old name to Washington Wizards in 1997, as the team owner Abe Pollan felt that it was inappropriate to have a team called "the bullets" in what was then-murder capital of America. I wonder why Dan Snyder could not learn from Pollan's example.
There should be no serious debate that the name "Redskins" is noxious. It makes a racial slur appear normal. It reduces living, breathing humans into a permanent stereotype, which is then printed on uniforms, caps, t-shirts and flags that become ubiquitous in our living spaces. That Redskins is by far the most popular sports team in the Washington D.C. area should be worrisome. That Asian Americans of this area (recall that D.C.-Maryland-Virginia metro area has the nation's third largest Korean American concentration) would use "Redskins" as the magic word to gain acceptance in the mainstream society should be even more worrisome.
In the end, we become the air we breathe. Use poison as a building block of our identity, and we ourselves become poisonous. Pro sports matters more to Asian Americans. This is why we should care about this issue.
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