Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#NotYourMascot, and Why You Should Care

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.

*               *               *

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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  1. We should add that the major reason why, as a matter of fact, "redskins" is even remotely possible today, is that there aren't that many of them left to make noise. This sets a pretty dangerous precedent for many other groups to focus on numbers and noise rather than reason and law.

  2. Thank God I am european with all imperfections that may carry
    I do not care so much about terminology
    And I certainly am much more into the substance than its wrapping
    I guess that happens to societies as they grow old

  3. I'm going to play devil's advocate and defend the term 'redskin'. It was never a racial slur: it has never had any derogatory intent behind it. In fact, many are reluctant to let go of the term (notwithstanding no one would use this archaicism any more) because it is associated with a part of the defining mythos of America: the frontier, the wild west, cowboys, pioneers, and, even before that, the pilgrims and first (European) settlers. The real issue, of course, is not that the term itself is insulting but that it belongs to a mythology that is now under attack, partly on the grounds that it disguises and sanitizes the ugly facts about native American genocide. Now, it is very important to face the truth about history, especially one's own history, but you are not going to redress the ethnic cleansing of a race by the ethnic cleansing of language. In a way, the word 'redskin', as a linguistic fossil, is a valuable reminder of a certain epoch, of a certain people of whom little else has survived, and also that there was, not so long ago, a time when people had an altogether too-rosy picture of America's past. The sin of the word 'redskin' lies not in itself but in that it reminds white people of their own previous insensitivity: don't use it then, but let it live on in the name of the team as a reminder.

    1. Your argument would hold a lot more water if the movement was about excising "Redskins" from the dictionary, rather than from the name of an NFL franchise.

    2. Not really. It's accepted that the dictionary contain a complete list of words for reference, so no English word needs a defence for its inclusion there. Let me refocus my argument: the principle of free speech decrees that any word can be used unless there is a good reason not to, so the onus is on critics to present a good reason to censor any name in the public domain. 'Redskins' isn't a slur; it just reminds us of a previous era we feel uncomfortable with, and that's not a good enough reason.

    3. Is it not enough that Native Americans don't want their entire people commodified in to a name of a sport team? And don't you think its especially inappropriate given the history of mass genocide they had to endure from White Americans? This isn't just an issue of the word having a pejorative meaning today, it's an issue of RACE being turned in to a sports commodity. What right do you have to use someone's race as your entertainment or as your "reminder" of the past? Following your logic, the word "Negro" and "Oriental" should be up for grabs as well! Why not the Washington Yellow Orientals or Washington Black Negroes or Washington Brown Hispanics?

    4. If it was a neutral sounding name for a race, I doubt anyone would have a problem with it. Survivor divided up teams into asians, hispanics, whites, and blacks once, and no one cared.

      Still, I take your point that I could make the same argument for the words 'Negro' and 'Oriental' since they were both regarded as acceptable inoffensive terms in past eras. I just find it hard to believe people are genuinely offended by the name 'Redskins', so it seems like a case of white people becoming outraged on another group's behalf, without being called on to do so. How about
      instead of asking whether we would feel comfortable calling someone a 'redskin', polling the native american community for their opinions on the matter?

      I don't think there's any question of using someone's race as 'entertainment': it's not as if you are making another ethic group dance on stage. Do New Englanders complain that they've been commodified in the name 'Yankees'? And just how butthurt is everyone going to get over the issue of names? It seems like everyone has to be more and more careful about names that aren't even intended as insults to begin with, when there are so many more important issues to deal with, including the issue of protecting free speech.

    5. There was a very big backlash against that Survivor season which pitted races against each other. The fervor would have undoubtedly been much worse had Survivor used the terms 'Negroes' and 'Orientals'. And for the record, you would be hard pressed to find an African American who prefers to be called a Negro or an Asian who prefers to be called Oriental. They are both archaic, semi derogatory terms which was used by Europeans to denote these groups as "others". Just because these terms aren't on the same level as other hateful slurs, it doesn't mean they weren't and still aren't used to to deride these groups.

      Using a Redskin mascot is absolutely using someone's race as entertainment. It encourages fans of that team to dress up as an often sloppy offensive caricature of Native Americans. You only need to google these images to see how many White people like to dress up as Native Americans and "act Indian". It's egregious and needs to stop.

      Also, bringing up New Englanders/Yankees is a straw man argument. New Englanders/Yankees is not a race and even if it was a proxy for whites who lived in New England, they have never been a discriminated group. There is a huge difference between privileged Whites creating mascots to poke fun at themselves like the "yankees" and "fighting irish" and completely different for whites to go ahead and create caricatures of other races. I hope you can understand that just because you personally don't find something offensive, doesn't mean it's unreasonable for others to find it so.

    6. By the same token, just because you personally find something offensive, doesn't mean it's reasonable. I repeat: let the people directly concerned, i.e. native americans, decide if they are offended by this name of a football team. Blacks and Asians have made their views on the terms 'Negroes' or 'Orientals' pretty clear, so there was no question of white people deciding the issue on their behalf; and there shouldn't be in this case either.

  4. Whenever Native American mascots are discussed, I try to relate it to the following hypothetical scenario:

    -Imagine if Japan decided to annex Korea and succeeded in doing so.
    -Imagine if most of the ethnic Koreans were killed off; the rest were given small territories to live in; and the main language in Korea became Japanese.
    -Now imagine present day, if there is a professional baseball team named the Daegu Gooks.

    I think this is the type of scenario that the Native Americans have to deal with right now.

    1. 'Gooks' is clearly derogatory; 'Redskins' isn't.

  5. isn't there that korean proverb about a leaking bucket (바가지) indoors is a leaky bucket outdoors? that's daniel snyder for you. not only is a tool when it comes to personnel decisions on the field, he's equally a tool when it comes to decisions off the field. good luck with desan jackson, just like you had with donovan mcnabb, jeremiah trotter, and whoever else he took from philadelphia's trash heap.

    in 20 yrs we will collectively look back at what's going now with the redskins name and wonder "what the hell were we thinking?". E A G L E S, Eagles!

    good post, korean.

    peter the korean american eagles fan

  6. If you would feel uncomfortable calling a Native American a "Redskin" to his/her face, don't name a team that and dubiously claim that you're doing so to "honour" them.

    1. It's not important what we feel comfortable with; it's important what Native Americans feel comfortable with, so let them discuss it and decide (if they don't have more important things to do).

  7. @Matt

    You're giving the NFL too much respect.
    It's a greedy, mostly criminal enterprise that at this point has outlived whatever usefulness it once had to the general population.

    Los Angeles's clown stomp of pro football and Pete Carroll's New Age mockery of the college game are better indicator's of where football is than any symbolic and racial remembering names can have. As Hispanics and Asians become more relevant and professional sports see the shifts in demographic gravity, names like "Redskins" will be seen as a disreputable, even disgraceful marker. A source of shame.

    And let's not forget both whites AND blacks had a role in the Indian genocides. Let's not dismiss the criminality of blacks, the black pro-athlete, because they were enslaved, come from the hood, etc.

    1. Changing the name of the team isn't going to make the NFL a more reputable organisation.

      I don't know what sort of role blacks played in the Indian genocides, but let's also not forget that there was a long period during which the native americans were a real threat. They used to raid towns at night killing everyone and carrying off hostages, including children, who were killed if they couldn't keep up. People in isolated rural areas had to flee to the coastal cities sometimes. That doesn't justify what happened, but it puts it in perspective.

    2. Well yeah, they were a real threat because land that had always been theirs was being infringed upon by people who didn't care to talk to them or, if they did, exploited them and made promises that they never intended to keep. It's as CJL said; if you wouldn't call a native american "redskin" to their face, then don't use the word elsewhere. And regardless of the original intent of the word, it took a negative connotation in the late 1800s. Even back to its origins, it is a word referencing the color of a particular race's skin. Should that really be used as the name of a sports team?

    3. Raiders coming from Canada to Massachusetts were probably not doing it because their own territory had been infringed.

    4. @Matt

      George Washington's War on Native America:

      "Several common themes run through these campaigns. The United States invariably covered up its own atrocities but exaggerated and publicized the few Indian atrocities for propaganda purposes.
      Whereas Indians did not kill prisoners (soldiers or civilians) and never raped female captives, Americans took the lives of combatant and noncombatant Indians alike, often scalping or skinning their victims. The women who were spared were often raped. Outnumbered and powerless to stop the U.S. forces advancing toward them, Indians abandoned their towns to the enemy, who looted and burned them. For example, Mann calculates that Sullivan's 5,000 troops destroyed 41 Indian towns, "

      I wouldn't trust any early commentary by white settlers. Obviously the Indians around then weren't perfect people. But white cultural history and the process of native genocide is so imbedded into white subconsciounesss and consciousness, only a small minority of whites are capable of discussing native genocides around the world clearly.

    5. I don't wish to deny the widespread practice by whites of scalping victims, of rape, and of burning towns. George Washington was particularly notorious in his day for atrocities against Indians.

      I am referring, however, to the era before George Washington, when Indians would raid the 13 colonies. Some would come down from Canada raiding as allies of the French, and they would indeed, as I said, raid small towns at night, take prisoners and kill those who couldn't keep up, often children. This is from firsthand and well-documented accounts. The colonists of the time were particularly concerned about the fate of their captured loved ones and negotiated for their return with French authorities, often with little result, which was partly for the reason that the French had little direct authority over the Indians concerned.

      I don't know how you can prove a statement like 'Indians....never raped female captives' considering you are talking about hundreds of years and hundreds of different kinds of Indians and hundreds of different situations.

    6. @Matt,

      Did you read the post? Here's what it said:

      "The United States invariably ....exaggerated and publicized the few Indian atrocities for propaganda purposes."

      Now subsitute you in the sentence.

      "Matt invariably ....exaggerated and publicized the few Indian atrocities for propaganda purposes."

      Do you see what you are doing? The same thing. This is why I stated only a very small minority of white are capable of discussing native genocides around the world clearly.

      It's just too deep. The only way to get at this issue is by an empowered alliance of colored peoples around the world. Possibly have some tribunals, like they did at the Nuremberg trials. Get the point across!

    7. If you read the post a little more carefully you will see that that line about invariably exaggerating Indian atrocities for propaganda purposes is referring to the campaigns conducted during the revolutionary war. I don't doubt it, but I've already explained that I'm talking about the pre-revolutionary period. If you're interested in the truth about history, you need to be careful about drawing conclusions that the evidence doesn't justify, such as that a study of campaigns in the 1770s and 1780s tells you all you need to know about colonists and Indians in the 1670s and 1680s. And you can't dismiss my arguments on the basis of my race, which could be Tibetan for all you; you can only present counter arguments and evidence.

      You're right that I'm white. Now show me where I exaggerated, show that I do it invariably, and for propaganda? That's just a label that enables you to ignore facts you are uncomfortable with, and isn't that just what people used to do with the facts of Indian genocide, i.e. ignore them?

    8. @Matt,

      I don't doubt that there were Indian raids pre-Revolution, just as there were raid post-Revolution.

      But so what? Whites were violently taking over their lands. Not necessarily mass killing after mass
      killing. But large event slaughters followed by pacifistic periods. Attempts at "legal" means, purchase
      of lands and settler expansion. Some puny raids by various tribes doesn't change the nature
      of the expansion.

      You magnify these raids as if it changes the balance of what occured. Essentially, God's creation
      replaced by white creation by totalitarian means.

    9. @lineoffense

      As I stated originally, the fact that there were Indian raids doesn't justify what happened, but it does put it in perspective. And there is a difference between Indian raids post- and pre-Revolution, because pre-Revolution the Indians were more of a real threat to the survival of the colonies, whereas post-Revolution the writing was pretty much on the wall.

  8. @Matt,

    It probably won't change the NFL. But everything around the NFL is changing, so the NFL will too.

    Plus, it's always fun to slap the wicked boy in the room.

    Blacks didn't have the huge role whites had. And as Unknown very politely noted the Indians were being "infringed",


    Redskin is clearly a pejorative word. If it wasn't before, it is now. Like calling the Yankees "Pinheads". Or the Dodgers "Muds".

    1. @lineoffense

      'Redskin' has no pejorative intent; it does have negative historical associations.


      Referencing the colour of someone's skin is not negative: 'black' refers to skin colour but isn't negative; most derogatory terms for Asians don't refer to skin colour.

  9. As a fan of the Washington football team, I too agree that it is time to change the name of the franchise. I've written my own take on it though, because while the name itself is offensive, the logo is not.. necessarily (I can't unequivocally make that statement myself, but I would argue that it is as offensive as the buffalo nickel was.)

    This was written several years ago, and is a bit lengthy in the beginning, but worth a good read.

  10. a good piece, but Abe Pollin and Dan Snyder actually believe in the same thing: money. saying that names matter "because the values reach out and touch us" is a nice phrase, but i don't think that explains why LA is home to the Lakers or the Dodgers and why Angelenos would not approve changing the names to something more LA-centric. imagine having to explain to your child who has only know the LA Stars that Kobe was a star player with the LA Lakers, which actually is the same team despite having a different name and uniform. it does not work.

    as you probably know, it is rather all about the goodwill built into the name over time that can be translated into loyalty which equals money. this is why the Redskins remain the 3rd most valuable franchise in the NFL despite winning their division only twice in the last 20 years (mostly finishing 4th or 5th). when the Wizards changed their name, the Bullets had been one of the worst franchises in the NBA in terms of record and attendance, had just acquired Chris Webber, was moving into the new MCI center and needed a re-boot in order to cut ties to a rather sorry past.

    if the Redskins did not have such a storied history (80+ years) playing in the nation's capital (DC has always been a football town) in front of every President, i'm sure Snyder would have dropped the name long time ago.

  11. pretty nice blog, following :)

  12. "There is no lake in Los Angeles to speak of, and there is no trolley to dodge in the streets."

    I thought you were a real fan of the Southland's professional sports teams. If you were, you'd know that there are more than 10,000 lakes that the Lakers were named for and Brooklyn had a few trolleys back in the day before they moved to la la land and kept the name to keep some of their fans on their cross-country move. At least the Dodgers are no longer known as the Bridegrooms.

    It's not that "pro sports in America is a giant inside joke and we are all just playing along," and you lose a bit of your "cred" by not knowing the origins of "your" teams (one of which has been in existence for over 130 years).

    However, you are right about about the Redskins name, but billions of dollars are at stake with a name "everyone" who cares about football knows. And football is just about all that matters in the U.S. when it comes to sports.

    1. Do you seriously think that I don't know about Minneapolis Lakers and Brooklyn Dodgers, about the George Mikan era and the Ebbitt Field?

  13. I don't know where to post so I am posting here.

    I am not just angry, I am fucking outraged. I understand that a disaster can happen in any country at any moment. But this is just unbearable to think that in modern day Korea a ship carrying more than 300 people on board appears under no safety regulations and without any emergency training procedure. How in the world were they permitted to take 3 times the cargo weight? What were they thinking about asking some inexperienced sailor to steer the huge boat at a high speed?

    The captain, who gave orders to innocent obedient teens to stay inside (this coming from a captain sounds like the worst possible choice and I am not even an expert to figure this out) is the among the first people off the boat. We see him cuddling his blanket at the moment as all the students he left behind are drowning in their cabins... WTF??? No, seriously, what was he thinking about at that moment? His retirement? This tragic event exposes the ugly hidden dangers of hierarchy in Korean society and the heavy toll those on the bottom have to pay for following the rules.

    I think one lesson that all Korean parents must learn from this disaster: when something is wrong, don't listen to anybody and save your ass any way you possibly can.

    "High suicide rate has something to do with the industrial development".... What a crappy unsupported statement it was! The captain gets to live and tries to defend his cowardly actions, yet the school principal who suggested the trip and was saved takes his own life. How can it even be possible?

    I think Korea as a country MUST learn many important lessons from this great tragedy for it to never happen again.
    2. No matter how experienced a captain is, he is only as good as his third assistant.
    3. If you are a captain and you abandon your sinking ship and leave the passengers behind you to die, you are a disgrace to the nation.
    4. What is good about all this rigorous testing if when people do not perform when the time comes? Stop all unnecessary testing. Practice the skills you need in real life every single day.

  14. so when can we expect you to get behind the effort to change the name of the celtics?

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