What is a slur? Redskins case forces us to decide
Something is happening just beneath the fight over the name of a certain Washington, D.C., pro football team: America is working through the process of determining what is — or is not — racially offensive.
What is a slur, and who gets to decide? How many people must be offended to tip the scales? Why should some be forced to sacrifice their traditions out of respect for others?
We are a long way from consensus on these questions, judging by the response to a federal ruling that the “Redskins” team name is disparaging and its trademarks should be canceled.
The team is appealing the decision, and even if it loses its trademark, it can still use the name. But this latest development highlights the limitations of how America wrestles with certain racial statements, and our struggle to balance free speech and social good.
A rapidly diversifying nation has more need than ever to figure out what is racially offensive.
Some offenses are undeniable: NBA owner Donald Sterling earned universal condemnation for asking his mistress not to bring black people to his games.
Yet in an era of blunt and sometimes coarse online discussion and political debate, Americans continue to disagree about the nature of calling Hispanics who cross the border without documents “illegals,” or the propriety of images that depict President Barack Obama as a “witch doctor.”
And it took years of discussion to win makeovers for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, the stereotypical black faces used to sell syrup and rice.
Jim McCarthy, a lawyer who followed the Redskins trademark case, said he is not offended by the name, but “there’s no denying the fact that a certain percentage of Native Americans are offended. We don’t know if it’s a minority, a majority, but it’s a fact.”
Here is what the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, ruling Wednesday in a case first filed more than 20 years ago, tried to show the real world:
• What matters is if “Redskins” is disparaging to Native Americans — whether other ethnic groups are offended doesn’t matter.
• A “substantial” percentage of Native Americans must be offended — not a majority. The judges defined that threshold at 30 percent.
• A disparaging term does not require intent: “Redskins” can still be disparaging even if the team says it is intended to show honor and respect.
Based on testimony from linguistics and lexicography experts, and a review of how the term was used in dictionaries, books, newspapers, magazines and movies, the board ruled 2-1 that the term was disparaging to Native Americans.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says the term is “very offensive and should be avoided.” But again, given today’s confrontational discourse on the Internet and in politics, do we really care about giving offense? Or has that value gone the way of curtsies and tipping hats?
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