A lot has been going on lately. So much in fact, that I will have to dedicate a separate post to sharing updates. This post, however, is intended to introduce one of my newest builds. I own a 1991 Nissan D21 “Hardbody” Pickup. I bought it for $500 from a couple of amazing friends who moved to Iowa from Durham, NC several years ago. The truck has served me really well, but I have to admit that I haven’t exactly been kind to it lately. In fact, it hasn’t carried a valid state inspection for more than a year and it has become something of an exotic spider habitat while parked in my back yard.
Recently, I decided to sell the truck. It’s probably not the kind of thing a craigslist buyer (at least a Lynchburg, VA craigslist buyer) would pick up. So I called the local junk/parts yard. The offer for my truck–which runs well for all intents and purposes–was pretty insulting. As such, I have decided to keep it and make it project.
We are (embarrassingly enough) a family of many old vehicles and don’t really need this truck for any day-to-day functions. I’ve decided to dedicate this truck to an admittedly restricted, but wholly fantastic function–TAILGATING. In the past week, I’ve pulled the truck out of the back yard and started making a list of repairs and upgrades that I’ll be making over the next year. While it’s totally arbitrary and perhaps not realistic, I’m setting a deadline of September 9, 2017 for the completion of this project. That’ll be Virginia Tech’s first home game of next season and I would LOVE to open the season with an amazing new tailgate set-up. First up…mechanical fixes and improvements. I’ve got to get this truck past inspection and mechanically sound enough to make trips to Blacksburg and back.
This is a photo that has been buried in one of my albums for years. It’s one of those remarkably average family snapshots. It’s not the kind of thing you put in a frame, rather something that you hold on to and use to identify relatives to future generations.
My oldest bother is on the far right, kneeling below his wife, holding a bottle for my nephew (who has recently graduated from high school…where does the time go?!). My other brother, the improbable red head is sitting on the upper left, behind his wife. They will in time give birth to three amazing little girls. They are gathered in small home tucked away in rural Alabama, where the woman on the far left gave birth to and raised 13 children. Clarether, a woman of Cherokee and Choctaw heritage, is my grandmother, and I sifted through my photo albums to find this picture because I have been thinking about her a lot lately.
I never got to know my grandmother very well. When she passed away in 2003, I had not seen her in more than a decade. As a child, I formed just a handful of vivid impressions of her. I remember being truly awed by her capabilities. I remember that she seemed quiet and loved to fish. I remember not being able to comprehend how she single-handedly managed her small homestead after twice being widowed. I remember being unable to put together how 13 children, even if they weren’t all in the home at the same time, fit into that tiny house with just three cramped bedrooms–how the addition of hot water and electricity were upgrades my mother remembers vividly. I remember how she seemed to make biscuits without looking at what she was doing, to this day the best biscuits I have ever eaten (I suspect it had something to do with the white tub of lard she kept in the kitchen). I remember a porch swing, not hung on the porch, but from a tree in the front yard, where she sat and brushed out feet of jet black hair that would have hung to her waist if it were not tucked into the impossibly tight bun she seemed to wear everyday.
I never knew what, if anything, my grandmother thought about her native heritage. The kind of Jim Crow segregation that typified the Alabama she lived in surely lumped her in with her “colored” husbands. And as I continue to monitor and take part in conversations about the name of my favorite team, the one in Washington, I find myself wondering what she might have thought about all of this. I suspect she wouldn’t have. I suspect she wouldn’t have given a damn about the concerns of white folks up north, of activists or politicians…or academics for that matter. I suspect she lived a life where the utterance of the word “Redskin” would have ranked impossibly low on the list of struggles, hatreds, slights, and ignorances she dealt with during her years on this earth.
I realize today that I am angry, really angry, that women like my grandmother are being used to justify the incomprehensible obstinacy of Dan Snyder and the Washington organization’s leadership. I am angry that the fiery and often hateful opposition to progress and positive social change are being hung on her shoulders, because “she wouldn’t have cared about the name.” As if somehow being a woman, in poverty, in the rural south, swallowed up in pre-civil rights racial inequity in a state where almost 300 Blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968 (years spanning much of her lifetime and most of her husbands’), and tasked with surviving with a lack of access to basic infrastructure, services, and amenities that I have never had to contemplate, qualifies as giving her “blessing” to the team in Washington.
I know that my grandmother was proud of her family and her children who became ministers, military officers, police officers, businesswomen, engineers, government employees, and more. I know that she was proud of her scores of grandchildren and great grandchildren, many of whom have earned or are on the way to earning college degrees. I know my grandmother was proud of my family’s progress.
And this, for me, is the heart of the “name” issue that is being conveniently missed (or ignored) by so many. The issue continues to be framed as a debate about the appropriateness of a single word, as if the only thing at stake here is a football team, a football team’s traditions, and whether or not that team’s merchandise and signage must be replaced. The issue continues to be framed as one of trivial “political correctness,” as Americans dread the inconvenience of having to publicly speak about other groups of people as if they actually respected their humanity.
This issue is not about the utterance of two syllables. Rather, what those two syllables authorize and have authorized for more than 80 years. Words have power. They shape reality and influence action. And this word has for decades allowed us to think about native people as cartoon characters, as animal-like mascots with props, as halloween costumes.
It has allowed fans to engage in the mockery of a people, its sacred traditions, and its history–a history that includes a horrific genocide about which Americans are incomprehensibly ignorant–and to shuck the uncomfortable reality of racism in the name of fandom. The team name, the merchandise, even the misguided Original Americans Foundation, are all shortcuts around having to take seriously the bleak reality of structural inequality that began with the decimation, and persists in the silencing, of the native population of this country.
As I consider this picture, it warms my heart, because I don’t really see an awkward family snapshot. I see my grandmother, stolid as always. I see my brothers, the sons of a retired Electrical Engineer who put himself through Tuskegee with a wife and two young children by working nights at the morgue. The sons of Clarether’s daughter, my mother (pictured left), who in her 30s earned her first degree in the Community College system in which I served as a professor for three years. I see my beautiful nephew (he and his little sister are both lookers), who is the product of the kind of marriage that was illegal not only in Alabama, but also Virginia and 14 other states until 1967. I see change and I see progress. I see the beauty of what can come when people stop resisting change because things “have been that way for a long time.” I see in my family, histories worth remembering, stories to be proud of, and a world of reasons why we would all be better off without the ugliness of two syllables.
A group of French police officers is currently under investigation after allegedly blacking their faces and posing with bananas during a “negro party”. When the images of the party were first circulated via social media, the individuals pictured were almost universally condemned…even though they claimed they were just “having fun” and that they “did not mean to offend anyone.” Overwhelmingly, people who see this image recognize that reducing an entire group of people to a set of exaggerated physical qualities and stereotypical characteristics is not only offensive, but also profoundly dehumanizing.
Overwhelmingly, people who see these images understand that the “intention not to be offensive” was either totally insincere or catastrophically misguided. Intentions do absolutely nothing to reduce how ugly and hurtful this kind of cultural insensitivity is…and even though I have seen these pictures dozens of times now, they still almost bring me to tears.
The fact that people can be so totally disgusted by this kind of act, but defend the Redskins team name completely baffles me. As a lifelong Washington Football Franchise fan, I can say that every time I attend a game and see drunken fans donning redface, wearing feather head dresses (ceremonial artifacts that were only worn by the elders of a few tribes during spiritual events), and imitating chants and war cries I am thoroughly sickened.
Everyday as a professor of Communication Studies, I teach the dual principles that words are powerful and that communication shapes how we perceive our world. Hate speech hurts and incites violence. Pledges and oaths bind people to profound personal and shared values. Names define people, places and ideas as much as do their physical characteristics (often times more).
That is why I am ecstatic that the U.S. Trademark Office canceled the Redskins trademark today…and why I am hopeful that the mounting pressure against the organization will finally result in a long overdue change. The word “Redskins” is not a neutral term for a group of people, it is a disparaging term that reduces that group to a single characteristic…their skin color. The name “Redskins” does not “honor” the specificity and diversity of the dozens of unique tribal heritages in this country, rather it lumps all Native Americans into one homogenous group and brands that group with a couple of stereotypical and historically inaccurate props. The name “Redskins” perpetuates a cultural environment where sports fans feel justified in parodying the racial identity of a people that were victims of one of history’s worst genocides and that remain one of our most systemically oppressed groups. The name “Redskins” is disgusting, and though I support my team and its players, I am ashamed that the organization continues down such a wrongheaded path and actually has the audacity to defend it.
Often in my classrooms, I try to teach through analogy. So, if you are still reading, I ask you to take a moment to think of the parts of your own personal or cultural identity that really define you – that you hold sacred or dear. For example, maybe your Asian heritage is dear to you. Maybe your Christianity is a core part of who you are. Now imagine there was a sports team out there that chose a disparaging name for the group that you identify with as its “mascot”–the “Squinty Eyes” or the “Bible Thumpers.” Imagine this was done with no real desire to understand anything about your identity, its values, its significance or history. Imagine this sports team appropriated a couple of stereotypical symbols to represent your identity (some of them might even be sacred objects) that become part of the team logo and merchandise and that are worn like “costumes” by its fans — a bowl and some chopsticks or a crucifix. Now imagine that these fans mimic rituals or cultural practices that are part of your identity without understanding their significance–maybe they periodically scream out a couple of nonsense words that are supposed to sound like an Asian language or maybe they pantomime the holy communion after touchdowns. Imagine that when you object to your culture being named and portrayed in this way (because the name and the deeds are inexorably connected), your voice is completely drowned out by angry fans who have decided that their sports team is clearly more important than your silly cultural or religious identity and that YOU are actually in the wrong for being too “politically correct”. Imagine thousands upon thousands of people who are not part of your cultural group, who have no intimate knowledge of your cultural group, who have never experienced the struggles that face members of your cultural group telling YOU what is and what is not offensive TO YOU.
Yes, the team has gone by this name for decades…that doesn’t make it right (lynching people and smacking your wife around used to be pretty “normal” things to do at one time). As communication and transportation technologies make us more interconnected than we have ever been in human history, we MUST rise to the challenge that increasing diversity (or increasing contact with existing diversity) poses–the challenge to be ethical, kind, and loving humans, to be better intercultural communicators, and to make things right when we have been wrong.