Why we really want the Redskins nickname removed (and why we’re wrong)

23 09 2013

Let’s not beat around the bush, white America.¹ We’re calling louder and louder for sports organizations like the Washington Redskins to give up their racially-charged nicknames.

But our activism has nothing to do with the plight of actual Native Americans.

We want the names changed because they make us uncomfortable. Us, and no one else.

The sooner we come clean and admit this to ourselves and everyone else, the sooner we can make any actual progress in race relations.

Let me say this first: I understand the controversy. I would wholeheartedly support the changing of the Redskins’ name. Historically, it’s long been a highly pejorative term used for a group the U.S. government took extreme advantage of for decades, and a group that, frankly, is still struggling² in many places to right itself from that abuse.

But I’ve also noticed that the cacophony of shrill voices dominating this conversation on both sides belong to a decidedly monochromatic mob. The people carrying the national discussion right now are not Native Americans themselves, not tribe members or concerned residents of reservations. They’re white guys in suits and ties, cultural critics who grew up in the upper-class suburbs, college students with a lot of book knowledge and very little interaction with the actual Native Americans those books talk about.³

Rick Reilly wrote last week about the minimizing of Native American voices in this debate, and while he essentially advocates for keeping the Redskins moniker, he makes a wildly insightful case. Reilly cites high schools made up of 99% Native American children who fail to feel offended by their school’s ‘intolerant’ mascot. He cites his father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian who lives and works on a reservation and sees no issue with the name ‘Redskins.’ Why is it that these voices, the ones most personally affected by the issue, are the very last ones we ever hear trumpeted?

I’ve got a theory. It’s that we white Americans make a big deal out of a racially insensitive nickname not to protect the race being insulted, but to protect our own feelings.

Seeing the Redskins nickname makes us feel bad. It insults our idea that our sophisticated education has brought about a post-racial society. It throws into question our generational identity of being “forward-thinking” and “open-minded.” It drags up every feeling of white guilt that’s been instilled in us since our first elementary school lesson about oppression of the American Indians.

We don’t like the Redskins nickname because it reminds us that our ancestors did some really terrible things to other people’s ancestors, but even worse, our response is to think that by changing a logo on the helmet of a twenty-five-year-old playing a game, we can atone for all those feelings and never think about them again. We’re up in arms about insensitivity and Redskins history and n-word comparisons because to us, that’s the best way to assuage our guilt. Meanwhile many of the people we’re supposedly “protecting” are dealing with poverty, violence, and substance abuse in run-down reservations – but why would we take all the effort to help out there when we can instead eradicate our guilt with a picket sign outside an NFL stadium?

Quite frankly, the tendency for us middle class white folks to jump down Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s throat is selfish. Here’s a novel thought: why don’t we take a step back, stop shouting Webster definitions of “redskin” and take a moment to listen to the Native Americans whose voices we’re drowning out while claiming to speak for. Maybe they care a great deal about sports team nicknames. Maybe they care about a whole host of other issues much more. And when you’re truly trying to help someone, listening to them is generally a pretty good first step.


¹ I just don’t like this phrase, and I apologize to everyone for forcing myself to use it here.

²If you only read one thing today, skip my article and read this one. It’s old, but one of those great pieces of investigative journalism that transcends timeliness.

³ I’m well aware of the irony that this entire post is written by one of these very same white guys. Like rain on your wedding day.


Trust and the Superhuman

19 09 2013

Written for a college course in the Fall of 2011, republished to the blog in 2013.

Trust and the Superhuman
What the obsession with superhero movies tells us about ourselves

I must admit that I’m a sucker for superheroes. Give me a darkened cinema, a glimpse of freakish physical powers, and 90 minutes of high-flying action and garish spandex outfits, and there’s a good chance I won’t be getting any work done for the rest of the night. Throw in a menacing super-villain and an epic climactic conflict and you’ve found my kryptonite. I simply cannot pass up a good superhero movie.

I am apparently far from alone. It seems every other Hollywood film follows a costumed crusader these days. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises might be the most anticipated movie in years with a star-studded cast returning to finish the gritty Batman trilogy. And Marvel Studios’ set of interweaving hero films will grow to eight with the ongoing production of two more sequels (Ironman 3 and Thor 2) along with next spring’s The Avengers.

But what is it about these caped crusaders that we find so captivating? Eye-popping action sequences and eye-candy lead actors are always going to work in Hollywood, of course, but superhero movies do something more: they appeal to a society mired in sticky cynicism.

Since Watergate, American society has found it increasingly difficult to trust our once-hallowed public institutions. Scandal after scandal, controversy after public indignity has seemed to spring out of every establishment we once thought we could believe in. Superhero films tell us much about how we ourselves view America’s preeminent institutions. Batman’s Gotham City is seething with government and police corruption at the same time that our real-life Capitol cities are wracked by bribes and sex scandals. The Incredible Hulk (2008) battles a powerful super-villian in the U.S. military, which will stop at nothing to use the Hulk’s powers as a weapon. Misgivings about the military abound in a world of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Distrust of war industry? Check. Ironman’s villain is the military-industrial complex that creates wars to create profit. And alas, even journalists can’t escape distrust and disdain – who can forget Spiderman’s sensationalizing supervisor J. Jonah Jameson, who slants the news to sell papers and demonize the heroic webslinger? If costumed heroes act as a mirror, the reflection is a deeply cynical society with little willingness to trust in anything.

Yet we do trust in the heroes. And therein may lie the answer to our question of fascination. Yes, superheroes give us heart-pumping action scenes and fantastic heroes, but more than any of that, they give an intensely cynical society something to trust in. Spiderman’s straining to use his gift responsibly is a breath of fresh air for a generation all too familiar with abuse of power. When Tony Stark sacrifices his company in a refusal to build weapons of mass destruction, we finally see the conscience in Big Business we’ve so long yearned for. And when Batman refuses to kill the Joker in cold blood, we get a glimpse of a hero we can trust to act with integrity, even when no one else is watching. These redemptive figures of the superheroes start to take on a suddenly religious significance.

Ironman is a fascinating story of a genuinely nauseating creature, Tony Stark, brash and selfish, who somehow gains the sympathy of the audience as he strives to become a good person. Really, the narrative of a cripplingly flawed character yearning for goodness is the very picture of the Christian walk, aside from the fact that we must rely on the grace of God and not a robotic suit. When Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders at the end of The Dark Knight, we can’t help but notice parallels in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary to save the world and Batman’s to save Gotham. Police hunt a limping Dark Knight who just saved their city; we crucify a bleeding White Knight who just saved ours. My favorite superhero scene: Spiderman’s moment of triumph in Spiderman 3, when he finally shakes off the black parasitic villain Venom and the blackness in his own soul. Tellingly, it all happens in the tower of a church cathedral.

Living in a world without heroes to root for takes its toll on a people. Politicians, professional athletes, celebrities and even public servants have let us down time and time again. Burned one too many times by those we trusted, we often turn away from personal connections. We risk falling into a lonely, isolated existence, protecting ourselves from another letdown. Superheroes perform their most heroic act when they save us from this false reality – a world in which we cannot trust anyone – and give us, as The Dark Knight says, not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need right now: a hero we can trust.

Why Jason Derulo sucks at apologies

28 05 2013

Ages ago, in 2009, Jason Derulo wrote a song called “Whatcha Say” in which he sings the part of a cheating boyfriend attempting to reconcile with his girl after being caught in infidelity. The situation wrestles with some weighty and universal issues like trust, commitment, and forgiveness, and seems to have the potential for thought-provoking impact on its listeners.

Unfortunately for Derulo, he ignores all of that and writes one of the more pathetic excuses for creative language in a music industry that includes the Black Eyed Peas.

Why am I reviewing a 4-year-old hip-hop song for its social commentary and impact? Because I think it’ll be fun, that’s why.

OK, maybe there’s more than that. I’m a words guy. I think words have incredible power, and the way we use words has the potential to be both wildly constructive and profoundly damaging. And I think the way we use language in the entertainment media is having a hugely negative impact on the audience – and that’s all of us.

I think we could solve a lot of our relational issues in real life by being able to identify manipulative language when we see it.

Did someone say “manipulative language”? (Jason, that’s your cue!)

[Verse 1]
I was so wrong for so long
Only tryin’ to please myself
Girl, I was caught up in her lust
When I don’t really want no one else
I know I should have treated you better
But me and you were meant to last forever

I’ll give Derulo credit: he starts out OK. Admitting his wrong is a great start to an apology. Unfortunately, that’s as close as he ever gets to an actual apology. That’s right, you’re listening to an apology song that does not contain the words “I’m sorry!”

The third line is a nice example of blame-throwing (the “lust” belongs entirely to the other woman and not the singer), but in the grand scope of how awful this apology is, I just don’t have the time to dwell on it. The real issue is the last line. Notice how Derulo doesn’t say he’ll treat the girl better. He doesn’t say he’ll try harder, or enlist some close friends to keep him away from other women, or anything of the practical sort. He doesn’t even promise he won’t cheat again. The reason he does give for deserving forgivness? “Me and you were meant to last forever.” It’s a cheap cliché based on what sound like the flighty emotions of a 16-year-old, and it’s manipulation of language at its finest – words that hold absolutely no meaning strung together to play on emotions and numb the mind.

Ladies, if your boyfriend cheats on you, that’s a good sign you are not “meant to last forever,” and if he uses that exact cheesy phrase to justify himself, then the sign should be just about impossible to ignore.

Skipping to the pre-chorus:

Cause when the roof caved in and the truth came out
I just didn’t know what to do
But when I become a star we’ll be living so large
I’ll do anything for you

Translation: When you caught me cheating, it made me feel bad. (I don’t know how you felt, and I’m not going to bother to address it). But you should stay with me on the off chance I become rich and famous because then we can live the high life. Also, when we’re rich, then I’ll do anything for you (although I won’t do anything right now, since anything probably includes staying faithful).

My take? Great logical points. Because fame and wealth have the long-observed effect of making a person more faithful to their partner.

At this point, I’m going to skip over the chorus (the girl singing Derulo’s rationales back to him), because I just don’t want to address the line

Mmmm whatcha say,
Mmm that you only meant well?

for so, so many reasons.

[Verse 2]
How could I live with myself
Knowing that I let our love go?
And ooh, what I’d do with one chance
I just gotta let you know
I know what I did wasn’t clever
But me and you we’re meant to be together

My personal favorite verse. Glossing over the first line (we get it, Jason, getting caught made you feel bad. We’re all very sorry for you) and only briefly mentioning that this is at least his second chance (your first try was the one where you got caught cheating, remember buddy?), what I love so much are the closing lines.

You just got caught with another woman. You’re trying to apologize and get your girl back. You start the sentence “I know what I did was ______.” You could go any number of directions here. Words like selfish, damaging, and reprehensible come to mind. But nope, you’ve got something better. You choose to take this one all-important opportunity to point out that what you did “wasn’t clever.”

Something tells me you’re not a very clever man a lot of the time.

I feel bad harping on poor Jason Derulo so much today (ah, who am I kidding, I don’t feel bad at all), because this kind of abuse of language is all-too-common in popular entertainment – music, movies and TV especially. The ubiquity of it is enough to numb us to its presence and leave us vulnerable to language manipulation. One common abuse of language right now is a refusal to admit faults or wrongdoing – it’s pervasive among our generation, and I’ll admit to being as guilty of it as anyone. In fact, Donald Miller wrote in his blog last week that an unwillingness to admit wrongs is the common denominator among all manipulators.

Thinking critically about the way we use language can save us from falling victim to those who manipulate it, whether they are religious leaders, political figures, or folks from our everyday lives. And even more importantly, it can keep us from becoming self-absorbed manipulators ourselves.

As for Derulo’s (possibly imaginary) girl, I like to think she escaped a toxic relationship, and radio single history backs me up on this. As terrible as Jason Derulo’s apology was, it’s really no wonder his next single was “Riding Solo.”