Challenging Words: Exploring Issues in Self-Identity, Racial Slurs, and Political Correctness

Sports got political on Sunday. NBC sportscaster Bob Costas utilized a halftime moment to talk about a longstanding issue: The use of Washington’s Football team name, the R*dskins. I noticed a reaction on my Facebook- from someone who was not a person of color: “I don’t want to hear Bob Costas inject his politically correct b*tch ass opinion.”

Now why does it matter if such opinions come from a person of color or not? Ideally, it shouldn’t, but issues of identity tend to be more prone in communities of color- and there’s a reason for it. The debate reminded me of a contentious argument I saw at Occupy Los Angeles. The Los Angeles camp had an extremely diverse crowd: ethnically, ideologically, and generationally. Tensions were inevitable.

A man from an indigenous group made a declaration to the 100-person crowd: “Do not use the word Hispanic.” Better yet, he said, all of us should refer to those in the camp from a Latino background with a more respectful term: “Indigenous.” Immediately afterward, a light-skinned man approached the platform and insinuatingly asked, “Would you accept the term ‘human’?” It was a well-intended and seemingly simple question; maybe a heartened effort to bridge all our humanity together. But the reality is that such questions are mired in historical ignorance.

Here’s how: Issues of self-identification are difficult to understand by groups in society who always had the right to self-identify. It’s relatively recent that communities of color, on the other hand, can say how they want to be identified without facing jail time or death. This comes after centuries of suffering, violence, and peaceful resistance on our part. Now we, as communities of color organizing for peaceful equality for all people, finally have the right to say this is who we are, yet today we still face resistance. It is a right that is taken for granted, just like Americans take many other rights for granted. Those who came before us died for our right to say we are not wetb*cks, we are not ni*gers, we are not r*dskins. The right to say this is who I am and this is who I’m not is an American struggle that, given the R*dskin team name debate, is still ongoing.

I am not a nationalist; I believe the core of issues in the United States and globally are economic. However, I recognize the lack of understanding that is prevalent when someone asks “why not just be human?” Of course we are human, but humans are not naked of culture or history. Such a being would be hardly considered human at all. Such questions try to minimize the dynamics of Chicano and Indigenous culture, by branding us naked of identity and culture altogether (trust me, our people have been there before and aren’t interested in going back).

So when a person of color makes a stand for his/her identity, remember it’s a historically rare occasion to be that free to do so. It’s also threatening when a person tries to attack our display of self-identification.

I personally do not identify myself as Chicano or anything similar, but I respect people’s right do so. This may seem like a contradiction, but my fundamental point is this: We all have the right to identify ourselves how we’d like. This is a relatively new right we’ve gained over the years.

During his halftime segment, sportscaster Costas also said that “a majority of Native Americans say they are not offended” by the term R*dskin. Though I am not sure if valid studies exist to support the claim, I am certain there is some truth in it. America remembers a time when African-Americans themselves performed blackface (similarly, R*dskin fans today apply red to their face at games). It’s believable that many Native Americans may find r*dskin acceptable, or even find pride in a blackface-like caricature, Cleveland Indian mascot Chief Wahoo. This may represent a historical phenomenon from marginalized persons to find delight in the slightest hint of inclusion, whether positive or negative, into mainstream society. Many comedians of color, for example, perpetuate stereotypes of their own community in order to penetrate the mainstream. That being said, there are many Native Americans who choose not to accept such terms of integration (Why not hear it from a Native person’s perspective?).

We’ve also noticed in the social media sphere how us lefties are being considered “politically correct” or too sensitive. Actually, I’d argue the term politically correct has become negatively charged; it is a more emotional than logical argument. It has become an effectively curt term to deny validity to a valid question. It is a tool of propaganda. It seeks to quickly end key discussions by labeling dissenting opinions as “sensitive,” “weak,” or “vibe-killing.” Movements should either struggle to make the term more positive or do away with it completely.

Now with the question on if we are being too sensitive. Life’s too short to take things on a personal level. But then there’s the political. It’s hard to accept the claim that American society treats all as equals when there’s no sports team called the California Cr*ckers, Nebraska N*ggers, or New York Ch*nks (rightly so, of course), but its 2013 and we surely have the R*dskins.

But here’s a last curveball. We do have the power to turn some derogatory words into acceptable words. This includes words like queer and chicano, the latter of which used to be an insulting slur in Texas. Both words are now celebrated in their respective communities. Notably, the N-word hasn’t gotten there due to resistance. Changing the social meaning of a term in an either positive or negative direction, clearly, takes collective effort from the group whose identity is in question. Seemingly, it is in the right of any group to define itself as it’d like.

But can this happen to a term like r*dskin? Can Native Americans rally enough support to make the term acceptable, like queer or chicano? Or is the term too loaded with pertinence to skin color to garner wide acceptance? The direction of that answer may be determined by the Native collective itself.

Michael Lozano is a contributing writer. His articles have been published nationally across New American Media, ImpreMedia (the nation’s largest Spanish language news publishers), and various campus papers. He graduated from CSULB in 2011 with Honors in Sociology and a minor in Journalism.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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2 replies »

  1. What is the point of replacing one letter of a controversial word with an asterisk? You are quoting the words so surely it’s ok to spell them out.

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