Dirty Words III: The “R-word”

(continued from yesterday)

What about the R-word? Surely this was not made up by twentieth-century scientists! Surely it has always been a word of hate!

Half credit.

Look, I know it’s dicey to talk about race, and there are corners of the internet where people have developed an extensive vocabulary designed to dictate who gets to talk and when, and these corners don’t like me, personally, very much. I’m not here to tell people when they should or should not be offended. But I hope we learned from the last installment that people do not become offended because they have gazed into Plato’s world of forms and determined that some epithets are essentially offensive.

This cuts both ways. We know that every word has its meaning only because someone, some Adam, decided it should have that meaning, and then managed to persuade others, through violence or guile, to play along. A word is no more intrinsically offensive than the letters (or equivalent phonemes) chair intrinsically designate a thing to sit on: but it would be ridiculous to say that a word cannot be offensive, just as it would be ridiculous to say, “Sit in the what now? The chair? I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re talking about because I’ve just decided that ‘chair’ means ‘ceiling’ and my arbitrariness is just as good as yours.”

“It is unanimous and unambiguous that the team name of the Washington [R-words] is a racial slur and only the evil stubbornness of the management keeps the name, a deliberate slap in the face to a marginalized people, in place,” is a hypothetical strawman statement that is easy to disprove. The connotation of the R-word is anything but unanimous. As numerous this’ll-blow-your-mind news stories have pointed out, several majority-Native American high schools have teams called the R-word, and they don’t find it offensive at all. Red Mesa High (Arizona), home of the fighting R-word, is 99.31% Native American; Wellpinit High (Washington), home of the fighting R-word, is 91.21%, and even Kingston High (Oklahoma), home of the fighting R-word, squeaks by with a 57.69% Native American majority.

Obviously I didn’t figure this out from my vast knowledge of high school athletics; people who don’t think the R-word is offensive use these high schools as radar chaff to distract and confuse their opponents. I don’t want to play these games, but they do raise the question: how recently has the R-word been a slur?

It’s not hard to find older books (Peter Pan is one easy example) that use the R-word as a neutral designation of race. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), hardly an unbiased source, uses it neutrally on page one; Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), even less unbiased, uses it neutrally in chapter 10 (on p231 of the edition Google books lets you search inside). (They also, you’ll notice, both use in the subtitle the word Indian, a term that also offends some people, such as, most recently, Mark Oshiro.) These books aren’t so recent, but they aren’t from so long ago, either. It’s only in the early ’90s that you see some pushback on the word, but it’s unclear from this article, for example, whether that pushback is against the word or against the idea of Native American mascots in general (a separate, I’m trying to keep it separate, issue).

Dan Treadway of the Huffington Post, who calls the 79% of Americans who disagree with him “stubbornly ignorant,” writes: “I mean, literally—if you look up the word [R-word] in the dictionary, it’s defined simply as, ‘Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.’ This isn’t even really debatable, the name is offensive not because of any sort of allusion or interpretation—it’s defined as a racial slur.”

But you see what he did? “It is defined.” This is where language betrays us, because we know by now that there is no “it is defined”—we define it. For that matter there is no “the dictionary,” there are only multiple dictionaries with multiple opinions. I’m not here to speak out against dictionaries (that’s another post) and of course for archaic or technical terms they’re a useful authority, but looking up the latest connotations in a dictionary only reveals what language wonks and fretful publishers think they should claim words mean. (I say this as a language wonk; I say this because I love.) My 1981 American Heritage marks [R-word] not as offensive but merely as “informal”; the 1913 Webster’s (public domain online!) simply calls it “a common appellation for a North American Indian.” To anyone who used a slightly older dictionary, Dan Treadway, tripping over himself in an attempt to be as condescending as possible as only the Huffington Post entire internet can be, says, “Congratulations, you are stubbornly ignorant.”

Despite what the HuffPo says, if a word has changed meaning and only 21% of Americans are aware it has changed meaning, then it has not changed meaning. Words do not change meaning in secret! This isn’t like making fun of people who don’t believe in climate change, or a round earth. Science will not make 21% of speakers outvote 79% of speakers.

I want to stress that my goal here is not to prove that the R-word should not be offensive, that it is to some people, or that anyone is wrong to be offended. I’m not the boss of you. My goal is to take what we learned from the r-word and note that this change is not a random one. People made this change. The question is who made it, and who benefits from the change?

The Washington Post ran a story about the R-word controversy that included an account of activist Amanda Blackhorse shouting at the students of Red Mesa High (remember from above? Home of the R-word, 99.31%?) as they tried to attend a game, telling them they should be offended even if they weren’t. Presumably they were “stubbornly ignorant.” Certainly, in the words of Blackhorse, “They don’t know any better.” If anyone ever yells at you that your emotions are wrong but she knows better than you—I don’t know how you guys feel about this, but my sympathies tend to fall for the people being yelled at. Amanda Blackhorse is suing the Washington R-words, incidentally. Amanda Blackhorse says if even one Native American is offended by the team name, the name must be changed, and she is attempting to use the rule of law to enforce this opinion.

I think a reasonable person could say at this point that regardless of whether a word has secretly become offensive in the recent past or not, clearly right now some people, more than one, are offended. Why not make these people happy?

Obviously racial terms are faddish and change quickly, and then we’re left with the UNCF and the NAACP, archaic and embarrassing words fossilized in their names. Why haven’t these organizations changed their names? Because changing the name of your organization is really expensive. Not only do you need to order new stationery, you need to rebrand your whole organization.

I don’t know how many millions of dollars the Washington R-word branding is worth, but I know it’s not a small number like four or five. If you give someone the power to change a multimillion dollar franchise—well, you might want to think twice before you do that, unless you want a dystopian future in which corporations vie with one another to see who can pretend “pepsi” is a racial slur first. The power we are talking about granting — it is a really powerful power! Amanda Blackhorse presumably does not work for the Dallas Cowboys (Washington’s greatest rival, according to wikipedia), but someone exactly like her will be.

Some things are going to offend you and having some jerk on the internet come along and say “suck it up!” isn’t going to help. I don’t want to say, “suck it up.” But I want to point out that the reason you are offended is because some people, not Amanda Blackhorse and not the Dallas Cowboys, but somebody similar, stood in a parking lot and yelled at you that you must be offended. The day before you were offended, were you wrong? How many millions of dollars in other people’s exciting merchandising opportunities is your offense worth?

Remember when the Smith reporters censored the word “crazy”? It’s pretty clear that whoever chose to do that was trying to signal his or her virtue, like an Amy Schumer character bragging about her rescue dog.“You think you’re virtuous? I won’t even type the word ‘c—y,’ that’s how virtuous I am.” Insisting that the purity of your emotions is worth $x million is another pretty good virtue parade.

Now I was trying really hard to talk only about taboo words, because there are whole tangles of taboos we could get webbed in if we stray from the path. But the recent events at Bowdoin College are such a perfect encapsulation of what is going on here that I am stepping outside the pale, in the hopes that I can step right back in. As you already know, at Bowdoin (according to the latest set of “millennials be [ableist slur]” articles) several students have been censured/ suspended/ disdormed for attending a party at which there were tiny sombreros.

You may think this is a hilarious travesty and you may think it is a sad misapplication of a policy that could be used more soberly (obviously, some people think the purges are right and just, but 0% of those people have read this far) but the exact details of who’s getting purged are not so important to our discussion. What is important is the fact that ten years ago (or so) zero people in America were offended by tiny sombreros. After ten years of [mysterious research?], a small number of people, most of whom apparently attend Bowdoin, are offended by tiny sombreros. Are they better off?

If Amanda Blackhorse persuades some Red Mesa students to be hurt and offended every time they attend school, are they better off? Does anyone win in this scenario other than Blackhorse, and smug HuffPo writers who want to say “I told you so”?

It’s not clear to me when R-word became offensive to some people, but it’s certainly many years after the Washington R-words had been selling merchandise and playing sports games (in that order? I don’t know the rules).

Laws make criminals, we all know, and when laws are just then all criminals are bad people. When laws are unjust then good people find themselves criminals. Prohibition passed and millions of Americans realized suddenly that if they did today whet they had done the day before, they would be criminals. We made them criminals.

We can also make Washington R-word fans in insensitive, offensive bigots if we want to. If we all agree to it, the fans are stuck. But who is better off?

I have returned to this point enough times that you’re probably sick of it, but I want to make it clear: if the Washington R-words are offensive, it’s not because they chose to be offensive, it’s because we chose for them to be offensive. We did it! If you take only one thing away from everything I have written today, it is that any time anyone says, “I know what a word means and no one else does,” that person had better be a kabbalist.

It’s certainly possible that the momentum for tabooing the R-word is so great that Washington should back down and throw millions of dollars in the fire. I don’t care what “those fat cats” in Washington do with their football swag, and we all know, regardless of how it happened, that eventually a word can change meaning for real, and we are left dealing with a fait accompli. Someone named a disease AIDS and Ayds diet candy went out of business, and no one intended for it to happen, but that’s the power of language change. I’m not in charge of deciding if the R-word is offensive any more than I’m in charge of deciding whether Ayds is a skeevy sounding product name. We’re all in charge of it. 79% of people voted no on proposition A and 99% of people voted yes on proposition B.

But (to summarize here) the connotation of the R-word is debatable (and calling people ignorant does not count as debating them) and changed only recently; it is subject to deliberate campaigns of manipulation by people who may have their own agendas; and the stakes of the controversy are not a few people changing a speech pattern but millions of dollars of other peoples’ money. We can bleep it out of NPR if we want, but we have to be aware of these facts before we do.

Every word we find offensive we should subject to the same scrutiny.


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