Speak for Yourself, White Man

I heard a commentator this morning on a local radio station complaining about the PC people who object to the use of Indian names for sports franchises, such as the Washington Redskins. He says, nobody bitches about “The Fightin’ Irish,” do they?

I suppose he wouldn’t mind teams named the Savannah Shines, the Chattanooga Chinks, the Columbus Kikes, Waco Wetbacks and, just to bring things up to date, the Rehoboth Ragheads.

Also, I suspect it was Irish Americans who predominated on the rosters of the Notre Dame teams that originally got called the Fightin’ Irish. How many Indians have played for the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins  or Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves or any of the many other sports teams that have adopted names of Indian tribes (the commentator’s complaint was occasioned by the recent dropping of the name “Fighting Sioux” by the University of North Dakota)?

I hasten to add, this comment was made over the airwaves of New York City, supposedly a bastion of liberal sensibility (don’t you believe it). Would we be as PC if it wasn’t socially unacceptable to express our prejudices (and rank ignorance) openly? Are we so much less tribal than we were fifty years ago? Some of the young are, I think, because they have actually grown up among people of different backgrounds, but I continue to marvel at what comes out of my friends’ and neighbors mouths’ when they are speaking unguardedly (as well as the prejudice I still harbor myself despite what I think and feel consciously).

A good reason to read the literature of the past, if you need one, is the way it gives us a social snapshot of the time in which it was written. Mark Twain was sympathetic to Afro-Americans but despised, absolutely hated, Indians. That apparently passed for PC at the time (see Roosevelt, Theodore). Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is rife with anti-Semitism, some of it the author’s, but the characters manage to escape Trollope’s prejudices, with a couple of the Jewish ones ending up the most sympathetic, even tragic. If this were a German novel of its time, no one would have to wonder how the Nazis managed to do what they did.

That’s why Trollope is a great writer: the artist, not the man, is in control. You can watch him rev up his contempt for Jews, just as you can watch him try to talk the reader into believing that a particular character (I’m thinking of the “she-cat” American “witch” who follows her British lover to England to try to talk him out of reneging on his proposal of marriage) is loathsome for other reasons. In most cases, though, when the characters actually walk on stage we take their side, not Trollope’s (no, he’s not playing devil’s advocate, though he might possibly be dissembling). Lesser writers can not let down their guard like that, allow the inner man or woman to take over despite what they believe consciously.

Maybe I should send that radio commentator a copy of…but what is the great American Indian novel? The Invisible Man of the indigenous peoples. If it exists, shouldn’t I know it? And, if it exists, doesn’t the fact that I don’t know it mean that it has been suppressed or at least marginalized? No doubt someone reading this can recommend a great but obscure classic. But, why obscure? For all our denial and dithering about slavery and its consequences, we have not only Ellison’s book but plenty of others, including that original blockbuster of white guilt Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Isn’t it odd that our Original Sin should remain so undocumented–unless you count all those cowboys-and-Indians films and pulp fiction by Zane Grey and his descendants, which are hardly what I have in mind?

No wonder that commentator could say what he did with such righteousness. To him Indians are just those guys who scalped beautiful women and burned honest settlers’ homesteads. And then lost to John Wayne and Alan Ladd. Anyway, in the spirit of equal time and equal opportunity, my entry for the PC-free team name is–are you ready?–the Bronx Bigots.

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About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on June 16, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’m not sure I agree with you a 100% here. Yes, there is a great deal of racism which it is now not politically acceptable to express quite so openly. The racism is real, however long it has resided in our culture, and it is wrong.

    But in terms of the Redskins and Indians and Braves, I’m not sure those names came out of an initial racism. Teams don’t name themselves after failures but after successes. Given their reputation of regular Saturday night brawls, even the “Fighting Irish” might not be considered altogether complimentary. But it was certainly meant to convey something positive. I think the same can be said about the other names.

    This problem of political correctness is also complicated by cultural differences in what is an insult. Traditionally, the English have been extremely robust in this regard. It is hard to imagine, sometimes, while one is listening to a parliamentary debate that the opponents might actually be quite good friends in “real life”. But then many of the Asian immigrants to Britain come from a very different background and will take offense where the more traditional Englishman would not. Which is not to suggest that racism is not alive and well here in the UK, as well. It is.

    But the line where one might legitimately laugh at oneself is not set in concrete.

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