Acceptable Racial Slurs In Journalism

I’ve had a lot of racist slurs thrown at me in my lifetime. Admittedly, one of the least vulgar was the term “redskin,” but it still hurt. Probably because it was accompanied by a headlock, a few solid punches to the face from a boy twice my size, and a ring of kids about my age (11 or 12 at the time) who seemed to think the term fit.

I am a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and I have heard everything from variations on the N-word, to “Indian flavored” slurs, and, of course, the occasional pantomime in which one cups their hand over their mouth and whoops a bit.

Yesterday, the Fronteras Desk published an article headlined:  “Redskins Game Gives American Indians Another Reason To Protest.” I asked for Fronteras Desk to reconsider using the R-word. The new headline reads:  “Washington vs. Dallas Game Stirs Up Mascot Controversy.”

There are two things you should know.

First, I have never cared about the mascot issue. Not because it’s not important, or because it’s trivial in any way, but because I have always felt there were more pressing concerns to worry about, which I cover in my journalism.

Second, I now serve on the board of directors for the Native American Journalists Association and, over the past month, have helped craft letters to outlets and a mascot resource page dealing with the issue. These public postings were created at the behest of our membership. They were also written with the intent of making a small, albeit important, impact on how media deals with Native Americans.

In light of this second fact, I was surprised to see the original Fronteras Desk headline, and, for the first time in my relationship to the R-word, felt vulnerable. My own organization did not recognize the level of institutional racism inherent in the use of the word despite one of its own employees being a member of the race that was being denigrated.

The controversy over mascots has been around my whole life. In the past, I have found myself annoyed at the number of Native journalists who took detours to chime in on the issue when there were so many important stories in Indian Country that needed to be covered. Yet considering how very few journalists cover Native affairs, and that a majority audience remain uneducated about Native issues, it’s important to remember that sports mascots are often America’s only engagement with Indian people. As such, the goofy, toothy grin of the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, says a great deal about how American society views its original inhabitants, and doesn’t do much to improve race relations.

With images like these, how can America truly see Indian Country as a real place with real people and real issues?

I’m reminded that in many ways the conversation surrounding the R-word could be likened to the debate about the N-word. One could argue the R-word isn’t as hurtful as it’s black counterpart, however, it seems that even when non-Native people are asked by Native people not to use it, they have no problem with defending the use of word, and even yelling  it to high heaven. This reaction is very different what happens with the N-word.  No one defends its use.
What’s more depressing is the group injured by the use of the word seems to have absolutely no voice or little credibility in the eyes of those who defend the use of the term.   It’s almost as if that group were not real people with real view points, feelings or opinions.

From a very young age, my mother has always told me to treat other people as you would like to be treated. It seems like a very quaint idea to be respectful to one another in a world where such attitudes are going out of style. However, it’s worth repeating: If what you say or do hurts someone else, you should imagine how you would feel if the same was done to you. If you don’t like how it feels, it’s probably best to stop doing it.

As Americans, we share a common space, yet come from different histories and understandings of that space. To tell one group of people that their experience is somehow less is to belittle those people and make them less than human. In the case of the R-word, two different relationships to the term produce two polar opposite sets of feelings and reactions. And the continued advocacy and defense of the term should be seen not only as cruel, but stridently colonial.

The bottom line is this: while owners and supporters of the Washington team continue to stand by the racist term, others don’t have to. Many reporters and outlets have adopted the stance to not use it in their stories or publications any more. As journalists, we are often worried about being seen as too politically correct, and adverse to injecting what appears to be opinion in our work, and rightfully so. However, no self-respecting journalism outlet would repeatedly publish the N-word or any other epithets directed at any other race in the country. It’s with this thought in mind that I advocate for media outlets to discontinue their use of the R-word.

Journalism’s dirty little secret is that reporters may be advocates. Most of us are driven by outrage at the many injustices we see in the world. We often have a desire to right wrongs and make a difference. In this case, there is a very simple option to make a difference and stand against racism: just stop using the word. Use “the Washington team” or “the Washington NFL team.” Take away the power that the word continues to hold by refusing to write it.

These days I’m a little bit bigger than I was at 11. I can take a lot more verbal and physical punishment. But that’s not a skill I want to pass on to my son or daughter. I have bigger lessons to teach. Defending oneself from racism shouldn’t be one of them.

Read the original here at the Fronteras Desk.

Tristan Ahtone

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