- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Hear me holler: No one has the right to discount, discredit or dismiss the pain felt by one group because of the offensive language or attitudes of another group — intended or not.

I am amazed how the pain of others is so easily discounted. I can't help but wonder what gives some folks the arrogance and audacity to judge the sensibilities of those whose lives they know nothing about.

Every time a nonblack person cajoles or chides me about how "overly sensitive" I'm being about a racially motivated action or perceived slight, it is all I can do to keep from screaming, "Try walking in my shoes for one hour, then tell me how 'overly sensitive' I am."

It bothers me deeply that the most widely used weapon in the culture wars is the tendency to blame the victim, as if anyone enjoys mining treasure in their own oppression. For minorities, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to speak out against the very racism or sexism or any kind of "ism" that darkens your daily existence for fear you will be scapegoated by the very people who perpetuate the "isms" in the first place.

For many blacks, that means you feel obliged to step lightly lest you be charged with "playing the race card" if you dare to raise the issue of discrimination experienced by many blacks in this country and throughout the world today.

As for the indigenous peoples of the world, like the American Indians, they just ought to get over their "isms," too, lest some folks frown upon them.

In all the smoke signals that were sent up into the mucky Maryland skies last week about the understandable Indian-inspired economic boycott of corporate sponsors of Little League teams who use disparaging names as mascots and monikers, the most important message got lost in the rain clouds.

The team names "Indians," "Braves" and "Chiefs" are offensive. Period. They should be discarded permanently. Period.

American Indians, including the members of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, have every right and obligation to raise this issue wherever they can, however they can. Even though, like many American blacks who have American Indian blood coursing through their veins, I can only imagine the level of fury and frustration that compelled them to pursue this risky avenue of protest.

No one hears their cries. No one answers them.

Each time the issue of offensive Indian nicknames used by the almighty sporting industry is protested, Indians are mocked by the larger society, which does not understand because the issue does not adversely affect them.

But I bet all the money in Fort Knox that if any term existed in all of the American dialects that was so foul and gut-wrenching to whites as all the epithets are to minorities, all derogatory language would be banned from the dictionary.

Mind you, the Indian commission boycotted the teams' sponsors, not the teams. If a government commission created to "advance Indian issues in state government and to promote Indian culture" in a positive manner has no "authority" to stage a protest against an offense, then a group that uses government-owned facilities has no right to offend them, either.

Several years ago, when I wrote against the Washington Redskins' name, I had the privilege of meeting several American Indians who explained their grievance as if they had to justify it. They work so hard because they feel the nicknames paint a distorted and dishonorable picture of their culture and heritage.

Corrine Skye Killsprettyenemy of the Lakota tribe lives in Alexandria. She says the term "redskin" started when bounty hunters could not receive payment for capturing Indians unless they brought "a piece of red skin" or a scalp.

"Considering origins, that's what offends me. It has to do with the death of Indian people. Where is the pride in that?" she said.

Sandy MacNabb, legal counsel of the National Business Association and a member of the Micmacs, challenges anyone to show him one positive example in literature using the term "redskin." He doesn't believe that those who use the term have ill will, but that they don't understand the costly negative impact the stereotypical reference has on young Indians, particularly on reservations.

"How do you explain to your children that sports teams are named after animals and us?" he said.

"It's the offended class that gets to say what the offense is," Suzan Shown Harjo said in a previous interview. She is a Cheyenne and president of Morning Star Institute, a D.C.-based American Indian rights group. "Nothing in the English language is more offensive."

Ray Apodaca, another American Indian activist, said using Indian names is tantamount to using the "n-word."

People, especially children, have a tendency to become the thing they hear themselves referred to as most often.

Witness what's happened with those kids — black and white — who worship at the altar of gangsta rap. These misguided youth now view the "n-word" as a term of endearment when in fact it is a dehumanizing term of endangerment.

Once people accept their own dehumanization, they become vulnerable and risk their own demise.

So don't discount the American Indians' sensibilities about those "innocent" sports monikers this country loves until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

• Adrienne T. Washington's e-mail address is [email protected]


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