Gimbling in the Wabe – The Word’s the Thing…

Recently, I read an article on Slate about how they were no longer going to refer to dog_attackWashington’s NFL team as the Redskins.  In the article, Slate‘s editor David Plotz stated,

Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok. It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others.”

Redskins.  One word.  So inspiring to some (in that there are rabid Washington Redskin fans) and so painful to others.  One word.  Can it be distilled down to its purest element, where an unbiased determination can be put on whether it is a “good” word or a “bad” word?  Can a word be divorced from the trappings it evokes, often from very different perspectives?

I’m not sure it can.  I’m not sure a word can be separated from the power it has held in the past or from the usages that it has become.  That’s part of why, I imagine, it’s so hard for Washington Redskins fans to even entertain the notion that the name of their team is a racial slur, because that has never been what it stood for, what it means to them.  The vast majority of football fans have never equated it with such, and have never used it in that context or for that purpose or with any kind of negativity attached.  But that is also exactly why it is so hard for those who are of Native American descent to live with any kind of benign attachment to the word – because it is a racial slur, in so many instances, and for it to be so casually tossed around and their hurt to be cast aside (or even reviled) just makes the wounds fester more deeply.  The word cannot be divorced from what it evokes.

So who is “right”?  Can there be a “right” or a “wrong” in that single word?

Wondering about this brought me back to something that happened in my neighborhood a few years ago.  It was one of my “eureka” moments.

At one point, the Minneapolis Park Board wanted to build an off-leash dog park in the footprint of the city park closest to my house. I was ecstatic, because I love letting my dog run without my lack of athleticism holding her back, yet the only places where I could legally let her run were far enough away to require a car ride.  How nice would it be to walk to the park, and then let her romp followed by a leisurely walk back home!  I also loved the idea of using this park again; I passed by it a lot, but hadn’t really used it since my kids outgrew the playground equipment.

But there was opposition to the proposed off-leash dog park.  This opposition was not due to a rise in noise levels, loss of a playing field or a potential decline of property values; it was based solely on the park having been named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The opposition felt that it was disrespectful to Dr. King’s memory to have yapping, pooping dogs running around in a park named in his honor.  Their vocal – at times strident – opposition threatened to derail the dog park project.

I was incensed.  I planned on getting involved, I was going to fight to have a dog park that would bring more people into our park, that would welcome neighbors who didn’t normally use the park, allowing new and different groups to interact in our diverse inner city neighborhood.  To me, this felt much more aligned with honoring of Dr. King’s legacy than taking some kind of offense over dogs being in the picture.  I felt that the specter of police dogs being unleashed against protesters – which had been raised in public meetings on the project – was over the top and reactionary.  To compare pampered pets with vicious attack dogs was the epitome of emotional manipulation in my mind, and I felt piqued that my dog’s barking and romping was being equated with something so evil.

Most of these opposition folks were older and had lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Most of them had memories of Dr. King, and had attended and even organized protests here in Minneapolis.  But very few of them lived in this neighborhood, then or now, and most of them admitted to having rarely used the park.  Some never had.  It felt invasive that they would come into my neighborhood and dictate what could or could not be done here based on something that had happened in the past.  Something that yes, was important in our history, but had very little bearing on the day-in day-out lives of the people who lived here now, who could benefit from the proposed change.

But then I read something that for some reason made me stop.  In fact, it was one word.

In one of the articles in the neighborhood newsletter, a quote was given that talked of “respect”.  Respect.  For some reason, that one word used in that one quote in that one article suddenly brought something new into the picture for me.  These people, these opposing voices, believed ardently in what they were shouting about in the park planning meetings.  They weren’t just mouthing the words, they were reliving feelings of overcoming hatred, of triumphing over inequity, of fighting for the right to be afforded dignity.

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a stake in the fight.  My entire argument was truly based on convenience.  Theirs was on being able to hold on to the dignity and rights that they had fought so hard for when Dr. King was with us.  To keep untainted the sense of right in the face of wrong, to not let hard won triumphs slip away in time.  And you know what?  It didn’t matter if I agreed or not.  It didn’t matter if it seemed like a non-issue to me.  Because I wasn’t the one who had lived through that struggle.  I wasn’t the one who marched in the face of oppression.  My desire to walk to a place where I could let my dog run paled in their need to say, “Respect what we went through, so that it will never happen again.”

The dog park proposal for my park failed.  Another off-leash dog park was built elsewhere, still in my ward but about a mile away.  It’s smaller than “ours” would have been, and being built on a drainage area, it has crushed gravel underfoot rather than soft wood chips, and my dog doesn’t really like it.  We tend to still drive to the dog park we’ve always gone to, where it’s big and there are shaded places for us humans to sit, and it’s full of her friends and is across from the lake where she can take illegal dips on hot days.  And that’s okay.

It’s okay we don’t have a dog park three blocks away.  It would have been nice.  But the struggle with the dog park proposal made the Park Board to take a look at what it means to honor Dr. King.  They moved a sculpture commemorating the civil rights leader from an out-of-sight area of the park to one that is front and center, with a plaque explaining why it was there and what it means (missing before this – I had lived in this neighborhood for decades and didn’t know the significance of the sculpture).  They started looking for other ways to celebrate diversity, and came up with a lovely community arts project:  mosaics, designed by and crafted by people in the neighborhood – anyone who wanted to could help affix tiles – based on themes and images from the different cultures that are represented in our neighborhood:  Anglo, African, Hispanic, Native, Hmong.  They are gorgeous.  They shine.  We shine.  Even without a dog park.

So, what of the Washington Redskins?  Does one word make a difference?

In my mind, yes.  I, too, will refrain from using the term “redskins” to denote Washington’s NFL team.  I’ll also attempt to change my usage of the Cleveland Indian’s team name (who’s iconic image is downright insulting, even to me).  Will it make a difference?  It will to me.  It will to my kids, who follow my example.  It might to someone who gets to know me and wonders why I won’t use the name.

But bottom line, it’s not about me.  It’s about those impacted.  It’s about right and wrong, as I feel it in my gut, in my heart, in my conscience, when looking at it not just from my own experiences, but from listening to and learning from others, as well.  It’s about that one word that can indeed hold power, and whether or not  I will play into that power.  For the dog park, yes, respect trumps all.  For Washington’s football team, no, a name that denigrates others, denigrates everyone.

One word.  Sometimes, it really is that simple.

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