Following last week’s widely criticized column about the Washington NFL team’s name, Rick Reilly responded this week with a mailbag. He provided a sampling of correspondence both critical of his column and supportive of it. The first email he featured was the most incisive:
Thank you for standing up for the right of white people to call native Americans “redskins.” I mean, African-Americans call each other the N-word, so why would anyone object if an NBA team called itself the N’s? Everyone is just too politically correct. I mean, in the 1930s there was a colorful term for every ethnic group. But there certainly was no prejudice; it was just good clean fun. Thank goodness we have people like Rick Reilly who recognize that since many women seem comfortable with the B-word, no one has any right to consider it offensive. Thank you, Rick Reilly for standing up for the right to call any group any name you want as long as there are some members of the group who don’t mind.
– Eric Schenk (Mill Valley, Calif.)
To which Reilly responded – “well-played, sir.” So, credit to Reilly for acknowledging a good rejoinder. But Reilly’s own responses betray an ongoing laziness in his thinking about the issue. In particular, his repeated resort to the term “political correctness” to describe those who believe the name should be changed shows that Reilly can’t or won’t think seriously about why people are troubled by the name.
Political correctness has been, for more than two decades, a term of convenience for those who want to portray their insensitivity to historically disadvantaged groups as an act of courage. When Reilly argues that there is “PC pressure” to change the name, he’s trying his damndest to delegitimize the beliefs of those who think the name is no longer acceptable. Is it “PC” to insist that certain kinds of language is no longer acceptable, like various words that insults Jews or African Americans? I don’t think Reilly would say so. Social norms evolve and language does, too. When Reilly deploys the term “political correctness” to characterize those non Native Americans who think the name is inappropriate, he’s saying that, because he doesn’t have a problem with the name, anyone who says they do is just adopting an affectation, posing, or otherwise betraying inauthenticity. He doesn’t know this, of course. But it’s easier to assume this stance than to seriously consider whether he’s perhaps hanging on to misguided ideas.
As I said last week, it’s certainly valid to ascertain what Native Americans themselves think of the term. But the fact is that a growing number of Native American advocacy organizations are speaking out against use of the nickname and they are finding some support among non Native Americans. Reilly’s original column, in which he attempted to position himself as a brave defender of a now-unpopular term, was an act of significant intellectual dishonesty. The fact is that most white folks don’t have a problem with the name and while a few journalists and publications have decided to stop using it, that is far from the majority position. In other words, there’s nothing courageous about Reilly’s point of view and nothing particularly principled. That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to it. But he should stop deluding himself that he’s holding the line against some onslaught of thoughtlessness that only he has the valor to stand up to.