In the early days of this blog/diary/outlet (whatever it is), I wrote something about implicit bias. The post was titled “Am I biased?” and that serves as the basis for the title of today’s thoughts. My morning ride isn’t very long. I work about six miles from home and don’t hit much traffic on the way. In the past, my morning radio routine was remarkably predictable: NPR’s Morning Edition. Although I haven’t reduced my obsession with politics in the past year, it has taken a toll on me in ways that it hadn’t before, so I’ve spent more of my mornings listening to music, or even listening to the banter of morning radio on top 40 or rock stations. It’s a bit lighter (usually), and gets my day started on a better note. This morning was an NPR morning, and a story about the Cleveland Indians got me thinking.
According to this report, the Cleveland Indians have considered the many complaints about their name and mascot, and have agreed to what seems (to me) like a compromise: they will still be the Cleveland Indians, but the “Chief Wahoo” logo will be removed from the team’s uniforms starting with the 2019 season. As you can imagine, this is a controversial decision. Philip Yenyo, who has been advocating against the logo for decades, told the Washington Post that “they should be commended,” but couched that by pointing out that it’s a “baby step.”
But others are less pleased with the decision, and one who was interviewed in the NPR report defends the “Chief Wahoo” by saying that there are worse examples out there (pointing to the Washington Redskins). Another person interviewed says that there’s nothing wrong with the logo. “It was just always been our symbol, just like bears, cats, dogs, anything else. I never really took it any other way.”
Our reaction to these kinds of things can be really telling. Here’s this woman, who lived with “Chief Wahoo” her whole life, and because it wasn’t clear that it was offensive to her then, it shouldn’t be offensive now. It made me try to think of times that I’ve learned that I’ve been doing something wrong for a long time, and how I react to it. In some cases, it’s an embarrassing error and I fix it to avoid future embarrassment (and I’m grateful to whomever corrected me). There’s a great episode of This American Life called “A little bit of knowledge” about things like this. Act two talks about all kinds of things that people grew up thinking, then learned how wrong they were later in life. Like thinking that animal crossing signs were “zing” signs (mistakenly thinking that “Xing” was a word, not short for “crossing”). My own examples include thinking that “asterix” was pronounced “astricks” and not realizing I was wrong until my mid twenties when I pondered out loud, with a better educated friend, what the plural of a word like that would be. There are others, but I don’t feel the need to pile on myself right now, I’ll leave that to others.
So how does this related to “Chief Wahoo”? It made me think about what our responses to these things tell us about ourselves. There are lots of calculations to be made, and one may be deciding that whoever is now declaring something to be racist is wrong. If somebody told me that using my water bottle was a racist statement because of the color of the rubber coating on the bottle (mine is black, not that it matters), I would almost certainly reject that and keep using my water bottle without thinking much about it. But what if that person then showed me all kinds of stuff from the internet about hate groups using black rubber-coated water bottles as symbols of their hate groups, and promoting them as code for belonging to one of those groups. That forces a new calculation. The decision to that may be to resist the rebranding of black rubber-coated water bottles by the hate groups, as a show of resistance. Although I can’t be sure, that may be my instinctual response. I say this based on my teenage years, and I may have grown up a bit since then, but in high school, my response to neo nazi groups that had taken over the skinhead movement (which did not come from racist/nazi origins) was to become an anti-nazi skinhead. In hindsight, it seems silly to me, and I was often confronted by people calling me a nazi, but found pleasure in explaining to them that there were different kinds of skinheads, and that we were the “real” ones. Seems even more silly as I write it out, but it does make me wonder if my gut would tell me to keep using that water bottle and making sure that the hate group couldn’t take it. But, the more reasonable action might be to stop using the black rubber coated water bottle, and get a new one in a different color that isn’t associated with a hate group.
But what does it say if we hear the arguments for why something is racist, can see clearly that we didn’t realize the connection before, and make no changes to our behavior? How much of that is because we, in our own racism, don’t care about the feelings of those who are offended by whatever we’re talking about (a logo, a word, a water bottle)?
What about the word “gypped” that’s used to talk about being taken advantage of or ripped off? Many of us used this word at some point, without realizing that it’s an ethnic slur against Romani people (Gypsies). I don’t think it’s fair to make a judgement about somebody’s intention or level of empathy/sympathy for using the word without knowing the origins, but is it fair to make a judgement about somebody who continues to use the word, with no regret (e.g., not a slip of the tongue, out of habit, that’s quickly retracted) after being informed that it’s a racial slur? In the same way, is it fair to make a judgement about somebody’s racism if they continue to wear a racist logo after it’s explained to them that it’s racist? I don’t know the answer to these things, but I do know that I haven’t used “Gypped” since learning about its origins, I now properly pronounce “asterisk” (and “asterisks”), and I don’t shave my head and wear doc martin boots and a bomber jacket anymore. I’m not giving up my water bottle just yet though. In fact, I’m going to fill it up and have a drink right now.