Of Gooks, Golliwogs … and Redskins?

Slurs often fall into disuse. Shouldn’t this one? Dan Snyder’s PR problem.


Bail on The Chief?

Sticks and stones can break my bones.
(C’mon. You know the rest.)

Marital problems. Legal problems. An image problem. Donald Sterling, erstwhile owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, has them all.

Daniel Snyder? I don’t know about marital problems. But the owner of the Washington Redskins certainly has legal problems. And an image problem. He has a branding problem as well.

As everyone who drinks coffee in the morning already knows, the Redskins logo has recently become a cause célèbre. In mid-June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the registrations for the team’s trademark, judging that the word Redskins is and was disparaging. On Aug. 14, the team responded—filing a lawsuit claiming that the Board’s action was unconstitutional, and characterizing the decision as “replete with errors of fact and law …”.

So Dan Snyder is digging in his heels, but should he be? If he and the team endure this latest round and prevail in a higher court, how hollow might such a victory prove? Isn’t an argument based on law missing the point?

Lesson for Snyder? A Lesson from History.

Slurs—especially ones based on race, creed, or sexual preference—hurt people. They can do lasting harm to groups of individuals. Americans deeply know this; it’s a lesson of our nation’s history.

During the Vietnam War, it was common to refer to Vietnamese people as gooks. In particular, the epithet was ascribed to Vietnamese suspected to be on the side of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, but it was generally applied to all Vietnamese. Gook seems dated now, a word we might encounter in a film or book or historical diary. It’s almost quaint to imagine the word being used today, even by veterans. It has passed out of use.

Other dehumanizing slurs persist. Doubtless new ones will continue to emerge. Policing language is a tricky game: a society might pass laws against hate speech, and hope certain words and behaviors pass out of use. But you can’t legislate hate out of existence, and you can’t prohibit prejudice—though you may abhor it. The slur is shorthand for the prejudice.

On the other hand, dehumanizing slurs do pass into history. For more than two centuries, at least until the 1960s, it was common to refer to people of African descent as Negroes. That word—descriptive if not straightforwardly dehumanizing—took its place on history’s rubbish pile. African-American is less value-laden, more respectful of an identity based on origin than was a label derived from the color of one’s skin. At times today, three generations since the evolution away from Negro began, it feels uncomfortable even to use the word black, though it’s tough to avoid.

Thankfully, other disparaging words referring to people of African descent have been dumped on the ash-heap as well. Like pickaninny and tar babies in the Southern U.S., for example. Like golliwog in England, in the children’s books of Enid Blyton I read as a boy, and which I imagined had vanished from the known literary universe. (Disconcertingly, they are available on Amazon.com.)

The word nigger has not. It remains potent, polarizing and divisive. It’s still able to shock. It’s dangerous.

Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained underscores the destabilizing capacity of this word. The plot turns on the efforts of a freed slave of African descent to buy freedom for his wife. They live in a culture where racism traps them like a vise, and the acts of cruelty it engenders are so brutal as to be inconceivable. White characters casually refer to plantation workers using what’s typically referred to in print as “the N-word”; of course, these workers are treated as chattel. In one chilling scene among many that portray the perversion of “the peculiar institution,” one slave is forced to murder another—with a hammer—or lose his own life. Tarantino is not known for grace or subtlety, but he has the sense to not show this bloody act on camera. His film is otherwise compelling, though, not least because it offers the catharsis of Django’s revenge. But it’s hard to watch.

Nigger persists, as a slur in communities where racism and bigotry endure, and in different form, often printed as nigga or niggah, as a street vernacular used by African-Americans between each other, often in greeting. The expletive and the vocative. This author has experienced both uses first-hand, in Chicago and its environs, and in the American South.

One hopes for the word’s demise in the former usage. For its use in the African-American community, it would be foolish to propose or predict such fate. Relict of a put-down, adopted by the very individuals it was used to repress, the word’s continued use is testimony to people’s ability to resist and reframe characterizations of them as inhuman. Co-opting the label, the African-American community denatures it, in part robbing the slur of its damaging power.

Not the Color of Our Skins. Our Nation’s Character.

Ugliness. Insult. Shame and scorn. Servitude, subjugation, and murder. Why bring up gook, golliwog, and even nigger again? You’ve figured it out already. Because no reasonable American would today name a sports team with one of these words.

There’s a history at the USPTO of not honoring trademark applications for words that are vulgar, akin to profanity, or disparaging to persons. But as has been pointed out elsewhere, the Board’s ruling does not preclude the Washington Redskins using their name and cashing in on that value. It’s not a cease-and-desist letter. It issues no injunction preventing the team from selling t-shirts, helmets, or anything else branded with that name or insignia. It doesn’t grant remedy to those who have been claiming since the team was founded that the nickname is at best insensitive, and at worst, a decisive and damaging slur to Native Americans.

No remedy, that is, except hope for succeeding battles. But as last week’s filing shows, it’s unlikely Snyder will be knocked back off his line by this cancellation. He’s fighting to keep the name, already running his next play.

Certainly, as a trademark with decades of investment in building a national profile, Redskins has value in the market. But the TTAB’s decision has symbolic power. I suspect it may prove to have predictive power—that the Redskins’ name will prove increasingly contentious, and litigation will continue for as long as Snyder chooses to, ahem, circle the wagons.

Over time, ongoing challenges to the Redskins’ name will have a negative impact on the brand. They’ll have economic impact. It will be more costly to defend, as well as harder to protect from willful infringement by others. Some people will be swayed by the argument that the name is disrespectful, and will not buy tickets—or will not want to buy and wear the team’s expensive jerseys. Some corporations that own luxury boxes in the stadium won’t want to risk alienating audiences by continuing to entertain clients there. Litigation costs will increase, to continue to wage the argument for the trademark in federal court.

Time Judges. When Will We?

Legal challenges aside, Snyder and the Redskins have a public relations problem. A marquee team in the nation’s capital is being challenged to rethink its commitment to a name that Native Americans and many others consider a slur. It’s a team whose games politicians, including the U.S. president over the years, have regularly attended. It’s a team with a proud history, including three Super Bowl victories.

One of Snyder’s arguments—in court and to the public—will doubtless continue to be that the Redskins’ name not only was chosen to honor the very population that says it feels slighted, but that the team has proudly used an image of Native Americans that is neither a caricature or disrespectful of them. In fairness, the artwork for the Redskins’ insignia appears as far more respectful of Native Americans than is Chief Wahoo, the goofy, red-faced, toothy-grinned mascot of the Cleveland Indians. Reports are that Chief Wahoo is heading to the happy bunting grounds, now being quietly phased out by the club.

Will Snyder take that cue? I think not. It seems inevitable that the legal wrangling will continue—likely all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And Snyder’s argument will also continue to include that the Washington team has proven itself a winning franchise over the years, and that its name has tangible market value.

I don’t disagree. But let’s get real. Redskins manifestly was an epithet coined by invaders to describe the Native Americans they vanquished while taking from them the good part (all the good parts) of the land that now is the United States of America. It’s a name (incorrectly, it turns out) based on the color of these indigenous people’s skins. The TTAB did not make its ruling based on the presumed present meaning of the word as disparaging; instead, it voided the trademark registration because both the relevant statute and historical precedent demand that they rule on what the word meant at its adoption.

Redskins then v. Redskins now? Splitting hairs. The decision at the TTAB, writ simply, turned on whether the word was originally disparaging. It was. It still is. It’s disparaging and dehumanizing.

Snyder Has Responsibility, Too

That’s why Snyder’s missing the point. Encouraging the Washington team to change its name isn’t just about political correctness—a phrase now too often used by people dismissive of other people’s rights, or too tired or distracted or intellectually lazy to do the work of understanding those others’ points of view.

No, the effort attests to the fact that over time, the meaning of words, social mores, and people’s attitudes and opinions all evolve, and institutions need to change with them. How important is it that institutions evolve as our community does? Look, for instance, to Virginia v. Loving. See what the judge said in 1958 about miscegenation, when he locked up a married couple of a black woman and a white man. Look to the progress of gay rights in this country, as state by state, appreciation is growing that the availability to two consenting adults of a civil union and the benefits it affords them constitutes equal protection under the law.

High-profile sports teams are institutions. They’re an important part of the cultural fabric of our nation, and they reflect how we think about ourselves. Players know this. Owners know it. The various commissioners know it. Surely more Americans identify with their local sports team in one league or other than they do with cultural institutions such as museums, orchestras, and our nation’s civil institutions, e.g., the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court.

(Oh, and when was the last time you saw an opera lover outside a concert hall wearing a sweatshirt with letters spelling “PAVAROTTI” or “SILLS” on the back? Or saw on the steps of the Supreme Court a fan with a black robe and the name “SCALIA” or “THOMAS” leading a cheer? They do have fans, don’t they? Now there’s a marketing idea…!)

Sports teams are national institutions. They’re valuable. That’s why a racist comment by Donald Sterling became a high-profile public case—with a social media assist from Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who refused to let it pass. Off-hand or intentional, private speech or public pronouncement, it really doesn’t matter: Sterling’s comments damaged his team and the National Basketball Association. Everybody knew it.

You, Sir, Are No Donald Sterling

To compare Dan Snyder to Donald Sterling feels an injustice to the former. Snyder is, after all, a businessman with a PR problem. Sterling is a bigot.

But a comparison is not wholly unfair. Sterling’s comments about Magic Johnson and what he made clear about his opinions of African-Americans in general were rightly perceived as deleterious to the interests of the NBA, damaging to its players, and contradictory of the league’s image.

Over time, Snyder risks being seen as out of step with public opinion, resistant to positive and necessary change. It hurts his image; it hurts the team’s. And it could hurt him in the pocket-book, far more than would a thoughtful rebranding campaign.

Snyder must choose between the economic costs of a rebranding and those of waging a legal and possibly a public relations battle. He also faces possible repercussions on ticket sales and branded merchandise sales. (Let’s not forget the not inconsequential legal expense of defending intellectual property.)

Social change tends to accumulate force over time. Long-term, a public process of rebranding is the only way out. Snyder is fighting, but in a real way he has nothing to lose. Brands are built by messaging, but at their core, they are commercial concepts. They are not empty, of course; but they’re manufactured and they’re malleable. Some brands approach the status of myths—qua Apple—and, surely, some sports figures rightfully become legends. But brands are not inherently an indissoluble element of human identity.

Brands are born of https://www.viagrasansordonnancefr.com/ commerce, nurtured by stewardship, supported by quality product or service delivery, burnished by messaging. They feed appetites; they grow based on desire—even fanaticism. Like many beautiful things, they can get scratched or tarnished, damaged, even destroyed.

Like institutions, brands evolve. Maybe Snyder lives in a bubble, but I doubt it. I’m sure he’s and others in the organization have weighed what the impact would be on his fan-base of evolving away from the Redskins name. Football players don’t back down as a matter of playing-field ethics; Snyder may not much like what he thinks will happen if he backs down, either. But he’s in a corner, and more rounds are doubtless to come.

Identity: More Powerful Than Brand? Yes.

Many Vietnamese resettled in the U.S. after the Vietnam War. Some moved to Texas and many to California, which today has the largest Vietnamese-American population of any state. More than 100,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in San Jose; almost 50,000 live in Garden Grove—part of an area known as Little Saigon.

These immigrants built homes and started families; their children now are as integrated into the fabric of many American communities as those of any other Asian-American group. It is patently ludicrous to imagine that a local baseball team would be named the Garden Grove Gooks. No one—unless deliberately seeking to start a race riot—would wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a city and the word nigger, any more than they would sport such an epithet, with a mascot I cannot even conceive of, on the helmet of their football team. There was a time when a black-and-white minstrel show was entertainment. Then we woke up. Goodbye, golliwogs.

When I watched the Washington Redskins win the Super Bowl in 1983, I admit I didn’t give a thought to their name. Joe Theismann was their quarterback, John Riggins their punishing running back, and the offensive line proudly subscribed to the epithet The Hogs. I won’t suggest the team be renamed the Washington Hogs—although given the way many politicians wallow and feed in the slurry of the Beltway, it would be an appropriate moniker for a team in the nation’s capital.

But how long before Snyder and the Redskins accede to changing the name and mascot? How long before they appreciate that the identity of an NFL team in the nation’s capital could and should better reflect American values, and how we prefer to think of ourselves? How long before they realize they’d rather not to go down in history as, well, as an insensitive group of hogs? A people’s identity and self-image are more important than a sports teams’ brand.

My unsolicited advice to Mr. Snyder? Run a public contest for a new name. Plan a thoughtful process to review submissions—and include respected members of the Native American community. Ask members of that community—including his opponents in court—if they’d like to join him mid-field at RFK Stadium, to retire the old name and celebrate a new one. Shake hands in the circle, and bury the hatchet.

It’s the American thing to do.

One thought on “Of Gooks, Golliwogs … and Redskins?

  1. Pingback: Andersen. What A Broken Brand Looks Like. | Thoughts from the Front

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