From 'Washington Redskins' to 'queer culture,' the uneasy evolution of the slur

The Washington Redskins, queer culture, dyke marches, the n-word. The world is loaded with slangy, condescending terms, some of which have been reclaimed by certain groups while others are undeniably radioactive. Neil Macdonald ponders why.

The current practice of 'reclaiming' slurs is pushing at least some once-tainted words into the mainstream

As protests by the American Indian Movement and others grow, including during last year's NFL Super Bowl, the U.S. Patent Office ruled in June 2014 that the Washington Redskins name is "disparaging of Native Americans" and that the team's federal trademarks for the name must be cancelled. (Associated Press)

The professional football team here in the U.S. capital is still called the Washington Redskins.

It's ridiculous, but there it is.

Personally, for the sake of consistency, I've begun to avoid using the word "Redskins" in news reports about the controversy surrounding the team's name.

It goes against my grain to do so; I'm a speech libertarian, and I believe we should shrink from no word if it is relevant to the discourse at hand, which, in this city, Redskins most certainly is.

But I also try, at least, to avoid hypocrisy, and there's plenty of that in the discussions of the controversy surrounding the team.

The word itself is a self-evidently racist, slangy, condescending term for Indians, as a U.S. government commission ruled just recently. And yet we in the news media still use it when describing the team, simply because the team's owner refuses to consider changing the name.

Imagine for a moment someone naming a team the "Houston Wetbacks." Or the "New York Coons." Would we repeat those names in reports? To ask that question is to answer it.

Other slurs are so radioactive they cannot even be uttered in a hypothetical discussion, so I won't. (Again, I don't think any word should be off-limits to discussion, but like the comedian Louis CK, I despise the fig-leaf coyness of euphemisms like "the n-word.")

So why is it still acceptable to use the term Redskins?

Do we allow ourselves to use it because it's the name of a major sports team? Or is it still the name of a major sports team because we allow ourselves to use it?

Some people say that not all Indians regard the word as necessarily racist. But pretty clearly a large number of them do. Indian groups have tried, and failed, to force a name change.

That leaves us with the ugly conclusion that native Americans simply don't have the political clout in the U.S. that some other minority groups have acquired through vigorous activism.

If you want further evidence of the difficulty native groups have had in pushing back against being caricatured in the crudest possible manner, just take a look at Big Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians.

Reclaiming slurs

But our resistance to change, as a society and as journalists, applies the other way around, too, and that's where the issue of what constitutes a slur these days can get really interesting.

The current practice of "reclaiming" slurs, as a means of defanging them, means that certain words that have been vile insults most of my life are now finding their way into the mainstream.

During last month's Pride celebrations across America, for example, the term "dyke marches" began popping up in reports, used without attribution or irony. (Dyke is just not a word I will ever feel able to utter politely.)

Dyke march is another term, Neil Macdonald has trouble with. Here, gay rights supporters, including sympathetic members of the Mormon Church, march at the Utah State Capitol before the annual Pride festival in June 2013. (Associated Press)

Similarly, LGBT, the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered, has now become LBGTQ, the Q being widely understood to represent "queer."

Olivia Chow, the former NDP MP now running for mayor of Toronto, was slinging that one around at a news conference just the other day.

In fact, the acronym seems to grow by the week; some activists are pushing LGBTTIQQ2SAA, standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, allies and asexual.

"Queer," in particular, is a word the non-heterosexual community has been trying hard for years to promote as a perfectly respectful catch-all. They've lobbied news organizations to adopt it as an across-the-board neutral descriptor to replace the increasingly cumbersome alphabet-soup acronym mentioned above.

They've had some success with the wider public. A colleague in her thirties tells me she does not remember the term queer ever being anything other than polite.

But it will forever feel insulting to me, and to a lot of viewers and readers my age, and so most mainstream news organizations have demurred. Queer is usually only used with attribution.

Hard to keep up

Ultimately, though, the word will no doubt become thoroughly acceptable, having completed its journey from meaning simply odd (and being tolerated as a verb) to becoming a rather ugly insult, all the way round to a happy, inclusive term.

So what of other "reclaimed" slurs? Is it imaginable that the galaxy of insults specific groups now use in reference to themselves, but which are forbidden to any outsider, will move on to normalization?

Probably. I'd have laughed back in the 1970s if someone had suggested queer would be stripped of its insult. (I even remember when "gay" had another meaning entirely, and the honorific "Ms." was equated with man-hating radical feminism and spoken with icy condescension.)

But the other arc will continue, too. Words that are now respectful will no doubt be shunned.

My elderly mother, a retired schoolteacher who is perhaps the most tolerant person I have ever known, a woman who is philosophically opposed to any sort of trash talk or disrespect, once remarked on a trip to Washington that "Negro men dress very nicely, don't they?"

My daughter, then in a liberal school and alive to any racial slight, immediately explained that word is now unacceptable, and that "African-American" and "person of colour" are the respectful terms.

Flushing, my mother said she'd been taught that "Negro" is what black people themselves consider polite, and that she just can't keep up. (Remember, it's still the United Negro College Fund, and it's still the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.)

Acceptable terms seem to change every decade, she protested. Hard to argue with that. Change proceeds rapidly, along both arcs.

No doubt, my grandchildren will cringe when they hear that a football team was once called the Redskins, just as I do when I remember my father's cylindrical pre-First World War recordings of minstrel acts like Darkie School Days.

And, as outrageous as it might sound right now, the term n-word may someday seem quaint and foolish, and the slur for which it stands will have lost its stunning power.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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