Monday, August 1, 2011

Who has the right to tell you if you're offended?

The city of Owatonna Minnesota has been buzzing in a full-on discussion about the naming of their new junior hockey team.  A community poll surfaced a handful of options that made the initial cut.  The recent news article reported that 40% of those who responded selected a nostalgic return to the name Owatonna Indians. Only 1% of the city's population (25,6000) voted, so it's a tiny percentage of their citizens that actually led to this winning name, but their community paper's chat page is humming and there are plenty of people talking.  Their recent news article was proof why naming teams after people groups makes for interesting headlines.  Poorly worded and remarkably demonstrative.
     Teams named after First Nation communities obviously isn't a new issue in the United States...but this story is close to home, a little less than an hour drive south from Minneapolis/Saint Paul Minnesota.  A 2002 Sports Illustrated article about team names indicated that "only 29%" of the respondents from the reservation were offended, somehow justifying that the name might be ok because so few were offended.  My question: How any people does something need to offend in order to warrant change?   50%?  75%?  What makes a name offensive enough to warrant change? 

Bottom line:  I'm not from a First Nation; therefore my vote is completely unimportant.  If someone who is Dakota or Ho Chunk or Cherokee tells me that he/she is offended, that's enough.  Why would MY vote count?  They are the ones to determine if they are offended or not, and to what degree. 

A unique factor in Owatonna is that this is a NEW team considering the name. Ironically the school changed the name from Indians to Huskies in 1994 because it was perceived as offensive and degrading. Hmmm.  Now some nostalgic fans want to return to the name.  More Hmmm.  Interesting times in Owatonna!
 I attended a meeting Friday night with community leaders affiliated with the team and league leadership.  (I've written and edited this draft about ten times and still am not satisfied because what I really want to write is about a 20 page response, not a few paragraphs.  But you get this post instead: apologies for the length.)  As the men in the room considered the potential impact of their decision, I was so pleased that they allowed time on the agenda for the voice of several American Indians who took the time to write their perspective.  This whole process has brought up a lot of deep seated emotions on both sides of the editorial aisle that apparently has been reawakened in full force.

As I read through the online posts, I realized that even if the community leaders elected to go a different direction and the American Indian reference went away again, that the issue in their community still isn't answered.  And I sincerely hope that there is a way to build on this dialogue.  As the citizens of Minnesota prepare for the 150th Anniversary of the US-Dakota Indian War to be commemorated in 2012, I know that there are many people across the state who are honestly seeking ways to be honoring and to bring healing.   And then we have this story and I can image how this town's proposal would completely blow up.  I work in hockey so harsh words don't scare me -- it's the values behind the words that need to be explored.  Apparently there is a tremendous opportunity for healthy dialogue.

Would I want my son to cheer against the "Indians" or against any other people group if our team played their team?   Would I want to hear our players/fans coming up with creative stereotypical cheers that used the Indian name or logo or mascot?  This isn't about being politically's about treating each other with dignity.  How would I feel if they named the hockey team the "Muslims" or the "Christians?"  If it's not good form to name a team for someone's faith group, then why would it be ok for this?  Why the double standard? The mascot would undoubtedly wear feathers and some sort of regalia (this is all involved in their religious's not just a cultural icon, it's their faith that would be paraded).  If it wouldn't be  ok to name a team after another race or people group, why is it ok to name it after this one?
Could the team legally be named the Owatonna Indians?  Perhaps.  But just because team owners CAN name a team something, does it mean they should?  Does receiving more votes in a popularity poll justify action that is perceived as demeaning and hurtful to some?   What is the tipping point -- five people?  Twenty people saying it's offensive?  One loud person?  One person that you know?

I go back to the Four Way Test and use it to measure this situation.  Does it "build good will and better friendships" or is it "beneficial to all concerned" when the opposing team and their fans are basically set up to say something that is potentially hurtful/offensive.  Is it "fair to all concerned " if people really find something painful and racist and we do it anyway?  Is it telling the "truth" if the team mascot perpetuates stereotypes.
     And people are typing away and posting their values ON LINE for the world to see.  Yikes.  No secrets.  It's not just a First Nation issue. This has the potential to divide and split neighbors because these values run deep. How we treat each other during the disagreement over an issue can bring up words we can't believe are flying out of our lips.  Words posted on the internet are not easily retracted.  What's so rare is that people are seem so willing to publicly post their ideas about this hot button, many of whom are not at all gracious.
     I realize this is a slippery slope and you can always find someone who would be offended by almost any name...but categorically, naming teams after a people group unless it's YOUR people group is potentially setting people up.  I understand that some wouldn't want an animal to be a mascot either.   We can easily begin to explore some pretty ridiculous situations, names and many that are based on actual teams that could leave you shaking your head in disbelief.  And sure there are things that are more important than getting into a verbal spitting match than focusing on this topic.  I've actually seen some pretty strong arguments about why teams should be able to do whatever they want... So what happens when world views clash?  What happens when some are offended and others say it's no big deal?
     Those close to me know that I'm the first in a group to hang onto traditions.  In fact my family would probably describe me as ridiculously nostalgic.  So I understand that if you are already fixated on a name and identity it's harder to change...this is the argument with pro sports teams.  The high school had the name Owatonna Indians until 1994 (when they changed the name to the Owatonna Huskies because the name was determined to be potentially offensive).  And now because it's a private team, it's no less offensive?
     Many are arguing that because many professional and college teams keep the Indian or tribal name like the Seminole or the Fighting Sioux or the Redskins or the Braves that it justifies the new hockey team's leadership to select whatever name they want.  Again, just because you can...does it mean you should?
What is so befuddling to me beyond the decision to put the Indian name on the ballot to begin with, but the appearance of a different standard for what is appropriate. 
Is it about what is popular to the spectator and about what sells tickets?  Or is it about the people whose name you took?  Whose voice matters most?
One argument I heard was state by a gentleman who claimed he was from Norwegian descent and who wasn't offended at the Minnesota Viking football team so "those Indians" should just stop whining.  One said he was Irish was wasn't offended by the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame so that proves that others should just move on too and be mature like him.  One poster wrote about how sports fans are just having fun and that the Indians need to see it in the same context they all do (and if they don't like it, don't go to the games).  One said that this is the city's attempt to honor the Indian heritage of the town, including Princess Owatonna (Incidentally this urban legend was created as a marketing ploy to sell bottled water during the state fair -- but now is so ingrained that this writer was convinced that Princess Owatonna was a real Dakota woman saved by the miraculous spring water in their town).  One said that it's an attempt to "keep the Indians alive in our hearts" and that the Indians should be pleased that the city is using their name because the citizens would be cheering FOR the Indians. 
     The issue of Indians and mascots is not a new one but I just was caught off guard because I haven't heard of any NEW team intentionally thinking about STARTING with such media frenzy from both sides of this issue.  And trust me, it's passionate.  So cycling around to my title: Who has the right to tell you if you're offended?  Who has the right to tell you if you should be offended? When is something considered harassment?  A racial slur?  A bad word?  Offensive?
     I work in sports.  I'm not in a bubble.  I could go home and quit and try to avoid it all, but then I would turn on the tv or go to the movies and hear much of the same there too.  It's hard to avoid the sexual innuendo or the language or crass insults.  I could get a new job (like I was encouraged by more than a handful of men when I started in sports medicine.  "You can't change them so just quit and get a nice job where you'll feel more comfortable.")
     In my experience, the most effective heart change and behavior change has resulted from people taking the time to  know someone's heart rather than hoping someone would make/enforce a rule against the thing found offensive.  I don't always wear my heart on my sleeve but some some transparency here might help make a point.  It does upset me when someone uses the name of Jesus in a dishonoring way or speak against God.  Many Christians bring some of the secular wisecracks on themselves, so jokes about Christians as a whole doesn't bother me that much but they could offend others.  (I hope that I don't fit the joke's stereotype and I hope that somehow my response to their joke won't reaffirm their perception).
      During the national anthem I believe that people shouldn't talk or spit or make jokes.  It also bothers me when people are disrespectful to the flag of any country.  As an American, I wouldn't want anyone to disrespect my flag.  I don't particularly care for the American jokes I've heard from people in other countries as I've traveled internationally; some of them I find to be outrageously mean and stinging and based alone on what the media portrays of our citizens.  And sadly some of them have hints of truth that I don't want to be reminded of.  But my level of outrage and hurt may not be yours.
     These are some of my values and not only do I not speak for everyone in my "category" but I clearly don't speak for all Americans.  No one can.  I don't speak for all Christians although many places I am the only one who publicly has said they are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.   It's very clear that not everyone agrees with my values... But if something bothers me, I have a choice to stew or share.   Maybe a behavior is just so common place in our society that no one even thinks about how their actions affect others?  I'm not out looking for confrontation, but if a teachable moment presents itself, then I have a choice to just let it go or to politely share my perspective.  "Offended once: that's on them.  Offended twice because I didn't share: that's on me."  I need to pick your battles of course, but if it really matters, then I need to step up and share OR I need to be willing to let it go.
      Real life application:  If a player on my team uses Jesus'  name in a disrespectful way, I would choose to wait for the breath in the conversation or the appropriate down time on a road trip and politely share with him/her that I was offended.  If someone calls out Jesus' name -- that's instinct and a prayer -- I have no problem with that.  But if someone gives Him a middle name or tells off color jokes, then I'll find an appropriate time to privately mention that it was offensive to me.  I'm surprised by how many people are surprised that I say something when I bring it up.  Apparently in my circles either there aren't many people who are offended (or many people who don't say anything when they are offended).  Either way -- if someone doesn't know, then they don't know.  Period.   I've found that after I've shared the opening line, many have this look of shock and then seem to genuinely apologize.  Many have wanted to understand why and if the conversation continues, we've just built a bridge.  I've never been rebuffed for sharing--but that doesn't mean that their offensive behavior always stopped.  I don't go out of my way to blame or confront the person, I just share how that made me feel when they said whatever they said. It's just about sharing a personal value. Then the ball is in their court.
     Similarly, there is a team that uses the cross as decoration logo on their team's jersey.  I told the owner and the other league leadership why I found it offensive when they proposed the idea. To have a bunch of young men who do not necessarily profess Christ wearing a jersey with a huge cross on it -- on a team not affiliated with a church or a Christian school just didn't make sense to me. They reduced my faith to the status of a mascot.  And I get to watch a player wearing the symbol of my faith participate in fights.  Nice.  That just makes as much sense as a bunch of players who aren't from a First Nation wearing this proposed team's logo.  Or a team from France calling themselves the "Rude Americans."  (By the way the team with the cross obviously went ahead with their design anyway which told me how much they value my feelings).  But that's on them.
     Each year there are a few guys on the team who ask if their language and conversations offends me...I tell them if they use vulgar language I simply see that as a need for a better vocabulary.  Get some new adjectives!  If they speak about women only as sexual objects I view it as immaturity and I encourage them to think about if someone talked about their mom that way.  (I envision the alumni game in several year when some of them are Daddies to little girls... and just smile).  In so many cases I view it as immaturity because they probably are just thinking that you need to talk a certain way to fit in. Thankfully I'm not stuck at being 18 years old either. 
FOLLOW UP:  Owatonna could have chosen to move ahead with their proposed name... but I'm so pleased to report they are not.   After discussion and reading letters from Dakota elders, the leaders went a different direction and the team will be called the Steele County Blades.  Crisis averted.  What joy to be able to call and tell my friends that someone listened to their "voice!"  How honoring to feel like someone cares and values you enough to change their direction in the hopes of building a better relationship.  What a beautiful next chapter in this story!  All of a sudden I feel like cheering for the new team.