White Folks: Time to Shut Up About Losing Your Offensive Street Names
Okay all you white folks who live on Squaw Peak Drive and Robert E. Lee Street in Phoenix, I feel a teensy bit of your pain. The City Council voted last week to eliminate these offensive names. That’s going to inconvenience a few of you.
I’ve moved three times in the past five years, so I get what it’s like to have to deal with utility companies, the banks, etc., to change your address. It’s not fun.
But that’s all the sympathy you get.
Let’s compare standing in line at the DMV with what some of my great-great-grandfather’s people, the Cherokees, endured on the Trail of Tears in 1838. They were forcibly removed from their farms and their homes, then marched more than 1,000 miles to what is now Oklahoma.
More than 16,000 began the journey. At least a quarter of them died during the brutal trip. (And forget about all that “corn as high as an elephant’s eye” stuff. The land they were banished to wasn’t good for raising anything until they learned how to grow casinos more than 150 years later.)
How bad was the Trail of Tears?
“I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew,” one Georgia soldier said, according to The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, by Robert Remini.
Of course about that same time, thousands and thousands of other dark-skinned men, women, and children still were being kidnapped in Africa and forced to work as slaves on the very land the Cherokees and many other tribes were vacating.
So here’s what I have to say to all of you complaining that the city may change the name of the streets where you live:
It’s not okay to crap on the suffering of others just because you cherish some long-held local tradition. (Same goes to those of you who’ve been arguing against removing Arizona’s Confederate monuments.)
I listened to another variation of this argument for more than three decades in Northeast Ohio, where many fans of the Cleveland Indians baseball team desperately cling to their team’s beloved racist mascot, Chief Wahoo, an embarrassing toothy, red-faced caricature of Native Americans.
In 1996, when I was associate managing editor of The Akron Beacon Journal and the Indians were selling out every game, I banned gratuitous photographs of Wahoo from appearing in the newspaper. We still ran pictures of players wearing their uniforms adorned by Wahoo. But I didn’t want to see any more shots of Wahoo tattoos, lawn ornaments, or people painting their faces red on our pages.
Didn’t make me a popular person after a co-worker sent a copy of my memo to a Cleveland TV station.
More than 20 years later, Wahoo defenders have not lost their starch, even though the team seems to be trying to phase him out subtly, replacing him on their home ball caps with a block-letter C.
Last season, our former sister alternative weekly, Cleveland Scene, ran a contest to encourage designs of a new logo or mascot.
This unsigned online response was not atypical:
“Anyone who finds this offensive, including the editorial staff of this publication, can pack their shit and move right the fuck out of Cleveland ... it baffles me how one can be so offended over a non-threatening logo. Offended people need to quit being a soft pussy and grow up, find something real to do with your lives, and get over it.”
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Well, that’s certainly a very white person’s perspective.
My friend and former colleague Ted Diadiun, a conservative columnist in Cleveland, insisted that people like me are to blame for all the fuss over mascots like Wahoo and the even more disgusting nickname of Washington’s football team, the Redskins, which now seems to have the approval of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After citing a list of anti-Wahoo arguments from various organizations, Ted wrote this in a column protesting the protesters:
“You might argue that all those groups constitute a wave of popular sentiment, but consider the common thread that runs through all those campaigns: Liberal zealots who are pleased to decide what’s good for the rest of us ... who want to tell us all what we are allowed to call our sports teams and what we are allowed to use to represent them.”
Sure, what harm can be caused by a mascot that only exists on a piece of paper?
A lot, some experts say.
Last fall, Sporting News writer Cory Collins argued passionately in a well-written, well-researched essay that Wahoo’s days should be numbered.
Collins cited data from the U.S. Department of Justice and a study commissioned by the Oneida Nation showing that Native Americans suffer higher rates of violence, sexual assault, and threats against children than other minority groups.
No, Chief Wahoo isn’t to blame for all that. But he hasn’t helped.
Collins quoted Michael Friedman, one of the authors of the Oneida-commissioned study.
“A series of studies show that if Native Americans are shown images of stereotypical Native American mascots … self-esteem goes down, belief in community goes down, belief in achievement goes down and mood goes down,” Friedman said in an NPR interview.
“If someone who is non-Native American sees a stereotypical image of a Native American mascot, their association with the Native American community also gets worse.”
Much the same can be said about words like squaw, which is as offensive and debilitating as Chief Wahoo to many Native Americans. There’s no time here for a linguistics debate, but to many squaw is a reference to a prostitute or wanton woman.
In other words, you live on Whore Peak Drive. Put that on your stationery.
As for those of you in Phoenix who reside on Robert E. Lee Street … WTF?
Perhaps it’s understandable that there are streets celebrating the Confederate general in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, sites of some of his armies’ greatest defeats. But he has no connection to Arizona. Why honor him here?
Your president has a word for men like that.
So lose the street name.
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