Paul Manata’s most recent attempt to deflate my critique of the Cleveland Indians branding has left the fact that I’m a Canadian in the background and shifted to focus on a reductio. Paul points out that cultural stereotypes proliferate about Italians. So then if stereotypes about Indians are “bad” presumably then stereotypes about Italians are bad as well. You can see where this is going…
First, a “confession” of sorts. When I was in Times Square, New York last March I contemplated purchasing a “Fuggedaboutit” tourist T-shirt. (I didn’t due to price. ) Is that a racially charged expression? I don’t think so.
Of course the world is full of stereotypes and many of them are innocuous or relatively innocuous. Others can actually be helpful. Here’s an example, in his book Protecting the Gift Gavin de Becker lays out strategies to protect your children from predators. Among his gems of wisdom is this: in the event that your child gets lost you should instruct them to seek out the help of a woman, not a policeman. The reason? Women tend to be nurturing and will be more likely to get involved and make sure the child finds their parent. Women are also statistically much less likely to victimize a child than will a male. As for seeking out a “policeman” the problem is that young children cannot distinguish policemen from, say, mall or parkade security guards. And the latter are statistically more likely to present a threat to your child than the general population.
Does that offend security guards? Too bad. de Becker is interested in protecting children not avoiding offense to the union of security guards, and there is enough wisdom in the advice and the stakes are high enough that he can share that advice without blushing.
So some stereotypes are harmless (if the cultural phrase “Fuggedaboutit” is a stereotype then it seems to me to be a harmless one). And other stereotypes are actually useful, at least if kept in check. (Obviously if Jane starts dating a security guard named Jack it would be wrong for her parents to object because they think all security guards are pedophiles. But there is a huge gap between Gavin de Becker and Jane’s parents.)
But other stereotypes are harmful and wrong. And the irony is that Paul provided us with a great example. He noted how both the United States and Canada rounded up citizens of Italian ethnic origin and placed them in internment camps. Those people were victims of grave injustice. That injustice was informed by certain stereotypes. Those people would probably never have been imprisioned had those stereotypes not been allowed to be perpetuated.
So here’s what Paul seems to want: drop the critical discourse about stereotyping in culture because it will lead to absurdities. And here’s what I’m advocating: we need to continue this conversation because while some stereotypes are justifiable and some are innocuous, others are quite harmful. It is for that reason that I find Paul’s dismissive attitude toward the whole discussion to be so troubling.
When I was in high school we usually went to the movies on Tuesday night because it was discounted. We called it “Jewsday”. I suspect if somebody had asked me whether that was anti-Semitic at the time I would have rolled my eyes. Hey, if anything the term highlights a positive character trait: thriftiness. What’s wrong about that?
I have a very different view now that I understand the history better. I have studied the Holocaust and the internment camps that continued for years after the end of World War 2 because no western nations wanted the stateless Jewish refugees. I read with horror about the “Protocols of Zion” and I was stunned to read through Martin Luther’s “The Jews and Their Lies”. I shook my head at the expulsion of Jews during the Catholic Reformation in Isabella’s Spain and dropped my face in my palms upon reading of the medieval pogroms as the crusaders marched to liberate the Holy Land. An understanding of history placed a term that otherwise might have seemed innocuous — “Jewsday” — into a completely different light.
Imagine that you’re in the office and you see a man tell a female coworker “You look very nice today.” Offensive? You’d think not. But what if that man had a history of sexual advances against women? What if the office was aware that the female coworker had been raped? All sorts of past history can color what might seem to be an otherwise innocuous compliment.
Are racial stereotypes of Indians in professional sport wrong? Well we cannot say they are wrong a priori since, as we’ve seen, some stereotypes are innocuous and others are advantageous. But one thing we need to do is actually look at the history against which those images and phrases are set. A term like “Jewsday” or an office compliment might seem innocuous until you consider the past history.
So one of the things we should do is familiarize ourselves with more of the history of First Nations people. Let’s say, for example, that you want to name a sports franchise in Eastern Canada the Beothuks and you have a cartoonish image of an Indian to go with it. Would the history of the Beothuk people be of any relevance? What if it turned out that a genocide was committed against the Beothuks which led ultimately to the extinction of this people group in the early 19th century. Might that past history not provide a new perspective on the appropriateness of the proposed team branding? I think it might.
Our willingness to explore these questions openly and honestly is not an example of PC run amok. It is, rather, a recognition of the perennial tendency human beings have to marginalize other groups and to be insensitive to the groups they are marginalizing.
So to sum up, assuming that Paul thinks terms like “Jewsday” are wrong he should demonstrate why popular images of First Nations people in professional sport are more like “Fuggedaboutit” than “Jewsday”. Since Italian Americans have been victims of their own negative stereotypes I would think this is a question Paul would want to take very seriously.