The View From Here – We should be less sensitive to innocuous stereotypes and more intolerant of real bigotry

Tom Henihan

We live in a multicultural society where hypersensitivity on all matters of ethnicity is fashionable, so the chances of inadvertently offending others regarding racial stereotypes or entrenched cultural assumptions are almost inevitable.

No matter how all-embracing, worldly and sophisticated we may be, in such a finely nuanced environment we are bound to step on someone’s thin-skinned toes and be held to account for causing offence where none is intended.

When surrounded by a myriad of cultures in such an exceedingly sensitive society, extreme vigilance is required to avoid any slip-up that may cause offense. However, this is an oppressive and untenable way to live.

Those with a more robust attitude often play up the stereotypes of their own cultural background or playfully rib those with whom they are familiar about their background. This healthy, good-natured banter, trusting the spirit of the exchange and knowing that no slight is intended, demonstrates that the matter of ethnicity need not always be precious.

More often, unfortunately, when people take offense at a mere faux pas, they immediately report the matter to some authority: the police, the media, the school board, the university administration, which is symptomatic of our society becoming increasingly institutionalized.

Considering how frequently these infringements occur, we need to find ways to deal with the situation rather than running like children to have others resolve things on our behalf.

It is different, however, when offensive stereotypes are entrenched in any organization or institution and flaunted in a blatant affront to a specific group of people. Then it is important that all authorities and individuals express their dissent.

A recent high profile case is the Cleveland Indians baseball team. While the name alone is not necessarily offensive, taken with the extremely distasteful logo of Chief Wahoo the Cleveland team lose all entitlement to the name as well as the logo.

The Cleveland Indians took their name in 1914, at the behest of a bunch of white sports reporters. It was a time when the appropriation and caricaturing of native North Americans’ identity was done with impunity. It is the epitome of entrenched, systemic racism.

Sure, the Cleveland Indians may have the name for over a hundred years but we should not accept racism because it has a long tradition and grandfather it in.

As individuals, we may allow one another some good-natured irreverence on matters of race and ethnicity and it is no different with a sports teams.

One might ask if the Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish name and logo is not demeaning. The two-fisted, pugnacious leprechaun could hardly offer a more archaic, stereotypical and less flattering view of the Irish.

The difference is in the spirit from which the name and logo arose and the connotation it expresses.

By most accounts, Notre Dame took its Fighting Irish moniker from a connection to the American Civil War’s Irish Brigade. The name was adapted with affection and respect and even if it perpetuates a certain playful stereotype, the spirit is neither derogatory nor racist.

Besides, any Irish person who visited Notre Dame could be confident of a warm welcome while I doubt that native North Americans share the same confidence when calling on the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

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