The Truth, Mainly - 12/02/1991

Use Pearl Harbor for empathy lesson
by Leon Satterfield

Okay, just why do so many of us still see nothing wrong with the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, the Florida State Seminoles, and lots of other teams named after Native Americans?

Rick Reilly says in a "Sports Illustrated" piece that it's because we still don't get it. To help us out, he asks us to imagine analogies: the New York Negroes or the Chicago Jews, the San Diego Chicanos or the Los Angeles Yellowskins.

But those minorities, having experience in humiliation, probably already understand what's offensive about the Redskins and the Braves and the Tomahawk Chop. It's the rest of us—mainstream white America—who need to get it. What's required is an outrageously humiliating analogy we can all plug into, and what brings one to mind is the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

So run this through your humilimeter:

Imagine that the Japanese attack was so successful that we had to surrender early in 1942. Imagine that we've been occupied by the Japanese for nearly half a century now and that all our land, all our factories, all our wealth belong to them.

(This is just a test. Do not panic.)

Imagine that most of us native-born Americans are either sharecropping for our new landlords or sweeping floors and cleaning toilet bowls in their factories. When we try to complain, there's a language problem. Our attempts at Japanese amuse them, and, except for a few of their anthropologists interested in primitive cultures, they're all too busy making money to learn English.

They're tolerant enough of our oddities. They've allowed us to keep our religion and some of them even turn out to watch our Christmas and Easter services, charmed, they say, by the child-like naivete of some of our beliefs. But we're not permitted to drink communion wine because all alcoholic beverages, except the saki and beer produced in Japan, have been outlawed.

(This is still just a test of your equipment. Do not be alarmed.)

We are generally thought by our rulers to be sullen and lazy. They try to integrate us into their culture but most of us refuse. We drink lots of cheap saki and try to forget the difference between who we are and who we used to be.

And finally, imagine that a Japanese billionaire in the city of Atlanta, in what used to be the state of Georgia, buys a franchise for an expansion team in the Nippon Baseball League and hires players from Japan at average salaries a lot higher—say, about a hundred times more—than what most of us make.

Sportswriters, ever witty, nickname the team the "Roundeyes," but the official name is the Atlanta Arizonans, even though the state of Arizona no longer exists and would have no connection to Atlanta if it did. The team insignia is a stylized outline of a smoking, half-submerged battleship. The fans' rally cry is "Remember Pearl Harbor!" and vendors dressed in parodies of U.S. Naval uniforms, circa 1941, sell them foam rubber machine guns. They pretend to shoot at imaginary Zeroes strafing and bombing and torpedoing the stadium, and they make machine-gun noises to mess up the concentration of the visiting team.

When some of us native-born Americans form an anti-defamation league and suggest there's something offensive about all that, we're told to lighten up. It's just a game.

(You may now switch off your humilimeter, being careful not to place your bare hand on the indignation chamber housing.)

Make your blood boil? Well I should say.

And here's the point: if your mainstream white American blood boils at a scenario that's only imagined, think how hot Native American blood gets when the scenario is real and roughly parallel. Prick them and they bleed. Tickle them and they laugh. Defeat them and steal their land and obliterate their culture, then mock them in a game, and they take offense.

But if the only parallel we persist in seeing is between the Redskins, and, say, the Vikings, we still don't get it. It was never national policy that the only good Scandinavian is a dead Scandinavian.

So let's try this: as we remember Pearl Harbor, let's also remember Wounded Knee and the policy that led to it. If we can make those two memories coalesce, if we can recall the anger and defeat and humiliation of a Sunday morning half a century ago and see a link to five centuries of Native American history, then we'll begin to get it, to understand how the names we give our teams can make what they do more than just a game.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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