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August 09, 2013 12:54 PM The (Former) Redskins: The Question Is Etiquette, Not ‘Racism’

By Jonathan Bernstein

Slate yesterday said it wouldn’t use “Redskins” any more for the Washington football team. Good choice!

Which is as good an excuse as any to make my argument again that the question here shouldn’t be whether this particular term is offensive, much less racist. Those are interesting questions, I suppose, but they’re not necessary to the argument.

Instead, this should be thought of very simply as a question of etiquette. Basically: it’s polite to call people by the name they want to go by.

That pretty much solves it. If my brother doesn’t want to be called Eddie Baby, then don’t call him Eddie Baby.* There’s no need to figure out whether it’s offensive or anything…all we need to know is that he doesn’t like it. If we respect him, we won’t use it. Or, really, if we want to be polite, we won’t use it. We don’t need to figure out why the name isn’t preferred. Just that it is.

(It also helps, by the way, with more complex requests. We all probably know someone who doesn’t mind if her mother calls her something that she doesn’t want anyone else to use. It would be rude to call her that name! If we’re polite, we don’t use it, and we also don’t sit around sulking about how her mother “gets” to call her that and we don’t).

Obviously, it’s a rule of thumb that doesn’t solve everything. Groups may disagree about what they like to be called. Individuals can make what appear to be ridiculous demands…if my brother insists on being called Sir Edward, I’m not sure we’re under any obligation to oblige him. I’m sure there are other potentially complicated situations. Just knowing something is within the realm of etiquette doesn’t mean that there are always easy answers.

Surely, however, easier answers than we have for questions such as “Is it racist?”

What it does is it takes us away from the incredibly fraught realm of what is “offensive” and towards something which we should be able to handle.

*In fact, I call my brother Eddie Baby all the time. Not my brother David; the other one. I may not be the best eldest sibling out there.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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