Jewish World Review March 19, 2002 / 6 Nissan 5762
That appears to be what some innovative Native American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado had in mind. When local activists failed persuade Eaton High School in Greeley, Colo., to change the name and Indian mascot of its team, the Fightin' Reds, the Indian university students decided to make their point a different way.
They changed the name of their intramural basketball team from the Native Pride to The Fightin' Whities.
As Solomon Little Owl, a team member who also directs the university's Native American Student Services, explained to reporters, his teammates, who include some Hispanics and Caucasians, wanted to "do something that will let people see the other side of what it's like to be a mascot."
The result? A media frenzy, of course. Network television, major newspapers and radio talk shows have made the Fightin' Whities the best covered intramural squad in the nation. The Greeley Tribune says its Web site, www.greeleytrib.com, crashed last Tuesday when demand for the story soared from the usual 200 hits a day for a high-interest local story to 29,000.
Yet, Caucasians have proved to be remarkably resistant to offense. Quite the opposite, many agree with the e-mailer who saw the new team name as an "honor" to white Americans, who apparently don't get enough credit for their many contributions to history.
"Help me out here," asked one e-mail to the Greeley Tribune, "why am I supposed to be offended?"
Within days the newspaper, the college and Little Owl's office had received so many requests for team T-shirts that the Fightin' Whities now sell their own line of sportswear at their own Web site with all proceeds going to the Fighting Whites Scholarship Fund Inc.
The items do look pretty snazzy. Each features the team logo, a wholesome-looking '50s-style head-shot illustration of a smiling white guy in a jacket and necktie over the team's memorable slogan, "Every thang's gonna be all white!"
What next? Coffee mugs? Bumper stickers? Refrigerator magnets? Hey, it's all for a worthy cause.
Whether their experiment turned out the way they expected to or not, the Fightin' Whities deserve to go to the head of the class for giving us all at least one important lesson in crosscultural differences: It's not what you slur that counts, it is who is slurring it - and how.
After all, American teams have had Euro-ethnic mascots before, like the Fighting Irish, the Ragin' Cajuns or the Norsemen. And how about those Boston Celtics?
No, as an African American who has heard more than my share of slurs, I can tell you: To be truly offensive, it helps for a slur to carry at least a hint of a threat.
If some Caucasians in Greeley, Colo., find little reason to feel offended, maybe it is because they have little reason to feel threatened by the Fightin' Whities name. Caucasians in, say, Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has not made white farmers feel very welcome in recent years, might feel a bit more anxious about jokes at their expense.
Similarly, "Reds" may not sound very offensive to most, but to some Indian ears it might sound about as menacing as "Redskins," the name of the NFL football team in the nation's capital. Most Redskins fans undoubtedly mean no harm by their passivity about their team's name. If it reminds some Indians of the days when there were bounties on Indian scalps, that's just tough tomahawks, pal.
Besides, a recent Sports Illustrated poll found that, even on reservations, most Indians did not think school or professional sports teams should change their Indian names, despite the near-unanimity of activists and other busybodies - like me - who think a name like "Redskins" goes way over the top.
By contrast, the Cleveland Indians merely sounds weird. It makes me wonder how folks would feel about a team called, say, the "Cleveland Negroes."
But it is not always easy to get non-Indians to walk a few miles in the moccasins of Native Americans on this issue without feeling defensive, as if they are being blamed for all of history's atrocities against the original Americans.
So, I give the Fightin' Whities credit for keeping their wit about them. Humor often opens doors that battering rams fail to budge.
If nothing else, they've stumbled across an unusual way to raise scholarship money. It's like the old saying goes: If you can't beat 'em, make a few bucks off of
03/15/02: A Pearl of wisdom for reporter's unborn son