In any event, I'm going to tackle an item that is a bit controversial. I was first tipped off to this yesterday by reader Kerry, who was outraged by an event being sponsored by the local web site BrightestYoungThings.com.
Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute photos and writing to BYT, though I am not at all involved in editorial/management decisions.
The event was part of a series of "pool parties" at the Washington Skyline Hotel, and this week's was named "Indian Summer." The post promoting the event had Google Image results for "Indian" and did contain some jokes referencing Native American culture and stereotypes. The flyer for the event did picture a large slot machine.
As you can see by the comments on the event post, there were a variety of reactions. The director of the National Museum of the American Indian even chimed in. Eventually, under threats of protest and growing outrage, the event was changed and the offensive materials removed.
When asked for a comment about the whole firestorm, editor of the site Svetlana Legetic admitted that the staff had not considered the potential for outrage. "We did not think about it, and it is probably kind of naive that we didn't but we didn't," she said via email.
I'm going to have to fault BYT a little bit here, this is Washington, DC where everyone gets outraged and where everyone is a political activist. Of course a Native American themed event is offensive. Was it funny? Possibly. Does that make it OK? No, it doesn't. I'm glad that the event has been changed and that BYT has reached out to some Native American groups to make amends. Honestly, I don't think they meant this to be offensive, it's the sad truth that making jokes and exploiting Native American stereotypes is socially acceptable. A good amount of people (myself included) were not immediately outraged to see something themed "Indian Summer." We have become conditioned to this, to the point where we, ourselves, make fun of it and don't even realize what we are doing.
Native American groups and supporters have successfully lobbied to get this "pool party" cancelled. But I'm going to stir up some trouble right now and ask why are we letting the bigger things slide? One of the big things that is conditioning us to the fact that "savage" jokes are OK, is the fact that we see names like the Redskins, Braves, Indians, etc. all the time. The Redskins had their share of controversy with the mascot and team name... but there was no serious resolution of the issue. The Director of the National Museum of the American Indian is not threatening to boycott FedEx, for example, for sponsoring the Redskins stadium.
In a 2004 poll, a follow-up to a 2002 sketchy Sports Illustrated Poll, the Annenburg Public Policy Center found that 91% of Native Americans polled were not offended by the name Redskins. That's all fine and well, but does it still excuse the matter? I don't know. All I know is that it's difficult to tell someone not to have their "Indian Summer" pool party if 91% of Native Americans are OK with having a professional sports team named the Redskins with a logo that plays into the same type of stereotypes. What if we had a basketball team named the Washington Negroes? Maybe the mascot could be a character chopping wood. Maybe they sing faux-Spirituals during half-time. Would that not be offensive? What if the mascot was something that showed a stereotypical "accomplishment" of the race--maybe a Tuskeegee Airman, a mo-town singer, or a bling-encrusted rapper? Would that be offensive?
Where do you draw the line? I don't know. This whole thing has launched a good debate. Generally the conclusion has been that most people are not offended by jokes made at the expense of Native Americans--though if the same jokes were made about any other group, it would definitely be offensive. That doesn't seem right to me. As much as I enjoy football, and as much as I don't want to piss off Redskins fans (or Cleveland Indians fans, or Atlanta Braves, or Chicago Blackhawks, etc), I think renaming these teams would set an example that this sort of thing is contributing to the idea that it's socially acceptable to insult Native Americans. If they can rename the Washington Bullets to the Wizards...
We've also learned that you have to remember there's always someone itching to start a protest or boycott in D.C.