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Is There Such a Thing as Too Politically Correct?

Media sensationalization distracts from legitimate concerns for Native Americans

Now I’m not one to defend really anything Kardashian-related. However, I have to admit, when reading a quick blurb in the city paper about how Khloe Kardashian has come under fire for posting a picture on Instagram wearing a headdress that some perceived as mocking Native Americans, particularly given the passage that she captioned the photo with, that appeared to promote stereotypes about the group, I can’t help but wonder—has political correctness been taken to the extreme?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to endorse cultural sensitivity—in addition to being a social psychologist, I teach upper level college courses that focus on the negative effects of being the targets of both stereotypes and discriminatory behaviors—however, I think as a culture we need to be careful that in our rush to appear “sensitive” to cultural differences, that we aren’t silencing free speech, the right to explore other cultures, or even, dare I say, the right to have a little fun. My impression of the Kardashian post is that there was no ill intention in her depiction, that she was playing around with the aesthetics of wearing the headdress, and that she wanted to share the experience with her followers. Is that really something to be so horrified about?

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Of course, the larger issue is that the plight of the historically abused and discriminated against Native Americans (dare I write, the treatment of Native Americans by early colonists meets the UN definition of genocide—but alas, that is for another post all together) has been in the spotlight with the increasing scrutiny of the name of the Washington Redskins. Of course, I can’t claim to maintain objectivity on the subject—for as many know I am an avid Redskins fan and have been since childhood—however, I have to admit that I see the increasing scrutiny of the team’s name as a superficial diversion from a deeper issue that has been historically ignored by larger institutions in the United States since its early founding.

Namely, Native Americans have been discriminated against and marginalized since the birth of this country. For instance, as one advocacy group identifies:

Native Americans suffer from many of the same social and economic problems as other victims of long-term bias and discrimination - including, for example, disproportionately high rates of poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, and low high school completion rates. ("Civil Rights", n.d., para 2).

In addition, there are higher rates of both suicide and alcoholism among this demographic in addition to startling rates of sexual assault against Native American women, particularly among tribal regions across the states. However, these deeper issues that stem from the history of how this minority has been treated by the U.S. government and larger society is largely ignored, while the ire is focused almost exclusively on the name of the NFL team. I am wondering if as a culture we are taking the easy way out in targeting a football mascot, rather than a deeper investigation of what historical, social and psychological factors have led to the marginalization and continued discrimination against this group.

In other words, my problem with our increasingly politically correct society is that real dialogue is stilted, people are afraid to say anything that can even remotely be construed as offensive, and relatively petty incidents, like a picture on social media or mascot are scapegoats for larger, more deep seated roots of inequity that go unnoticed or largely ignored from the very institutions that could alter policies to protect them. Will targeting Kardashian’s perhaps inappropriate commodification of Native American culture really benefit the group in any meaningful way? Will altering the name of the NFL team actually help the social problems that plague Native American communities across the country? Why doesn’t Congress actually implement programs to help reverse the disparities identified in Native American communities, instead of spending so much time debating the offensiveness of team names?

As far as I’m concerned, if fans or spectators think the Redskins logo or mascot is offensive, they can choose not to endorse the team or buy the merchandise. In fact, some research suggests the Redskins brand is suffering financial losses because of the controversy surrounding the name, although I question the validity of the methodology (e.g. see Lewis & Tripathi, 2014). However, a recent poll reported that more than 70% of Washingtonians think the team should not change its name—so it appears the majority of us aren’t offended, although perhaps our love of the football team may be clouding our judgment. Should an owner bow to public pressure for a well-established brand in the interest of being culturally sensitive, even if most of the culture isn’t offended?!

The origin of the term “Redskin” continues to be disputed today, it has rarely, if ever been implicated in hate crimes when Native Americans have been targeted. So how much of the controversy is an attempt to offer a quick fix to a larger disparity that has been simmering for years in our country regarding the treatment of Native Americans?

Let’s stop distracting the public and really focus on institutional level policies and reforms that can have meaningful positive effects on Native American communities. Would it be a symbolic gesture if the Redskin name and mascot were changed, or maybe even if Kardashian apologized for her seemingly insensitive posts? Maybe.

But dare I say, maybe not.

Civil Rights 101 (n.d.). Native Americans. Retrieved on June 25th 2014 from: http://www.civilrights.org/resources/civilrights101/native.html.

Lewis, M., & Tripathi, M. (2014, June 25th). ‘Redskins’ is Bad Business. The New York Times, Op-Ed. Print.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2014

 

Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and an adjunct at George Washington University. She is the author of Understanding Aggression. more...

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