I know this girl; she looks good in purple. One day we embarked on a spring cleaning endeavor with high hopes of tackling the whole house. But we didn’t make it that far. Things got heated, we got distracted. She had on this mauve sweater; she used to wear it often. After sorting through old clothes, locating ones to discard, she asked if she should go ahead and throw the sweater on the pile. She did this with a grin, joking that it might offend someone on OU’s campus. We had just moved to Norman. The sweater was from Stillwater.
I stared at the giant white logo across her torso. It is a famous logo, belonging to popular Oklahoma restaurant. Everybody in the state is surely familiar with it, even those that have never eaten there; you grow up seeing it on various cups and apparel. It is a cartoon of the establishment’s mascot: the faces of a man and his dog. It was the same over-exaggerated smile, large teeth, and culturally generalizing attire I’d always seen. But on that day, I noticed something new, yet disturbingly familiar.
It’s 2016 and the Cubs are in the World Series. Typically, I’m no baseball fan, but I lived three years on Chicago’s Northside and developed an affinity for those Loveable Losers and their 100-year curse. Cheering them on now made me feel like I was back there, having late night conversations at The Pick Me Up Café in Wrigleyville. Sometimes nostalgia is the warmest blanket.
The Cubs were playing the Cleveland Indians, a team most familiar to me because of their focus in the movie Major League – but I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. In this particular game the Indians were the home team; they wore red socks with white pants and shirts. Their hats were blue and sported their logo: a cartoonish depiction of the team’s mascot. He is a man illustrated with an exaggerated smile, large teeth, and culturally generalizing attire.
I like comedy; it’s good to laugh with one another. It keeps everybody equal. One night I was watching a Louis C.K stand up. Some of his jokes are ridiculously raunchy, others are outstandingly observant.
“I really think that white people are from another planet,” he said, “because when we came to America, it was so nice. It was just Indians. And they weren’t even Indians. We called them that by accident… And we still call them that. We knew in a month that it wasn’t Indians but we just don’t give a shit. We never correct it. We came here. They’re like, ‘Hi.’ And we’re like, ‘Hey, you’re Indians, right?’ And they’re like, ‘No.’ ‘No? This is India, right?’ ‘No, it’s not. It’s a totally other place.’ “You’re not Indians?” ‘No.’ ‘Ahh, you’re Indians. You’re Indians for hundreds of years after.'”
This joke could have easily replaced the word Indians with Eskimos, which is a word commonly used in America to describe peoples of Inuit and Yupik cultures. Instead of referring to each culture individually, Americans decided to lump them all under one umbrella. In recent years, though, it has become apparent that this classification is not appreciated. In Canada, the term Eskimo is widely considered derogatory. In a recent Alaska Daily News article Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, explains: “More and more, Native American racial groups want to be called by a name in their own language and not a name given by outsiders,” he said. “Some people don’t object to this at all, and some people do. When enough voices are raised, the government is responsive.”
In my opinion, one of the most important books ever written is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It makes sense of life and helps give it some perspective. Although the book mostly comments on the evolution of organisms through a biological lens, there is one chapter that applies the principles of evolution and genes to culture. Cultures exist as metaphysical organisms, and like all organisms, cultures evolve. Of course, there is no physical agent mutating and driving the evolution forward. Cultures and societies exist and evolve on nothing more than a collection of ideas. The idea that there is one god, no god or thousands of gods, whether a person should or shouldn’t eat beef, whether the world is flat or the world is round, whether it’s okay to lump a bunch of cultures into one group and use their identities as mascots – these are nothing more than ideas. In this book, Dawkins coined the term for genes that cultures evolve on, memes. The great thing about memes is that they do evolve. If they didn’t, it would still be culturally acceptable to own slaves, or to send people to jail for not going to church on Sunday. Memes, like genes, act first on individuals, then slowly but surely, the adaptive and progressive memes propagate through a population over generations, until only a few vestiges of bad ideas remain. Everybody wants change to happen quickly, but in reality that isn’t possible.
In May of 2016, President Obama signed legislation “which modernizes terms in specified statutes related to minorities.” Indian and Eskimo were two of the terms. These specified statues will now use Native American and Alaska Native. Just for comparison, removing the terms Negro and Oriental were also apart of that legislation.
In the mornings before class, I watch sports news shows. It’s nice to start the day with something light; if I watch real news in the morning, I run the risk of seeing something so inhumane it ruins my day. I’ll sink into a debilitating depression before I even get out of the door. That’s a struggle I reserve for when I get home. One morning a few people on screen were getting way too amped, too early. I still hadn’t gotten through my first cup of coffee. Oh, wow! one of them yelled. Big NFC East showdown this weekend: Philadelphia Eagles versus Washington’s professional team!
I looked up from my laptop, the Eagles and Washington Redskins logos floated across the television screen. I was unsure if I had really heard what I thought I had just heard – so I kept watching, and the announcer soon confirmed it. The Eagles pose a real threat to Washington’s professional team. I don’t recall the first part, exactly, but the end I do for sure. She refused to say Redskins.
I know this girl; she looks good in purple. She owned this mauve sweater; she used to wear it often. It had the logo of the famous Oklahoma restaurant, Eskimo Joe’s, on it. As we were putting clothes into a pile to give to Goodwill, she jokingly asked if it would offend anyone on OU’s campus. I stared at it for a moment, it was that same over-exaggerated smile, large teeth, and culturally generalizing attire I’d always seen. But on that day, I noticed something different about it, yet disturbingly familiar. Yes, I said, I think it could, and we threw it on the pile.