In 1976, the Maine Legislature passed a law banning the official use of a derogatory name for people of African descent that is considered so offensive today it is only uttered with the intention of doing harm. But back then the slur was thrown around so casually it was even used for the names of roads and geographic features in Maine, appearing on state signs and maps.
Today, no African-American child in Maine will ever have to see it written on an official document and be reminded that overt racism was once common and condoned.
Cultures change and evolve. As attitudes change, words take on new meanings. It’s foolish to ignore progress.
But that’s what the town of Wiscasset is doing, with a majority vote of its Board of Selectmen to approve the name “Redskin’s Drive” for a road. That name was once used for the mascot of Wiscasset High School sports teams, before it was dropped to stop offending Native Americans.
There are still some hard feelings over the name change in Wiscasset, and they were voiced by Selectman Ben Rines, who said that the term is not offensive because it was not intended to be offensive. But if intent was the only standard, the African-American slur would still be used to name islands and hills around the state.
Good intentions don’t change the meaning of a word. In a country that has a history of discrimination based on skin color, it is offensive to refer to people by the color of their skin. It would be just as offensive to caricature another ethnic group with brown or yellow skin, and calling it a tribute doesn’t change that.
“Redskin” is a racial slur. Wiscasset can decide that it doesn’t mind hurting the people who are offended, but it cannot take away the hurt by claiming that the town meant no harm.
This is not censorship or “political correctness,” it is simply a matter of cultural development. A word that might have been used innocently in the past is now understood to be offensive. If the town doesn’t mean to insult, it’s time to find a new word and move on.
All around the country, Indian names and mascots are being dropped from team jerseys and logos.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has revoked the trademark for the Washington, D.C., National Football League team because it demeaned Native Americans. Although the team continues to use the offensive name, many media outlets, including this newspaper, have chosen to stop using it in stories (except in stories about the controversy).
People can choose to keep using the name, but they can’t choose how people will look at them when they do. If Wiscasset doesn’t want to be known as a place that doesn’t care whom it hurts, it should quit using this name.