Cultural Sensitivity: the Redskins, Delta and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Today, I learned about three things that are a reminder of the need for cultural sensitivity. First, the US Patent Office cancelled the trademark name of the Washington Redskins, agreeing with the five Native Americans who brought suit that it was inherently offensive. It has honestly always baffled me that many people don’t think the name is inappropriate, who think Natives are being “too sensitive,” that changing it would somehow destroy the team’s culture and legacy. Um… colonialism/white privilege much? I’m hoping that at some point the team’s owners will be on the right side of history and say, you know what, this name carries a legacy of slaughter and discrimination and cultural annihilation. We don’t want to be associated with the taints of that name anymore.

You may think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here. It’s just a name, after all, right? No. Names have power, have meaning. They can be culturally reappropriated so that their power is diffused, but they will always be laden with history, and when that history is one of hate, there is cause to consider banishing them from our cultural vocabulary. Think of how the words “nigger” and “queer” have been reappropriated by Black and LGBT individuals so that their meaning within those groups has become one of solidarity and affection rather than attack. The key phrase there, though, is “within those groups.” It’s still not okay to use “nigger” or “queer” if you are not a member (a simplistic analogy: you can make fun of your siblings, but if anyone else does, watch out!). Even if it’s not meant as an insult, we are not far enough removed from the Civil Rights era for those words not to be fraught with negative connotations. And “Redskin” is the same. Calling a Native person a Redskin, let alone using it as a TEAM NAME, is not okay, and likely never will be.

Be on the right side of history, Redskins.

While we’re talking about cultural appropriateness and sensitivity, Delta did this yesterday, in which it congratulated the US soccer team for beating Ghana in a tweet that depicted Ghana as a giraffe on the plains. Many astute Tweeters noted that giraffes, in fact, aren’t native to Ghana. As Delta flies to Ghana, and has a destination page for the country, one might assume they would be more culturally sensitive to African stereotypes. Apparently not. What’s wrong with a giraffe representing an African country? you might ask. I mean, giraffes live in Africa. People know what Delta means. Stop being so sensitive!

Yes, giraffes live in Africa. But that’s precisely the problem. Africa is a big continent. Huge. In fact, it’s as big as China, India, the US and most of Europe put together. Assuming that Africa can be seen as just one, giraffe-laden place contributes to the “othering” of Africa. When Delta contributes to the visioning of Africa as a unified continent, it contributes to the idea that South Africa and Egypt and Senegal are “essentially all the same place” – which, as anyone who has read or followed the news or visited any or all of these countries knows, is very far from the truth. Whenever we are enabled to see Others as All Alike, it detracts from our ability to see nuance and experience empathy. To perhaps make the analogy more real, consider how damaging it is when all members of a religion – Islam, Christianity, Judaism – are assumed to share the same belief. This is how we end up with peaceful Muslims attacked on the streets. Just as it would be ridiculous to assume that Mormons, Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and the members of the “Christian” Westboro Baptist Church believed the same thing because they all call themselves “Christians,” it’s ridiculous and damaging to believe that all Africans are the same. When Delta perpetuates this stereotype, they’re contributing to a more pervasive problem.

So where does “How to Train your Dragon 2” fit in? This is yet another example of where well-meaning people unconsciously perpetuate cultural insensitivity and contribute to damaging stereotypes. The villain is the only character voiced by a Black man, Djimon Hounsou. While I doubt that there was any racism intended, this is actually a pretty pervasive theme in children’s movies that I think represents subtle biases present in our culture. For example, many of the “bad” characters in The Lion King are also voiced by minority actors/actresses (such as the hyenas), while many of the “good” characters (Simba, Nala, etc.) are voiced by White actors/actresses (despite the African setting). I don’t think Disney for one second was trying to make a statement about race, but did I notice? Yes. This obviously isn’t the case in every movie, of course, but there are quite a few that follow this trend. And even if racism isn’t intended, even if the best actor or actress was chosen for the part, this still reinforces the idea of Other as Bad. With the Lion King, it becomes a reflection of colonialism, with the young, White lion generation succeeding the older, Black lion generation to become the rulers. When Black actors do play important characters in The Lion King, they are either killed off (Mufasa), evil (two of the hyenas; the third is Mexican-American) or represent a stereotype (Rafiki).  Now, of course, I may be stretching this a bit. And yes, I know that many, many villains are voiced by White actors and actresses. The problem is when the ONLY Black actor/actress in the movie is the villain, such as in “How to Train your Dragon 2.” What subconscious message is this sending?

Call it political correctness if you will. I prefer cultural sensitivity, because this should go beyond politics, beyond correctness. It’s about being attune to our own position and privilege. It’s about not only sensitivity to others’ feelings, but also empathy and kindness and awareness. It’s about being conscientious global citizens. And, you know, decent human beings.

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