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23 December 2004 @ 08:50
¿Quién sabe?  

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission spent a day watching reruns of The Lone Ranger, and this apparently helped them to decide that the word kemosabe, when habitually used by a white employer to address a Mi'kmaq employee, is not so racially offensive as to warrent their intervention. (The ruling is being appealed.)

Now, the funny thing about this case is that nobody seems to know exactly what kemosabe really means, although there has been considerable speculation. Does it mean 'soggy shrub' in Navajo? 'Peeping Tom' in Cree? 'White shirt' in Apache?

It's entertaining to speculate about the origins of kemosabe, but it seems to me that for the purposes of the case that came before the NSHRC, it doesn't matter one bit what kemosabe "really" means. What's at issue in the case is whether the employer ought reasonably to expect that the employee would find it objectionable to be addressed that way; the Human Rights Commission could safely assume that neither party in the case spent weeks sifting through etymological dictionaries of Algonquian and Athapaskan languages before deciding whether to use the word or how to receive it. It's pretty clear that kemosabe doesn't mean anything at all in English or Mi'kmaq other than "term used by Tonto to address the Lone Ranger."

The case is kind of odd in that the word at issue had undergone a reversal: instead of being used by a Native sidekick to address a white title character, it was used here by a white employer to address a Native employee. So if we want to know whether it's offensive in this context, one thing we can do is construct hypothetical parallels and see what we think of them. What if a white employer addressed a black employee as "massa"? That seems quite offensive to me, but the analogy with kemosabe is obviously imperfect: Tonto was not the Lone Ranger's slave.

The main thing we can note, though, is that by alluding to the Tonto/Lone Ranger relationship, the use of kemosabe seems to draw attention (certainly unnecessarily; arguably offensively) to the fact that one of the participants in the discourse was white and the other was Native. And I think that this foregrounding of racial difference in an employer/employee relationship is inappropriate. I don't know whether I think it's inappropriate to a degree that should warrant the attention of the NSHRC, because I haven't figured out yet where I believe the line should be drawn, let alone which side of it this particular case should fall on. (And I don't know much about the specifics of this case, either—as another cowboy (who was part Indian) once said, all I know is what I read in the papers.) But I do think kemosabe was a poorly chosen and inconsiderate term of address, whatever it may mean.

 
 
 
love, play & inquirytrochee on 23. December, 2004 22:03 (UTC)
Well said.

The exact etymology of kemosabe isn't really the point, is it. (Though it's interesting to geeks like us.) If it turned out that it meant something respectful or not, it [un-]subtly reintroduces race into a situation where it's effectively turning the crosshairs of the entire system of oppression on your employee. It doesn't matter if you pull the trigger.

This boss (he of the frequent use of "kemosabe") reminds me of the people in Black People Love Us, but without the ironic self-mocking subtext.