Since the 1960s, university students have vigorously debated the politics of identity: what does it "mean" to be a woman? Is there an "authentic" African American experience? Which parts of LGBT culture have been "appropriated" by the hegemony?
Scare quotes have proliferated.
Critics dismiss such debates as divisive. "Why bother with 'Women's Studies' or 'African American Studies'? We're all human, right?"
Proponents counter: "In a perfect world, maybe. But even in America, the land of the allegedly free, the 14th and 19th Amendments didn't level the playing field."
For the most part, proponents have prevailed. Though identity-oriented college programs have seen their budgets slashed in recent years, they've continued to focus attention on inequity -- the haves, the have-nots, and the lines that separate the two. Oftentimes, those lines are demarcated by race and sex.
That's led to a greater degree of cultural sensitivity. Some would argue that we've become so PC, we're afraid to offend anyone (which has resulted in a backlash: the offend-everyone comedy found on South Park and elsewhere in pop culture). But the fact remains that these sensitivities shape modern life.
APPROPRIATING NATIVE AMERICA
Consider, for example, the growing brouhaha over the Washington Redskins' name. Fans of the Redskins admit that, yes, "redskin" is an offensive slang term for Native Americans. However, it's been in use for over 80 years. It's become a tradition; its racist heritage has been forgotten and/or erased.
But opponents say that there's no way of erasing the heritage of a name with such racist overtones. There are and were dozens of slang terms used for African Americans, Latinos, Jews, gays, lesbians that don't need to be recounted here: could anyone imagine using those terms for a mascot? And if not, why is it okay to use a derogatory term for Native Americans?
Which brings us to the Jeep Cherokee. Unlike "redskin", the name "Cherokee" isn't inherently derogatory. Unlike the generic name "brave" (as in, the Atlanta Braves), the name "Cherokee" refers to a specific tribe of Native Americans, one with a distinct culture, language, and history.
At first glance, the name "Jeep Cherokee" would seem to be okay, since it doesn't appear to denigrate the Cherokee tribe. And as you can see in the new ad campaign for the Cherokee posted above, Jeep doesn't use Cherokee or Native American imagery to sell the SUV.
But it's not quite that simple.
For starters, the Cherokee, like nearly all other Native American tribes, were pushed out of their ancestral homelands as European Americans began their westward expansion across North America. In fact, the Cherokee were one of the tribes that suffered most on the brutal Trail of Tears in the early 1800s. One could argue that the tribe has endured enough, and that having its name co-opted by a bunch of Caucasian men in Detroit just adds insult to injury.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Jeep ought to stop using the term "Cherokee". After all, Florida State University has used the Seminole as its symbol for many years, and rather than retire it, the university has deepened ties with the Seminole tribe. But Jeep hasn't done that for the Cherokee -- at least, not yet.