Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots
By Stephanie A. Fryberg, et al.
Contemporary American Indians, for example, exist beyond the reach of most Americans. That is, most Americans have no direct, personal experience with American Indians (Pewewardy, 1995). The relative invisibility of American Indians is, in part, the result of population size and segregated residential living. American Indians constitute 1.5% of the American population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006), and about 34% of American Indians live on Indian reservations (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Moreover, only 57% of American Indians live in metropolitan areas, which is the lowest metropolitan percentage of any racial group (Office of Minority Health, 2008). One consequence of this relative invisibility is that the views of most Americans about American Indians are formed and fostered by indirectly acquired information (e.g., media representations of American Indians).
American Indians, for example, are relatively invisible in mainstream media. In a composite week of U.S. prime-time television in 1996, no American Indian television characters were identified (Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). In a 2-week composite of prime-time television programming in 2002, 1,488 television characters were identified by race or ethnicity and of those characters, 6 (0.4%) were American Indian (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005). Similarly, content analyses of newspapers in 1997 and films from 1990 to 2000 revealed that approximately 0.2% of newspaper articles and popular films featured American Indians (Fryberg, 2003). The relative invisibility of American Indians suggests that media representations play a powerful role in defining how people see American Indians.
A stereotype accessibility perspective (Bodenhausen & Macrae, 1998; Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1999; Kawakami et al., 1998; Macrae et al., 2002) suggests that if American Indians are frequently and consistently associated with only a few traits, images or behavioral tendencies, then powerful, hard-to-break, mental links or stereotypes will be formed between the social category “American Indian” and these behaviors or traits (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1999; Major & Eccleston, 2004). A guiding concern, with respect to the use of American Indian mascots, is whether these indirectly acquired stereotypes of American Indians have psychological consequences for American Indians.
Extensive social psychological research on stereotyping suggests that the answer is likely to be, “yes” (Brown & Day, 2006; Cohen & Garcia, 2005; Cole, Matheson, & Anisman, 2007; Spencer, et al. 1999; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Given the literature, one might safely assume that if American Indian mascots are regarded as negative stereotypes then their psychological effects will also be negative. For example, activating negative stereotypes is associated with disengagement (Major et al., 1998; von Hipple, et al., 2005), lower self-esteem (Cohen & Garcia, 2005), and decreased aspirations for careers and leadership (Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005; Murphy, Steele, & Gross, 2007). Negative stereotypes are also associated with impaired performance in various domains. For example, when negative stereotypes are present in the classroom, students perform less well on tests (Cole et al., 2007; Good, Aronson, & Jayne, 2007), and when stereotypes are present in sports, athletic performance is compromised (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999; Stone & McWhinnie, 2008). Negative stereotypes even influence interpersonal relations. For example, Goff and colleagues found that when a negative stereotype was activated, European Americans sat further away from their minority conversation partner (Goff, Steele, & Davies, 2008).
She seems to have mastered the stereotype research, which is good. I'm less convinced by the study she conducted. Basically, she showed people a couple of stereotypical images and asked them to write the first words that came to mind. From that she extrapolated whether stereotypes affect people positively or negatively.
But my whole argument is that you can't consider stereotypes in isolation. First, the context matters. A chief on a pemmican package sends one message (traditional, wholesome). A chief on a sports logo sends another message (savage, warlike). A wooden chief sends a third message (stoic, dull). A chief monument sends a fourth message (past, gone).
You can look at any stereotype except the most racist ones and find something positive about it. For instance, consider an ad featuring a woman in a bikini. On the one hand, she's young, healthy, and attractive. On the other, she's treated as a sex object with no intellectual qualities.
Stereotypes have cumulative effect
Which leads to the second point: that stereotypes are a cumulative problem. One stereotype is unlikely to harm someone or influence someone's perceptions. It's only when you see the same stereotypes over and over that they begin to have an effect. People don't learn that Indians are primitive people of the past from the first movie or cartoon they see. They learn it from the hundredth or thousandth movie or cartoon.
Chief Wahoo, an image that Fryberg used in her study, proves my point. If you show it to a roomful of sports fans or average Americans, they won't necessarily see a problem. That's because they're used to seeing an endless parade of stereotypical Indians. One more doesn't trigger a negative response.
Now consider the practice of slavery. The pogroms against Jews. The slaughter of the buffalo. The torture at Abu Ghraib. Large numbers of people didn't think anything was wrong with these practices either.
You often have to tell or show people the problem with something before they understand it. You have to impose a paradigm shift on their thinking. I.e., slaves, Jews, buffaloes, and Arab suspects deserve life and liberty too. Without it, they'll continue not to think about things that are plainly wrong when you think about them.
So I'm not sure that Fryberg's conclusions are valid, even though they tend to support the case against mascots. I'd say the problem is worse than she makes it out to be. But read the study and decide for yourself.
For more on the subject, see Team Names and Mascots and The Harm of Native Stereotyping: Facts and Evidence.
Below: This might seem like a time-honored symbol of the Cleveland Indians, signifying tradition and success...
...unless you think about it.