Anyone who understands or studies the social development of children and young people knows that attitudes, values and self-esteem are well developed by the mid-teen years, or even earlier. What young people see and hear in the media helps them to figure out how the world works and who and what is valued in our society.
If the media’s take on Aboriginal people is interpreted at face value, then kids are growing up with a biased vision of what it means to be part of a First Peoples society. If they get their impressions from the news, they’ll likely view Aboriginal people as a negative force. And if their impressions come from films and TV programs, they’ll learn to think of Aboriginal people as inferior (passive, aggressive or drunk) or simply as non-entities, obliterated by omission.
When young Aboriginal people read the newspaper or turn on the TV, how often do they see their own life experiences reflected? Almost never, says Children Now, the U.S. research organization that analyzed the presence of Native American children on TV in 1999, and conducted focus groups with children from 20 tribes. Furthermore, they contend, those children have learned to associate positive attributes with white television characters, and negative attributes with non-white characters.
"The media have a lot of power to endorse stereotypes," says Susan Swan, an Ojibway from the Lake Manitoba First Nation. "We go into First Nations communities to talk to youth about gangs. When asked, the kids estimate that about 95 per cent of Aboriginal youth is involved in gangs. The actual number is three per cent. Why do they think these numbers are so high? It’s because this is what they get from television and newspapers."
The popular media are "cool" in the eyes of most kids. If the existence and value of a group of people is not affirmed by inclusion in media information and entertainment, the message is clear—they’re not important. In Aboriginal communities, this can contribute to, as one community sociologist calls it, "learned helplessness, alienation and a sense of having no control."
In Canada, new sensitivities and support for cultural diversity have brought some positive changes. Aboriginal children are periodically featured or interviewed in children’s after-school television, the National Film Board has made films for years that document current First Nations life, the CBC has broadcast many successful dramas that focus on Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal entertainers have been "going mainstream" for two decades. (See Aboriginal Expression in the Arts and Media.) These measures, along with the establishment of Aboriginal television and radio networks, all contribute to a more balanced view and more diverse voices.
Practically speaking, though, these voices still represent only a small proportion of the popular media that kids consume today. The evening news, the "Indian" images in sports-culture hype, the products of the Disney empire, and the misrepresentation (and non-representation) of Aboriginal people in most mainstream media—all continue to influence kids’ views of Aboriginal cultures and peoples.
Who cares if an adult is sophisticated enough to shrug off a "whooping savage" cartoon or a "redskins" or "squaw" insult? A more important question is how it affects kids. Native kids who are forming their self-impressions and are sensitive to outside opinions, and non-Native kids who are learning what to think about Indians.
The research says that stereotypes can and do affect young minds. Until you can counter that research, don't bother arguing that stereotypes are harmless. You don't have a leg to stand on.
For more on the harm of Native stereotyping, see Indians Testify About Negative Images and Long-Term Effects of Stereotyping.