March 31, 2013

Stereotypes influence kids' views of Natives

The Impact of Stereotyping on Young PeopleCanadian Cayuga actor Gary Farmer is most concerned with the effect of such portrayals on young Aboriginal people themselves. "Consider the impression left when they see themselves portrayed this way time and time again. It’s hard for them to have a positive image of themselves." Even Disney’s arguably positive portrayal of Pocahontas, Farmer says, "will have kids walking away with the stereotype of the 'sexual savage.'" It’s worth noting that Pocahontas’ appearance falls well within white mainstream media norms. In fact, her facial features were a composite of several non-Aboriginal models, one of whom was British fashion star Kate Moss.

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.
Comment:  Newspaper Rock readers have heard all this before, but it's still a good (re)statement of the problem. It focuses on the key problem: children who are ignorant and impressionable.

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.


Anonymous said...

The tough part is that it seems one exposure is enough to make a trope. I've met people who thought Indians all sold fireworks, mostly because of Adam Beach's role in Joe Dirt. (Also, the poorest of Hollywood's attempts to make someone look homely ever.)

Anonymous said...

I always heard that Irene Bedard (1/2 Inuit and most likely 1/4 or less NA)was the not just the voice of Pocahontas but the face model as well. I'm quite surprised to hear that Kate Moss somehow contributed to this Disney creation. I've never watched the movie because I'm not interested in some cutesy cartoon about an important Native historical figure.

Rob said...

Are you saying Bedard is 1/2 Inuit and another 1/4 Native American? That's confusing because Inuit counts as Native American. The most common formula is: American Indian + Alaska Native = Native American.

I heard the same thing you did: that Bedard was a model for Pocahontas's face. And I didn't hear the same thing you didn't hear: that Kate Moss was involved in the movie.