August 03, 2008

How stereotypes affect real people

Nambe educator Debbie Reese writes about her and her daughter Liz's experiences with Native stereotypes:

Contesting Ideology in Children's Book ReviewingSince her birth, Liz has taken part in traditional spiritual ceremonies and strongly identifies with her Pueblo heritage. When she was three, we moved to Champaign, Illinois, to work on our graduate degrees. In Champaign, we were among a handful of Native American people living there. In preschool, Liz saw children "play Indian" on the school playground as they chased each other, calling out war whoops. One day, she said to her classmates that she would be Pocahontas in their dramatic play (this was shortly after Disney released the animated film), but they told her that she could not be a real Native American because "your skin isn't dark and your hair isn't black." Liz did not fit their conceptual understanding of what an Indian looks like.And:In our first two years in Illinois encounters with stereotypes in and out of preschool caused Liz intense discomfort. Her teacher talked of her "tantrums" at preschool, an indicator that Liz was not "ready" for kindergarten. This teacher was unable to see the connection between what she described as "tantrums" with the reality that, often, Liz was forced to assert and defend her identity as a Native American. The "play Indian" activities Liz witnessed in school and the stereotypical images of Native Americans in other contexts used to make her feel angry and hurt.And:As I began to write and share what I was learning with others, I began to receive invitations from local teachers who invited me to visit their elementary school classrooms to talk with their students about Native American culture. These classroom visits provided me with an excellent opportunity to assess children's understandings and concepts of Native American people. As noted earlier, these schools are located in a part of Illinois where the Native American population is extremely small. Consequently, most children do not have the opportunity to interact with Native people in the context of their daily life experiences. During these visits, children make such comments as: "How did you get here? Do you have a car?" "Yes. A red one!" "But Indians don't have cars. They have horses."

These comments reflect the stereotyped images of Native Americans in picture books, television programs, movies, and other commercial institutions that use Native American symbolism to promote their products. Taken together, these images are powerful enough to suggest to children that a Native American in the 1990s should look, behave, and live just as the stereotyped images look, behave, and live. These images are so powerful and long-lasting, that an intelligent college senior in journalism told me he was "blown away" when he first met a Native person, because "He was just a guy! And he was wearing a baseball cap! And his skin wasn't even red!"
Comment:  As you may recall, I wrote about the "Indians ride horses" stereotype in Students Can't Overcome Stereotypes. Someone spent a lot of time contradicting me, saying it was natural to think a modern Indian might ride a horse to a library in the middle of town. I'm glad to see that Reese, a knowledgeable Indian educator, probably would agree with me. Whenever a child says Indians ride horses, it's probably a result of stereotyping, not the child's experience with Indians riding horses.

For more on the subject, see The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence.

Again, a real Indian:

And an imagined Indian:

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