Native American Mascots: Are We Asking The Right Questions? June 20, 2014  |  Chet



In my online life I encounter many people who are staunchly against or for the movement to change the Washington Redskins name and mascot.

“Politically correct BS” “word police” “would you call a Native American a ‘Redskin?’“ “Don’t they have bigger problems to deal with?” “Who cares?” “If you were naming a franchise today, would you even consider ‘Redskins’?” “They don’t even want the name changed!” “Who would name their team something they didn’t like?” and the list of comments goes on and on. And some of these responses to the controversy are valid, or at least are worth thinking about. But the question that never seems to come up is, “how does the name and mascot affect real people?” This question I believe cuts to the heart of all the other questions and arguments put forth by all sides.

The answer to that question has not been fully parsed out, but also hasn’t been ignored by the psychiatric and social science community. I’d like to look at other racial stereotypes and their effects on those cultures because unfortunately we have plenty to look back on, but one argument is that the term “redskin” is not a slur and can’t be compared to other racial epithets. I doubt I will be able to prove to some people that it is a slur, so that’s not what I am interested in doing. I want to understand how a mascot, any mascot, that depicts a group of people, affects peoples’ lives. This is what it all comes down to right? There are humans in our society who might be hurt by this, shouldn’t we look deeper into the science and try to find some factual evidence?

There have been a few studies that focus on Native American adolescents and the effect representations of Native Americans in popular culture have on psychological well-being, physical health, and educational attainment. Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology at The University of Arizona, conducted multiple studies and found “that it turns out that being exposed to any one of these mascots decreased achievement-related possible selves, so what it means is if they saw the Indian mascot, then any possible selves they had related to achievement in school were depressed.”

She also found that even young people who agreed with the mascots “actually have less community worth. And this was particularly interesting to us because you’d like to think that if you agree with it, you must think it’s good, but actually following the psychology literature, it turns out that when you disagree with the stereotype, there are psychological resources that buffer you from the effects of that image.” So just the act of defiance of the mascot helps shield a young Native American boy or girl from the effects of the representation of their culture, while agreeing with it allows the representation to do harm to them and their future selves.

That’s a scary proposition for those who revel in whatever polls they can find that say Native people like the name.

Another study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology called “Effect of Exposure to an American Indian Mascot on the Tendency to Stereotype a Different Minority Group” looked at stereotypes and how they affect those that aren’t being stereotyped. In the study they talked with students at the University of Illinois. Some participants were exposed to the Illinois mascot (at the time) Chief Illiniwek or a reading of a flattering historical portrayal of Chief Illiniwek from the university library, while others weren’t given any prompts related to the mascot. Then they were to answer questions about Asian Americans. The results provided evidence that when exposed to the American Indian icon or even the positive literature, participants were more willing to endorse stereotypes about a different racial minority group, in this case, Asian Americans.

Around this time the University of Illinois’ board of trustees had passed a resolution noting Chief Illiniwek’s status as a “treasured symbol” of the university, symbolizing “dignity, strength, intelligence, and grace.” Much like Washington Redskins team owner Dan Snyder speaks of his team’s name. Yet this study proved that, “even if the intention of the depiction may have been to honor and respect, the ramification of exposure to the portrayal is heightened stereotyping of racial minorities. . . The evidence suggests that the effects of these mascots have negative implications not just for American Indians, but for all consumers of the stereotype.”

Besides doing harm to Native Americans, the mascots also do harm to non-Native people. So the argument that this controversy is just spearheaded by a few radical voices falls short with me. Even if that were true, the evidence suggests that this is a real problem for real people. We can argue all we want about the origins of the word “Redskins” or take as many polls as we would like, but real, peer-reviewed science shows us that these mascots have a psychological impact on all of us to some degree. And these are just a couple of the studies done, there are more that show a similar impact, especially to young Native Americans.

Is that impact enough to sway those who want to keep the name? I have no clue, but these are the questions we should be investigating. All the rest feels like a lot of noise. A mascot represents something. It is a metaphor. It holds power that we don’t always see at the surface. Our job as a society and as fellow humans should be to investigate the symbols and metaphors we put out into the world and at least try to understand their layers of meaning and affect and use that knowledge to do as little harm as possible.





Works Cited

      Kim-Prieto, Chu, Lizabeth A. Goldstein, Sumie Okazaki, and Blake Kirschner. “Effect of Exposure to an American Indian Mascot on the Tendency to Stereotype a Different Minority Group.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 40.3 (2010): 534-53. Web.

Rooney, Jack. “Professor Affirms Effects of Indian Mascots // The Observer.” The Observer. 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 June 2014.

4 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    What about the harm to the fans who have emotional attachment to the name they grew up with, the economic harm to the business in terms of the cost to create a new brand, the economic harm to the fans that own very expensive gear with the old brand. Where are the studies that quantify these costs?

  2. John R says:

    Nice article Chet, I’m on fence on the subject for the fact it doesn’t really impact me directly although I do have a “small” amount of “American Indian” blood in me.

    But after reading this, I feel it goes past the “Redskin” name/disruption/logo.

    Without doing research, If the above is true we should also consider not calling them:
    Indians (I think we labeled them “Indians” when we crossed the big pond)
    American Indians (I think we also labeled them “American Indians” like we labeled them “redskins” when we crossed the big pond)

    If so, we should call them by there native tribe name to eliminate any negatives to them. and give them honor and respect.

    Unfortunately as Americans we like to group and label things. Good, bad, or indifferent.
    In the end, I’m not sure it will have a large impact one way or another? But I’m really not in their shoes.

    John R.

  3. BH says:

    Thank you, Chet. That was one of the best contributions to the debate over the use of the “Redskins” name I have encountered. People are so quick to jump to conclusions about issues in our society without even thinking to look for evidence to support their arguments.

    Before we make arguments on either side of the debate, let’s see what the empirical evidence shows. It sounds like the evidence suggests that the name “Redskins” (and the logo, potentially) causes real harm to a lot of people—not just hurting some hypersensitive person’s feelings. And what good offsets that harm?

    • Chet says:

      Thank you. Yes, I continue to see these studies cited in journals and some articles, but when the argument comes to Sports Center and their ilk, I never hear these issues raised. They are at least worth bringing up, but I think the dialogue is getting stuck in “is it racist?” Well, that’s a hard question to answer and never will be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. We’d rather call each other racists or liberal PC police instead of trying to really get into the real questions.

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