New research shows how Native American mascots reinforce stereotypes

Dec 26, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) celebrates 22 yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Reed (86) against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports - RTX20565

For years, many have said that sports teams with Native American mascots – the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks and Florida State Seminoles, to name a few – perpetuate stereotypes against Native people. Others have argued that these mascots are harmless; if anything, they symbolize reverence and respect, while honoring the history of Native Americans.

At the epicenter of the debate have been the Washington Redskins, a football team worth nearly US$3 billion. But as the Redskins kicked off their season on Sept. 12, there was hardly a mention of the name controversy that has, in recent years, elicited boycotts, lawsuits and protests.

Perhaps it’s due to the Washington Post survey from last spring finding that 90 percent of the Native Americans polled weren’t offended by the Redskins name. Since then, defenders of the name – including team owner Daniel Snyder – have considered the controversy over and done with. The “sticks and stones” argument suggested by the poll makes complete sense from a self-preservation standpoint; after all, Native Americans have had to persevere through worse offenses than mascots.

But that stance ignores the dangerous possibility that such ethnic names and imagery affect how other people view Native Americans – possibly in subtle and damaging ways.

Our research has shown that incidental exposure to Native American sports mascots can reinforce stereotypes in people. Perhaps more disturbingly, people aren’t even aware that this subtle reinforcement is taking place.

How a name strengthens a bias

In our lab, we showed participants an unfamiliar mascot; some were shown a Native American image, while others were shown an image of an animal. We then measured how strongly all participants associated Native Americans with “warlike,” a stereotype leveraged by many sports teams that use Native mascots (“Braves,” “Warriors”). When asked directly, participants, regardless of the mascot they saw, reported no differences in how warlike they thought Native Americans were.

But when participants completed an indirect – or implicit – stereotype measure, those who’d viewed the Native American mascot were more likely to associate warlike qualities with Native Americans.

This difference in results represents something called implicit bias, which often takes place when asking people about socially sensitive subjects such as race or gender. Our participants were either unwilling to admit or unaware of the mascot’s influence on their views of Native Americans; their bias was implicit, either hidden or incognizant.

Implicit bias can influence decisions ranging from hiring practices to jury preferences and criminal sentencing. And it’s all the more pernicious because the people making these biased decisions are unlikely to be aware that they’re doing so.

Interestingly, the liberal participants in our studies were more affected by Native American mascots than were their conservative peers.

Because liberals often think of themselves as being less susceptible to racial bias, this might seem counterintuitive. But liberals also have been shown to have more malleable worldviews and be more open to new information. And in our study, we found a stereotypical mascot could significantly degrade liberals’ attitudes toward Native Americans.

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