Skip to main content

‘Redskins’ may have psychological impact beyond Native Americans

WASHINGTON – At the home base of the controversially-named Washington Redskins football team, a new study on possible widespread harms resulting from stereotypes of Native Americans is drawing reactions.

The study, published by Chu Kim-Prieto, a psychologist with the College of New Jersey, suggests stereotyping of American Indians is a psychological process that actually encourages a broader attitude that affects all minority communities, not just the ones being actively stereotyped.

“In other words, my stereotype is your stereotype, too,” Jenn Fang, an Asian American advocate, summarized in a recent blog post regarding the study.

Kim-Prieto said she began the research when she was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, which until 2007 featured the infamous Chief Illiniwek mascot. Like the Washington Redskins, many Native Americans decried the Illinois mascot, saying it degraded their culture, and was a racist misrepresentation.

The researcher conducted her experiment through two separate studies, in which she showed students either a picture of Chief Illiniwek, or a generic University of Illinois logo. Next, students were given a questionnaire asking them to rank their agreement with statements regarding Asian American stereotypes.

The findings indicated that students who first viewed stereotypical images of Chief Illiniwek were more willing to promote stereotypical statements about Asian Americans. The same was true of students who read a fictional biography of Chief Illiniwek, compared to students who read a generic description of an arts center.

“We usually think about racism as something that’s motivated by racial hatred of a targeted ethnic group,” Fang blogged about the findings. “Instead, this study tells us that even exposure to racial stereotypes appears to encourage an overall more black-and-white (pardon the pun) outlook on the world – even against unrelated groups.”

While Kim-Prieto didn’t research whether the same effects might result from the Washington Redskins team name and logo, she said her findings indicated that similar stereotyping problems could arise from the situation.

A variety of psychological scholars have already offered expert opinions on the harmfulness of the Redskins’ name and logo. And historians and legal experts have noted that the word “redskins” was historically used by the U.S. government as a way to refer to bounties it placed on scalped Indian heads.

“Social science research shows that the use of ethnic slurs like ‘redskin’ perpetuates harmful stereotypes and leads to discrimination,” the authors of a legal brief supporting opponents of the name wrote in an opinion to the Supreme Court last fall.

Psychology scholars, hailing from top institutions nationwide, added in the brief that the effects of American Indian sports mascots are especially harmful to Native youth, tending to lower the self-esteem of Indian children and young adults. They cited studies showing that exposure to Indian sports mascots depress the self-esteem and feelings of community worth and limit the aspirations of Native high school and college students.

Kim-Prieto’s new work on the matter has caught the attention of Philip Mause, a lawyer for a group of Indian plaintiffs suing to get the Redskins’ trademark revoked.

“We are happy to see psychologists doing important work that confirms our argument that these stereotypes are harmful,” said Mause, of the Drinker Biddle firm.

“I think it should be clear to the Redskins’ owners, based on this kind of research, that they are going to be facing litigation from a variety of people for a long, long time. Simply put, they should just change the name.”

Top policy makers, some whom have offered legislation against stereotypical representations of Native Americans, are also paying credence to the new psychological research.

“I think it is more important than ever to address and eliminate derogatory stereotypes of Native Americans, which often includes their portrayal as school mascots,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., after learning of the study.

“I agree that stereotyping Native Americans as mascots for example makes it more acceptable to apply stereotypes in other situations. I continue to pursue support for my legislation and the elimination of derogatory stereotyping of Native Americans.”

Pallone introduced a bill before the House of Representatives last November that would identify derogatory mascots in schools and create a grant program to assist in changing offensive images. It’s called the NATIVE Act.

Fang, meanwhile, sees a way for minorities to unite over the findings of the study.

“What more evidence do we need that in combating racism, coalition-building between minority communities is not only beneficial, but necessary?” she asked in a recent blog post.

“For too long, we’ve approached the struggle to end the racism (or other -isms) that we face as an individual battle. We’ve seen plenty of examples of divisive in-fighting that pits one minority group against another – as if we’re competing to prove which of us is ‘most oppressed.’ But here’s convincing data to demonstrate that we’re all up against the same problem. Despite all ideas to the contrary, we’re really all in this anti-racism boat together.”