Here’s some amazing news by way of a scientific study that used exposure to “a Native American symbol” to prove that “[o]ne’s reliance on stereotypes appears to be heightened with increased exposure to stereotypes, regardless of whom the stereotype is portraying.” While highly questionable in its methods, the study nevertheless ends up making an airtight argument, proving that Cleveland’s own favorite Native American stereotype, Chief Wahoo, is actually worse than we already knew it was.
First, the problems with the study. Vince Grzegorek has the details at Scene:
A research team led by psychologist Chu Kim-Prieto of The College of New Jersey examined the way our brains react to seeing or reading about a Native American sports team mascot. It conducted two experiments using Chief Illiniwek, a mythical figure who served as the official symbol of University of Illinois athletics from the 1920s until 2007.
In the first study, conducted on the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus, 79 students selected at random filled out a 25-item “Scale of Anti-Asian American Stereotypes.” Participants rated on a one-to-five scale whether they agreed with such statements as “Asian Americans are motivated to obtain too much power in our society.”
For one-third of the survey takers, the questionnaire was pulled out of a folder decorated with stickers depicting Chief Illiniwek. For another third, the folder was festooned with the capital letter “I,” the alternate logo of U of I athletics. For the final third, the folder was blank.
The results: Those exposed to the image of the mascot, however peripherally, endorsed anti-Asian American stereotypes to a greater extent than those in the other two groups.
First, the quoted article describing the study (by Tom Jacobs in the Miller-McCune Journal) doesn’t reveal specifics as to the “greater extent” to which those who received their questionnaires in the Illiniwek folders were more likely to endorse the anti-Asian stereotypes. Without paying the $30 it would take to see for myself, it’s enough to note that we’re only talking about 79 people here, broken into three separate groups. So were there two more racists in the “exposed” group? Nine more? And how much more racist were they on average? Four percent more racist? Six percent?
But whatever the answers to these questions, the real problem with the study is that it doesn’t use exposure to a stereotype that’s necessarily or even at all harmful or disparaging.
Have a look for yourself at Chief Illiniwek.
A dignified representation of a Native American person wearing a traditional headdress. But a “stereotype”? Technically, sure. Just like this drawing of a horse.
Your stereotypical representation of a horse, and probably also a representation of a “stereotypical horse.” And if we replaced this horse with Chief Illiniwek in the same study and got the same results, we could conclude the same thing: “One’s reliance on stereotypes appears to be heightened with increased exposure to stereotypes, regardless of whom [or what] the stereotype is portraying.”
Now, of course, we might not have seen the same results with the horse as we did with Illiniwek. Maybe the same people who were racist after they saw the Illiniwek folder would have been less racist if the pony* would have been on the folder instead.
Which gets to another big problem with this study, which is that a better conclusion to draw from it might be this: People who see a picture of someone of another race are more inclined to remember how much they don’t like people of other races, and as a result might do worse on a racism test.
Or put another way: People who are exposed to a representation of a foreign culture are more likely to have any deep-seated discomfort with foreign cultures rise to the surface than people who aren’t similarly exposed.
From here we might assume that if an objectively offensive stereotype like Chief Wahoo had been used in this study instead of Illiniwek, that the results would have a lot different. On one hand, Wahoo tends to not remind folks of other people at all, and serves as a benign baseball alien cartoon. Folks for whom Wahoo triggers this reaction likely wouldn’t have had any discomfort with other races of humans triggered by exposure to Wahoo as might have happened if they saw the more realistic Illiniwek, and might have scored better on the racism test as a result. On the other hand, even a racist who understands that Wahoo is an objectively offensive sambo-image might raise his guard after seeing Wahoo on the folder and do better on the racism test for that reason. So on each hand, there are good reasons to conclude that the study turns out opposite results if Wahoo is used in Illiniwek’s place.
But back to the conclusion that the study did turn out: “One’s reliance on stereotypes appears to be heightened with increased exposure to stereotypes, regardless of whom the stereotype is portraying.”
So, again, if the average person sees someone else using stereotypes, he’ll think it’s more OK to use stereotypes himself. Monkey see, monkey do, like your grandma said. Science proves it. And for $30 you can see for yourself. But just because you might not have needed a scientific experiment to prove this fact, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be glad that scientific results like this can help folks answer questions like those raised by Grzegorek in his post:
Native American mascots and logos have long been the subject of much debate. Should schools and teams get rid of them? Are they racist? Does it really matter? Should a bunch of middle-aged white people get to make those decisions? What does it really hurt?
So, first, the easy one:
“Should a bunch of middle-aged white people get to make those decisions?”
Are “a bunch of middle-aged white people” responsible for the symbol existing in the first place and persisting to this day? Then, yes, absolutely a bunch of white people get to make those decisions. And not only do they “get” to, they probably sort of have to.
Now, the harder questions: Is Wahoo racist? Does it matter? And what does it really hurt?
If you’re going to ask these questions, you probably also have to ask: What did it hurt to have different restrooms for whites and blacks, anyway? What did it really hurt Rosa Parks to have to sit in the back of the bus?
Thankfully our study has already answered these questions by proving that if folks are exposed to treatment of one race as less than human, they’ll be more inclined to treat other races in the same way. So there’s only one question left. And while it might shock some that it’s actually still a question, we can only assume here in Cleveland that it is: So does Wahoo represent the treatment of a race of people as less than human?
We’ve tried to answer this question here before by pointing out facts like that animosity against Native Americans and racism in sportswriting were both prevalent in Cleveland when the Indians adopted their current name in 1915. That newspaper reports on the name change (available here) demonstrate (unsurprisingly in the wake of the Indian Wars, and 30+ years before Jackie Robinson) an obvious intent to reinforce the image of Natives as anachronistic savages, and that Wahoo was born out of all of this:
A January 17, 1915 report in the Cleveland Leader reported that “[i]n place of the Naps, we’ll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts.” The Plain Dealer of the same day included a cartoon titled “Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They’re Indians.” This cartoon . . . depicts, among other things, a frowning umpire scolding a Native American: “When you talk to me, talk English, you wukoig.” “Wukoig,” according to the Plain Dealer cartoon, is an “Indian” word.
Now consider that Chief Wahoo was created in 1947, that Sambo images were “common in all major American animation houses in the 30s and 40s,” and served largely to reinforce Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow etiquette.
More specifically, the images served to dehumanize “blacks and legitimized patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” by which blacks were “confined to menial jobs, denied entry into White schools, hassled when they tried to vote, crowded into ghettos, and routinely treated with disrespect.”
The images served this purpose simply by their exaggeration of certain features of the “other” race, with the specific purpose of emphasizing the “otherness,” thus reinforcing the idea that the “other” is something less than human:
Julius Lester, who has recently co-authored Sam and the Tigers, an updated Afrocentric version of [the book] Little Black Sambo, wrote:
When I read Little Black Sambo as a child, I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he. Even as I sit here and write the feelings of shame, embarrassment and hurt come back. And there was a bit of confusion because I liked the story and I especially liked all those pancakes, but the illustrations exaggerated the racial features society had made it clear to me represented my racial inferiority — the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips.
Now of course, if it was the 1940s, and you liked Jim Crow laws, or otherwise wanted to emphasize the superiority of some races over others, you might not have needed a scientific study to tell you that the popularization of the dehumanization of one race could only help with the dehumanization of another, or even all the rest. So at a time when sambo images were routinely used to portray blacks as “lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate buffoons,” what could it possibly hurt to give Chief Wahoo an enormous hooked nose, a foolish grin, and paint his face drunken fire-engine red?
Jim Crow might not have survived in tact, but at least otherwise intelligent people are still asking some really bad questions in defense of Jim Crow imagery. And if some otherwise intelligent people keep asking these questions, then other otherwise intelligent people will ask the same ones in even worse ways. Science proves it. Jim Crow might still have a chance, right here, in Cleveland.
*A lot of the material here, including most of the images, comes from Dr. David Pilgrim and Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum.