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Studying stereotypes

UM research finds American Indian logos bolster biases

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It didn't take a psychology experiment to persuade University of Montana researcher Justin Angle that American Indian sports mascots are offensive. A comic strip that swapped the Cleveland Indians baseball team logo—the red-faced Chief Wahoo—with caricatures of other racial minorities did the trick.

But many people aren't convinced the logos are a problem. A recent poll of National Football League fans found only 25 percent believe the football team in Washington, D.C., should change its controversial name, which is considered a racial slur. Native terms and images continue to be used by Montana high schools as well.

However, a study Angle published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology is sure to give fans more to ponder. While most of the debate over American Indian mascots plays out in opinion pages, Angle wanted to vet the claims with hard evidence. The assistant professor of marketing figured if the imagery does shape how Americans perceive Native cultures, as mascot opponents argue, he should be able to measure it.

"The claim that these images, these brands, perpetuate negative stereotypes in the general population had never been tested," he says.

Using a mix of lab experiments and a field study, Angle's research yielded a sobering, if straightforward, result: the mascots do strengthen stereotypes about Native people.

Angle reached his conclusion using a type of psychology experiment that gauges the implicit, or unconscious, associations we all make. He found that participants who were first shown an American Indian chief logo, as opposed to a kangaroo logo, went on to more strongly link American Indians with "warlike" qualities. The pattern held true during a follow-up study of residents in Cleveland (the home of the Chief Wahoo logo) versus Detroit, a similar city where no professional sports teams use ethnic brands. All other factors equal, Cleveland residents saw American Indians as more "warlike" than did the Detroit residents.

On the other hand, Angle found the mascots do little to promote so-called "positive stereotypes" of Native Americans as noble or honorable, except when researchers added a related slogan beneath the logo.

A UM study published this month provides some of the first evidence that viewing sports logos of American Indian chiefs can strengthen stereotypes.
  • A UM study published this month provides some of the first evidence that viewing sports logos of American Indian chiefs can strengthen stereotypes.

Angle's findings don't surprise Jason Begay, a UM journalism professor and president of the Native American Journalists Association. Begay hasn't read his colleague's paper but says the research speaks to NAJA's longstanding concern about the damaging effects of mascot stereotypes that don't reflect contemporary Native societies. He thinks empirical evidence of the mascots' power could help advocates make the case for their removal.

"A big portion of the people who don't support it yet just don't see why it's a big deal," Begay says. "It seems trivial when you're not at the center of it."

The mascots don't appear to affect everyone equally, Angle also found. In fact, only participants who identified as politically liberal were influenced by the imagery—a somewhat ironic outcome given that the outcry against American Indian mascots is generally seen as a progressive cause. It's what Angle and his team expected, though, as existing research has shown that liberals' views are more easily changed than conservatives'.

Additionally, Angle's research suggests that some American Indian mascots are more potent than others. When Angle conducted a test of residents in Atlanta, where the Braves baseball team plays, he didn't find the same boost in stereotypes as in Cleveland and the lab. Angle thinks this could be because the Braves' current logo depicts a tomahawk, rather than a person.

Angle says more research is needed to understand what aspects of American Indian logos can trigger stereotypical views.

"If society doesn't have the will to get rid of these things," he says, "are there things that policymakers or the brands themselves can do to mitigate the effects?"

The question is particularly relevant in Montana, where several high schools have been forced to reckon with their mascots. In 2007, the Ronan School District, whose sports teams are named the Chiefs and Maidens, agreed to remove arrowhead imagery from its gym floor after a Montana Human Rights Bureau investigator found cause that Ronan was discriminatory in its use of American Indian imagery. Hot Springs soon followed suit, changing its team name from "Savages" to "Savage Heat" and replacing its dreamcatcher logo with a flaming "H."

In Kalispell, students at Flathead High School are known as the Braves and Bravettes. The school's primary logo is a spear, but online images also show use of an American Indian chief figure similar to the one used in Angle's study.

Asked about the possibility that the school's imagery could strengthen stereotypes, Flathead Superintendent Mark Flatau said the district would first have to take a thorough look at the research.

"If you certainly felt that was indeed the case, you'd certainly begin to have a dialogue," he says.

"Not to say that this is not something that may be worth pursuing," he adds. "At the same time, it's not like my door is getting knocked down because of that issue, by any means."

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