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Chief Wahoo’s Revenge: One Stereotype Begets Another

New research finds exposure to Native American mascots increases one’s tendency to stereotype a different ethnic group.
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When activists petition to remove Native American mascots from the logos of sports teams, the answer of traditionalists often boils down to: What’s the harm?

Newly published research provides an unexpected answer. It suggests exposure to one stereotype — however whimsical or benign in its intent — apparently activates others.

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.

The researchers decided to explore whether exposure to this sort of Native American imagery would increase stereotypical thinking regarding Asian Americans. That particular ethnic group was chosen because stereotypes about Asians are quite different from stereotypes about American Indians. If one evoked the other in spite of those differences, it would presumably mean a general tendency to stereotype had been activated.

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.

The second experiment was conducted at The College of New Jersey. The 161 participants were randomly assigned to read one of two short essays: A descriptive history of Chief Illiniwek taken from the U of I website, or a description of that same university’s arts center. Both essays “were complimentary and respectful in tone,” the researchers note.

Afterwards, the same test to measure anti-Asian American stereotyping was administered. “Participants who were assigned to the American Indian reading passage endorsed anti-Asian American stereotypes to a greater extent than did those in the control condition,” Kim-Prieto and her colleagues report.

Their conclusion: “One’s reliance on stereotypes appears to be heightened with increased exposure to stereotypes, regardless of whom the stereotype is portraying.”

In a 2002 paper in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, a group of scholars led by C. Richard King of Washington State University concluded “the stereotypes created by school and professional sports mascots carry over into the everyday lives of American Indians every day.”

This new research suggests their impact may in fact be far more wide-ranging. Decisions to phase out this imagery, including those made by the NCAA and, most recently, the Wisconsin state legislature, may have a greater positive effect than even their proponents realize.