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Stereotypes and symbolism: Images can Hurt

Editor,, May 2003


What do you think of white people?

It's a simple enough question. If you're white, as I am, you may have just experienced the intellectual equivalent of dead air. "There are all sorts", you might say. Indeed, Hitler was white. So was Thomas Jefferson. Mario Cuomo still is. Perhaps you don't hold stereotypes of your race.

Rest assured that people of other races may well have stereotypes of you.

A closer look

Stereotypes are powerful and omnipresent. They are part of how we judge others, which we do quickly. Race, gender, hair style - people may get one chance to make a good first impression, and perhaps not even that, because stereotypes may stand in the way. Let's look at a few examples.

There are myriad stereotypes of Black people in America. If you're old enough, you may remember the television character "J.J", played by comedian Jimmie Walker in the 1970's sitcom Good Times. A wise-cracking young Black man, he was criticized as "television's most visible young African American male, [yet] he was devoid of any signs of maturity or intelligence." (Cose).

It doesn't stop there. Stereotypes of Blacks include: arrogant, athletic, devious, dirty, dishonest, drug addicts, "having rhythm", incompetent, inferior, lazy, unintelligent, noisy, passive, poor, primitive, untrustworthy, and violent. (Shipler).

If you're Black, that's quite a lot to overcome if you meet someone holding on to those stereotypes.

It works both ways. Some of the stereotypes of white Americans include: assertive, cold, dishonest, evil, greedy, lacking athleticism, lacking rhythm, lusting for power, racist, untrustworthy, smart, and unclean. (Shipler). If you are white, as I am, consider that the next time you meet an African-American.

But stereotyping isn't a White/Black issue. Hispanic Americans are considered more likely than (non-Hispanic) whites to prefer welfare to employment, and to be lazy, violence-prone, unintelligent and unpatriotic. (Cose). Perhaps you've heard of "Asian overachievers", a reference to those who take the pursuit of excellence in their education too seriously - presumably by those who don't. Israeli Arabs sometimes consider Israeli Jews as dishonest - and vice versa - a mutual distrust extending to Russians vs. Georgians, Cambodians vs. Vietnamese, etc. (Shipler). And Americans are subjected to a barrage of images daily - cover photos of healthy, fit young men and women help sell magazines, after all. Normal people without the build, genes or workout regimen suffer in comparison - what is your first impression of someone you consider overweight?

Of course we're going somewhere with this. Native Americans face extraordinarily powerful stereotypes. One author sums it up this way:

Depictions of American Indians usually fall into two general categories.

The good Indian ... has a handsome physique, unusual stamina, and calm, dignified bearing. He is brave in combat, and devoted to his family ... he lives in harmony with nature.

The bad Indian is lazy and lecherous, a slippery-fingered thief ... he is constantly on the warpath to get revenge on his enemies. (Spindel).

Sources of stereotypes

Where do these images come from? For Black Americans, beliefs that they are dishonest, prone to steal, promiscuous and violent are "not new portraits. They date from the time of slavery." (Shipler). Television reinforces some of these images - consider "J.J." - but occasionally brings the counter example. The character of Theo in the 1980's Cosby Show "was a marked departure from the typical ghetto youth of the TV past." (Cose).

The mass media communicates "a particular group of visual stereotypes of womanhood and manhood ... that stand for not just gender ideals but also issues of what it means to be 'typically' American and what it takes to have status in American culture." (Shipler).

Native American stereotypes are well entrenched, and perpetuate the image of the Indian of over 100 years ago.

Generations of Wild West shows and Hollywood films created an iconographic Indian modeled on idealized versions of the craggy-featured Northern Plains warrior of the mid-nineteenth century." (Bordewich).

Further, Native American stereotypes have "been burned into the global consciousness by fifty years of mass media." (Pewewardy). Westerns still run on television, and of course there are still '50s cartoons playing that show warlike Indians. Native American CEOs, artists, architects ... just don't fit the picture.

Once in place, stereotypes tend to have a life of their own. "Many interactions between American Indians and non-Indians serve to affirm stereotypes because people are looking for information to confirm their stereotypes", write authors Poupart and Becker. "Non-Indians overlook an abundance of information and interactions that run counter to stereotypes and there is not really an interaction going on."

What if a major "source" of information is imagery such as Chief Illiniwek? His likeness is not limited to the football field, but extends to business storefronts, University licensed clothing, etc.

Stereotypes have power

Symbols, and the stereotypes that they represent, are powerful - perhaps deceptively so, for those who are not being stereotyped.

A symbol is "a single powerful image, a mark of visual shorthand that stands for a bundle of beliefs and ideas ... the cross for Christian belief, the American flag not only for our country but also for our feelings about it..." (Spindel).

For Black Americans, the television character "J.J." was powerful - and harmful. Co-star Esther Rolle on Good Times told Ebony that "I resent the imagery that says to Black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner saying "Dyn-o-mite!" (Cose).

What of the Chief?

Authors C. R. King and C. F. Springwood write:

"These Indian mascots conceptually freeze Native Americans, reducing them to rigid, flat renderings of their diverse cultures and histories."

"These kinds of images dehumanize and demonize Native Americans, constraining the ability of the non-Indian community to relate to Indians as contemporary, significant, and real human actors." (King and Springwood).

Not only does the Chief represent an archaic image of Native Americans, he helps lock that image in the minds of non-Indians. When you meet a Native American, perhaps you think of - the Chief?

This image also carries power and control over Native people, by changing the social environment around them. "Stereotyping and power are mutually reinforcing", writes Cornel Pewewardy, "because stereotyping itself exerts control, maintaining and justifying the status quo."

Such is the power and persistence of the non-Indian stereotype of Native Americans that historian Robert Berkhofer coined the phrase White Man's Indian - "the Indian of the Euro-American imagination." (Bordewich).

The future

Where do we go from here? Imagery such as the Chief helps keep us rooted in the past - the mid-nineteenth century past.

Celebrated musician Carlos Nakai: "What I do is primarily not related to a predisposition to reiterate what we were at one time but to look toward the future." (Nakai, 2003).

We must move on from symbols such as the Chief.

Only by abandoning many long-held, often lovingly-held, myths and fantasies ... will we become able to shape a healthy national policy for peoples whose real life is far more complex, and interesting, than our persistent fantasies." (Bordewich).

The Chief is rooted in the past. He is a symbol and powerful stereotype of Native American life in the mid 1800's. Continuing use of the Chief as a University of Illinois symbol perpetuates an outdated image which tends to place today's Native Americans in the distant past, and which reinforces that outdated image in the eyes of non-Indians.

It is time - actually, it is past time. Isn't it time to retire the Chief? •


Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the 20th Century. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Cose, Ellis. A Nation of Strangers: Prejudice, Politics and the Populating of America. New York: William Morrow and Company.

King, C. R., and C. F. Springwood, eds. Introduction, Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Landreth, Mary. Becoming the Indians: Fashioning Arkansas State University's Indians. In Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy, C. R. King and C. F. Springwood, eds., pp. 46-63. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Nakai, R. Carlos, quoted by Daniel Buckley. Native Peoples, April/May 2003.

Pewewardy, Cornel D. Educators and Mascots: Challenging Contradictions. In Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy, C. R. King and C. F. Springwood, eds., pp. 257-278. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Poupart, John, and Tracy Becker. Communication and Relationships Between Reservation American Indians and Non-Indians from Neighboring Communities. American Indian Research and Policy Institute, 1997.

Shipler, David K. A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1997.

Spindel, Carol. Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots. New York: New York University Press, 2000.