New research suggests that Native American mascots — such as “Chief Illiniwek” at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign — can negatively impact students’ sense of belonging.
The study, which has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, also indicates that such mascots can have a harmful impact on financial donations.
“Teachers like me are sensitive to how things in and around campus can make members of the campus community feel more or less able to treat this learning environment as a place they can explore, fail, and grow. And in this regard, symbols that are central to campus culture and student life can have a sizeable negative impact on students if those images are harmful stereotypes, or if those images are racist,” said study author Michael Kraus of Yale University.
“I think Indigenous peoples experience this when they go to high schools and colleges and see mascots that reduce their cultures to caricatures, and I think those kinds of symbols can have a chilling effect on the learning environment on campuses. I was drawn to this particular study for that reason.”
“I was at the University of Illinois at the time, and despite their Native American mascot being officially discontinued in 2007, it was surprising to see the mascot on campus in 2013. The continued presence said something about the norms on campus, and what kinds of students feel safe and welcome there,” Kraus said.
In a survey of 201 students, the researchers found that those with lower levels of explicit prejudice toward Native Americans reported lower levels of belonging at the University of Illinois.
In other words, students who disagreed with statements such as “It is now unnecessary for the U.S. government to honor their treaty obligations to Native tribes” also tended to disagree with statements such as “I identify with the university” and “I show school spirit regularly.”
In addition, student with higher levels of explicit prejudice, as well as white students, were more likely to have positive views of the retired “Chief” mascot.
“Public and private institutions play a role in shaping who engages and belongs within them. So these institutions should take more responsibility to signal ‘this place is welcoming to different kinds of people,'” Kraus told PsyPost.
“This is particularly true for universities who have an explicit goal, often right on their masthead, to serve the people of the state of Illinois. If a group, like communities of Indigenous peoples have done for decades, says that institutional norms are expressions of prejudice, then the people who make decisions for the institution should take immediate steps to rectifying the situation by eliminating the prejudice.”
In two subsequent experiments, which included 883 participants in total, the researchers also found that people tended to be less willing to donate to a university after seeing stereotypic Native American imagery on the campus.
The experiments showed that stereotypic Native American imagery “reduced actual donations to the institution by 5.5%, and was particularly likely to decrease (increase) donations among those low (high) in prejudice,” the researchers wrote.
But like all research, the study includes some caveats. “Probably the biggest one is that we really only studied these dynamics at the University of Illinois, but we expect these norms to operate similarly everywhere. Someone, maybe us, needs to do that additional work,” Kraus said.
The study, “Dog whistle mascots: Native American mascots as normative expressions of prejudice“, was authored by Michael W. Kraus, Xanni Brown, and Hannah Swoboda.