Sunday, November 04, 2007

Stereotypes, Children's Books, and the Mental Health and Well Being of ALL Children

Earlier this morning I listened to a speech (on the radio) given by a clinical psychologist to an audience in Indiana. He was there to talk about the mental health and well-being of children.

Right after he was introduced, he said something like "I'm glad to be here... Just for you, I'll put on my Cleveland Indians baseball cap." His remarks were greeted with laughter and applause.

I understand his gesture, an effort to connect with his audience, but that particular gesture indicated that he has not considered the effects of these mascots on American Indian people. It was especially troubling because, as I listened to his speech, he spoke of the need for mental health workers to become culturally competent so they are better prepared to serve diverse populations.

I can be cynical and label him a hypocrite, but I don't think he is a hypocrite. I think that he---like most Americans---has never critically looked at stereotypes of American Indians, nor has he considered the effect of those stereotypes on American Indian children.

The American Psychological Association, and the American Sociological Association, both issued statements calling for an end to the use of American Indian imagery in sports mascots.

The APA's statement reads, in part:

Self-esteem is an important ingredient in resiliency and positive mental health adjustment. It is important that a group does not feel compromised in this important area of psychological functioning, as impairment of self-esteem can contribute to negative behaviors such as substance use and abuse, self-harming, and interpersonal violence (Witko, 2005; Cook-Lynn, 2001; Coombs, 1997).

It also reads:

For American Indian people, whose history is not often portrayed accurately in public education systems, the stereotypes that mascots, symbols, images, and personalities portray become the norm and miseducate American Indians and non-American Indians about American Indian culture, society, and spirituality (Gone, 2002; Connolly, 2000; Moses, 1996; Churchill, 1994, Nuessel, 1994; Banks, 1993).

And here's part of the statement by the American Sociological Association:

WHEREAS the American Sociological Association recognizes that racial prejudice, stereotypes, individual discrimination and institutional discrimination are socially created phenomena that are harmful to Native Americans and other people of color;

WHEREAS the American Sociological Association is resolved to undertake scholarship, education, and action that helps to eradicate racism;

WHEREAS social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport reflect and reinforce misleading stereotypes of Native Americans in both past and contemporary times;

WHEREAS the stereotypes embedded in Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport undermine education about the lives of Native American peoples;

These statements are issued by professional associations, and both address stereotypes in the form of mascots. I think it necessary for we, as educators, to look at stereotypes of American Indians in children's books. They are rampant this month, in the children's books about Thanksgiving, in the lesson plans about "Pilgrims and Native Americans," in the bulletin boards teachers are putting up this month, and in the decorations going up in your local grocery stores.

It is easy to feel defensive if you're using stereotypical materials. It may feel like a personal attack on your decisions. Please know that I view us all as products of a society that "did this" to us all---not in an intentionally harmful way---but in an unthinking way. There is no one place to lay blame for this massive lack-of-knowing, and laying blame is not the purpose of my writing on this blog.

Instead, my purpose is to provide a different perspective on American Indians as taught by books, schools, and society. I ask you to set aside that book, or that lesson plan, or that bulletin board display, and provide your students with solid information about American Indians.

1 comment:

Tasha said...

I'm always trying to get teachers and school administrators to look carefully at their schools curriculum pertaining to Native American cultures. It seems to me to be an ongoing issue. I'm glad to see this blog and I will point it out to my daughter's new school!

Thanks again,