Native American Mascots: It Ain’t About Who is Offended

Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer, just published a piece in The Nation on the Washington, D.C. NFL club’s mascot. You know the one. The piece is worth a read. It is both passionate and thoughtful, which for me hits a real sweet spot.

Native American mascots must go. I’m all in, but this May 19th article by John Cox, Scott Clement, and Theresa Vargas, about a Washington Post (WaPo) opinion poll of 504 Native Americans should engender some thoughtful reflection by those of us who oppose Native American mascots. The poll, problematic in its own right, lays bare core weaknesses in how mascot opponents have framed the issue. Though I agree with Keeler in broad brush strokes, I think her analysis also displays some of those weaknesses. The most damaging is that, like many mascot opponents, she falls into the “personal offense” trap. Although taking offense is not trivial, it obscures a fundamental problem with Native American mascots: White supremacy. Native American mascots enact White supremacist ideology, which is unjust on its face, regardless of who takes offense to it.

Keeler’s critique of the poll doesn’t amount to much and manages to obscure a far more important point.

To be clear right up front, I am not Native American. So I’m definitely not here to “Redsplain” (if that’s a thing) Native American mascots to somebody who is. I am here to take Keeler’s points seriously and offer counters where I disagree. (At one time, we used the term “discourse” to describe this practice of responding to public statements.)

An important point on which I wholeheartedly agree with Keeler is that Native mascots do psychological harm to Native American people. (Peer-reviewed research establishes the effects.) In fact, I wish Keeler had simply chosen this point as the basic rejoinder to the WaPo poll. On this basis alone, school boards, state athletic associations, the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, and other amateur and professional sports leagues ought to choose to retire them. Removing these mascots harms no one. Perpetuating them does. Within the limits of social science, this is a pretty inescapable conclusion. This is why the American Psychological Association called for their retirement in 2005.

Unfortunately, Keeler leads with a criticism of the poll itself that obscures this more fundamental point. I have no idea about her background in survey/polling methods, since she does not reveal it in the column, but I have taught undergraduate and graduate research courses in marketing at the University of South Carolina for 13 years. I’d state with some confidence that most of her objections to WaPo’s sampling methods are quite minor. They are not necessarily wrong, but they do not explain away the poll’s results. Additionally, I can’t see, based on her column and my own reading of the poll, anything to justify the claim that WaPo allowed a narrative to drive a specific set of results.

Let me reiterate, the poll is problematic. And, I do not think we should interpret it’s results at face value. Sampling wasn’t the problem though.

So, let’s talk about problems with the poll and move on to what’s important.

From a methods standpoint, it’s a pretty orthodox poll; not problem-free, mind you, because no poll is. People far too often wish to invalidate poll results they don’t like by pointing out minor, insubstantial flaws. Every flaw is not fatal. For example, Keeler raises a legitimately interesting criticism of the sample’s high age relative to Native Americans nationally. The sample appears to skew older and more male. But even considering that, WaPo wouldn’t have to add many more young people to a 500 person sample (a reasonable size, so let’s not go there) to lower the median age. Adding a few more young people  would indeed lower the age, but seems very unlikely to substantially change the results.

With that out of the way, let’s get to what’s really wrong with the poll. The reported results are very much open to charges of “social desirability bias.” On matters that may be controversial, people often respond to survey/poll items in ways that are consistent with how they want others to perceive them. Just like in real life, we may lie or exaggerate so we don’t look bad. On polls, we may tell a pollster what we think s/he wants to hear. Or, we may respond in ways we think we are “supposed” to when that’s not how we really feel. Social desirability just happens. It’s not necessarily something the researcher creates with bad form. When researchers ask questions that tap into people’s experience of vulnerability social desirability is an obvious potential problem. People will always be highly motivated to guard against feeling vulnerable. As you might imagine, social desirability bias looms large in survey-based research on sensitive topics, like experience with racism (see linked abstract). Again, researchers don’t create the bias. Nor can they make its effects disappear entirely. They can, however, take steps to minimize its effects.

With that in mind, read the WaPo poll item that’s driving all the talk on this topic.

WaPo mascot poll

Now I’m not one to gossip, but I wouldn’t let one of my undergraduates send out this item (or any of the others) on such a sensitive topic worded this way. This poll doesn’t just fail to minimize social desirability bias, it practically begs for socially desirable responses. The Washington Post or their research agency basically called up 500 Native Americans and asked them, “Well, are you some kinda punk sissy or not? If you are, how badly have you personally been wounded by this cartoon figure?” I’m only being a wee bit tongue-in-cheek. That is NOT an unreasonable interpretation of the item, particularly from an older, male-heavy sample.

Academics probably worry about social desirability bias more than pollsters, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for pollsters. Ultimately, I feel comfortable saying the WaPo poll results are probably driven by desirability because they failed to do even the simplest things that would suggest any awareness of a (potential) problem. Frankly, to see near unanimity on ANY topic, much less a controversial one, really ought to have arched a lot of eyebrows at WaPo. Add to that, numerous statements from elected tribal councils and some other polling data. That kind of context suggests that the WaPo poll results don’t really deserve benefit of the doubt, not when the WaPo poll has zero–no–indirect items. That’s standard practice when social desirability may be a problem. Nope. Every question is about “you, personally.” Even WaPo admits to being surprised by the consistency of their results in Keeler’s column. Well, WaPo, I have an explanation for why your numbers look the way they do but doesn’t take them at face value. You can’t rule it out because you didn’t even try.

Even socially desirable responses can be meaningful. What do these mean? 

WaPo kinda sidesteps social desirability bias by adopting the language of anti-mascot activists to frame their questions. They are not wrong in this. It just doesn’t solve the problem. Nevertheless, this is where the anti-mascot crowd (mostly us liberals) need to own our contribution to this, and use it as an opportunity to grow and get better.

Liberals have helped frame the mascot issue around “personal offense,” largely, I think, as a way of avoiding any discussion of White supremacy. It is difficult to imagine a more disempowering way to frame the mascot issue than personal offense. It must be frustrating for someone doing their best to escape or manage the harm Native American mascots cause, however mild or severe, only to find that the language of those opposed to the practice almost completely mischaracterizes their dilemma. I can see why 90% of Native Americans polled flat out rejected “personal offense” language. And really, can you blame them? Time to move that to the dust bin.

Native American feelings are important, but not central. Injustice is.

The problem you (or anyone) should have with Native American mascots is the same problem you should have with me smacking you (or anyone) upside the head whenever I feel like it. It’s not complicated. My actions are ipso facto unjust. There is no moral or ethical principle that entitles me to take liberties with your person, or your extended self (which includes your stuff and your likeness). “Me and my friends don’t mean any harm. We’re just having a good time” does not entitle me to take such liberties. Any harm I cause you would be over and above that fundamental injustice, and it is the duty of clear-thinking people committed to justice to call on me to stop.

Unfortunately, the (American) cultural tendency to psychologize every blessed thing has caused many people to conflate matters of social justice with personal feelings. A consequence has been to obscure the fact that the White supremacist ideology that gave life to Native American mascots is fundamentally unjust. And as such, it is not subject to some “no harm, no foul” proviso. (If 90% are unwilling to admit to being personally offended then the mascots must be okay. Now, back to our war chants and chopping.)

As manifestations of White supremacy go, some undoubtedly have less capacity for harm than others, but they are all unjust. Some manifestations are ground into physical and social infrastructure. The injustices that stem from them are difficult to escape or undo. They are with us. Other manifestations are quite fleeting and ethereal. They are the unexpected smack upside the head. But sometimes these fleeting instances of White supremacy have opt-outs. People of goodwill can simply choose to opt out; to not smack someone else upside the head just because they wish to do so. If nothing else, the Native American mascot issue is an interesting look into who opts out and who doesn’t when given the chance.

 

 

 

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