Can A Mascot Really Cause Psychological Harm? The Oneida Nation says the Washington Redskins' name isn't just offensive, but also psychologically harmful to Native Americans. Host Michel Martin sorts through the research with psychologist Michael Friedman, NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam and Native American dad Wilson Pipestem.

Can A Mascot Really Cause Psychological Harm?

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. You might know that November is Native American Heritage Month. And as with other heritage months, that's the time of the year when we acknowledge the culture and traditions of people of Native American heritage. And that's what the owners and defenders of sports teams and mascots with Native American or faux Native names say they're trying to do.

Now that issue has gotten a lot of attention in particular in recent days and months because of the name of the Washington professional football team, the Redskins. Native Americans and others say the name is a racial slur, and it should be changed. Now whatever you think of the name, you might be wondering how all is this is a parenting issue. Well, a recent report commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation suggests that the mascot may actually be causing psychological harm to Native American children. We wanted to hear more about this research, so we called the author of that research report to tell us more. His name is Michael Friedman. He's a psychologist in private practice - also, a dad. Welcome, Dr. Friedman. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL FRIEDMAN: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

MARTIN: And for additional insights, we've also called NPR's science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. His reporting focuses on social science and human behavior. He's also a dad. Shankar, thank you so much for joining us once again.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: And for additional insights, Wilson Pipestem is with us. He is a member of the Bear Clan of the Otoe-Missouria tribe. He's a dad of four. He's also an attorney who works on tribal issues, and he's been speaking about this. Mr. Pipestem, thank you so much for joining us as well.

WILSON PIPESTEM: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's focus on the science of this first. Michael Friedman, you can understand where a lot of people would say, how do you measure such a thing? So tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the research.

FRIEDMAN: Sure. There have been two bodies of research that have supported the idea that the Washington mascot is in fact harmful to Native Amercians, particularly Native American children. A series of studies show that if Native Americans are shown images of stereotypical Native American mascots, that a variety of effects occur. Self-esteem goes down. Belief in community goes down. Belief in achievement goes down, and mood goes down. And these effects are primarily among Native American adolescents. Similarly, if someone who's non-Native American sees an image - a stereotypical image of a Native American mascot, their associations with their thoughts about the Native American community also gets worse. So whoever you are, if you see these images, your beliefs about Native Americans get worse.

MARTIN: You also wrote in your report that the Washington mascot - and we've already said the name, so I don't feel the need to keep repeating it - that you're saying it's uniquely destructive because it not only perpetuates this stereotypical and outdated caricature portrayed by many Native American mascots, but it also promotes and justifies the use of a dictionary-defined racial slur. Why do you feel that that's particularly significant?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, just to show you, comparatively, the Native American population is the only group of people that's forced to tolerate this kind of dictionary-defined racial slur as the mascot of a prominent sports team. And when you think about what this means - the use of a racial slur, the possibility of offense, the other things that go along with this kind of discriminatory behavior - well, then we can look at research saying, well, what are the effects of discriminatory behavior in the Native American community?

And the effects are very clear that this kind of discriminatory behavior is associated with and predicts negative affect, higher levels of depression among Native American children. It predicts more aggressive feelings over time. It predicts higher levels of alcohol use over time. And it's associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior. All of those three things are among the worst mental health issues that are plaguing the Native American community.

MARTIN: Wilson Pipestem, your family lived in the Washington, D.C. area until recently. And I understand that a lot of your children's friends were fans of the team and would wear shirts and even, you know, faux regalia to school, you know, at times to show school spirit. What did you talk to your kids about this? What did your kids come home and say, and what did you say to them?

PIPESTEM: Yes, I've got four children, two boys that are 12 and 10 and two daughters that are 7 and 4. And one day at the dinner table, my oldest son, Truman, said that kids at school are wearing these Washington football jerseys and other wear. And he was troubled by it. He didn't say exactly why he was concerned, but he clearly raised it because he was concerned. And my second son, Parrish, said, I know. He reaffirmed what his older brother said about this. It was before a game, and my second son said, are they making fun of us, dad? And I said, well, we need to sit down and talk about this. And so we did.

And, you know, it's hard when you have taught your children who are - our children are very involved in the traditional and ceremonial life of our tribes. And we've taught them that our creator have given us eagle feathers as a way to pray, that our clan, we have different things that we can and cannot do associated with - because of who we are and because we're members of a clan and that ceremonial uses of paint have meaning. And these are all good things, and they make us - it's good to be an Indian person. And so when they see things that seem to them different, they were troubled by it. And, you know, my wife and I try to teach them that sometimes this sort of ignorance is not meant to be personal to you. It's just there are these things in society sometimes that are part of the institutions that are just not right, and one day they'll change.

MARTIN: Shankar, could you talk a little bit more about the research? I mean, as a person who's - a lot of your reporting focuses on the formation of stereotypes and what we understand about social sciences and how it can help us understand human behavior. Could you talk a little bit more about this research?

VEDANTAM: Sure, Michel. I think the research is especially compelling because it helps us, I think, get past what's been a constant refrain in the debate of these mascots, which is, one side says, look, we're offended. The other side says, look, we don't mean to give any offense. And you end up with a sort of he said-she said battle of opinions. And I think what the social science research has been very powerful at doing is actually saying, let's get beyond the opinions, and let's look at what the data says. Let's look at what the data say. And the data seem to show, at a fairly general level, that there is a disconnect between how people think about these issues consciously and how they think about them unconsciously. So that you can have very positive views about a team mascot like the Redskins, and say - and genuinely and sincerely say - that you are supportive of the team and supported of the mascot and think of the mascot in positive ways, while at an unconscious level, the mascot could be having negative effects on you and on the people who are hearing you talk about those terms.

And so I think this disconnect between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind is a theme that comes up repeatedly when we talk about stereotypes, which is, serotypes essentially are a way of simplifying the world. So regardless of whether they are positive or negative, they're a way of simplifying the world and reducing it to something that's very simple. So when you think about all these Native American mascots, you know, you don't have Native American mascots for the chess team or the astrophysics club. You have them only for the sports teams. And so one of the consequences, I think, of these stereotypes is that they reduce the Native American experience to a very narrow window of what it is to be a Native American. And that's happening now without intentional - you know, anyone intentional - wanting to cause harm. It's not being driven, necessarily, by intentional hatred or animosity. But the consequences of course could be just as real.

MARTIN: So would the analogy be for another ethnic group, for example, for people - for kids to go to school and have their classmates show up in blackface, for example, and claim that that was celebratory or laudatory?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think right now, of course, that would be unthinkable for that to happen in this day and age. I would hope that it would be unthinkable in this day and age for that to happen, but yes. I mean, I think you can give harm or you can cause harm without necessarily intending harm. I think there's another dimension here that's really important that a lot of these teams miss, which is that when you're a sports team, you're going to invite criticism and anger from opponents of your team.

So if you were to call yourself, for example, you know - I don't know - if you called yourself the Philadelphia Eagles, right, it's routine when the Philadelphia Eagles play another team for the supporters of the other team to say we hate the Eagles. So if you're a player now for the Washington Redskins and you're going to play a game against the Vikings, Viking's fans can say we hate the Redskins. Now if you're a Native American child, how do you hear that? You hear people saying, on the one hand, we think of Redskins as being a positive term, but you hear fans of opposing teams say we hate the Redskins, and that's OK.

MARTIN: Mr. Pipestem, did you have that experience, particularly when you lived in the Washington area? And the team is so ubiquitous and references to the team are so ubiquitous, did you hear that? And did you - and forgive me for making your kids a research study - but did you sense distress?

PIPESTEM: You know, I never did until they actually brought it up at the dinner table. And maybe I had just assumed that everything was OK with them, but fortunately, my kids were able to articulate that there was a concern. They weren't quite sure what it was that was bothering them, but they did raise it as a concern. So it did lead for a conversation with our whole family. And so they, I think, had a way to process it before it ended up in fights or maybe bullying or some sort of confrontation.

MARTIN: Can I ask each of you about this question? A 2004 poll by Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 9 percent of Native Americans found the name offensive. What do you - I'd like to ask each of you what you make of that. And Mr. Pipestem, I'll start with you, and then Dr. Friedman, I'd like to hear from you as well.

PIPESTEM: I think that's ridiculous. That poll is clearly a poll that was meant to have a certain outcome. Indians in this country are tribal people. Across the country, the National Congress of American Indians, our tribal leaders have all identified this as a problem for many years. So the fact that they can find some individuals who will self-identify as American-Indian to say they're untroubled, to me...

MARTIN: You don't believe it.

PIPESTEM: ...Leaves that without any credibility at all.

MARTIN: Michael Friedman, what's your response to that?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, it's been brought in the media numerous methodological concerns about that, not to mention the fact that it was a decade ago. But the real - I think one of the real things to understand is that the results that I described about the viewing of Native American images happened even if the images are deemed unoffensive or they're even deemed positive because that's how powerful the effect of stereotyping is.

The comparison - and when you look at the research, it goes way beyond polls. We have tons of research showing that this is harmful. The comparison I made in the press conferences is to say this would be the equivalent of if the American Medical Association came out and said concussions happen among football players. They are harmful and they're damaging. And the NFL or the Washington's organization's response was to say, well, we took polls and people said that they weren't bothered by this, so game on. It's a complete disregard for the science, and I think it's a complete disregard for the issue.

MARTIN: You know what, Shankar, one of the things I found fascinating in Dr. Friedman's report where he, again, aggregates a lot of the already known research around this issue, not just pertaining to Native Americans but also other ethnic groups, and the effect of stereotyping is that even when individuals reported a positive association with a stereotypical image, there was a subsequent negative affect - depression of, like, their self-esteem and so forth. I found that fascinating. Why might that be?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I think the interesting thing, Michel, as we often - we have sort of a conventional view of prejudice, which basically says that we need to have prejudiced expressed with animosity. It has to be expressed with negative intent for it to have negative consequences. And I think what this research literature is painting broadly is that you actually don't need to have negative intent to have negative consequences. And in some ways, you could even have positive intent.

You want to convey a very positive image, but it could still have a negative - it could have negative consequences. Now I should say, Michel, that, you know, the studies are, you know, they're relatively small in terms of what the sample sizes. So this is not sort of hugely definitive in terms of being rock-solid science. But I think there's a consistent pattern that seems to suggest that the use of these mascots seems to have negative effects on the people who are hearing them and on the people who are using them and saying terms like the Redskins.

MARTIN: Now we've been focusing on the science, as we understand it, from these reports - the research that Dr. Friedman has aggregated and also reports that, Shankar, that you have dug into. I would like to, though, spend just a couple of minutes that we have left on sort of the politics of this question. And, Mr. Pipestem, if you don't mind, you've worked on a number of tribal issues as an attorney. I mean, so you hear the defenders of the name say - on the one hand - it's tradition and so forth. The other thing that they say is that, well, don't Native Americans have more important things to worry about than this? You know, their issues of high rates of poverty, high rates of alcohol addiction, you know, high rates of suicide. Those are more pressing concerns. What would you say to people who say, well, you know, this might be a problem but there are bigger problems?

PIPESTEM: You know, there are enormous problems in Indian country, and that doesn't mean that this is the highest priority. It's just the one that's in front of us right now that has grabbed the public's attentions, and it's absolutely wrong. It is a black and white wrong in my view and a view of, I believe, Native America generally. And so it is the issue in front of us, and so it is a fight worth fighting and it's right now.

MARTIN: Michael Friedman, what about you? You actually make a connection to those other issues. Can you explain that a little bit.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think there's two responses to that. One is, that yes, there are very serious issues going on in the Native American community that require attention, but it even shows more the power of the studies that I report on, which is that even above - you know, the studies that I describe are usually on Native American reservations where some of these issues are occurring, and these issues still have an effect. Seeing a Native American mascot still has an effect on self-esteem. Discrimination still predicts depression. Alcohol is associated with suicide.

So the first thing I would say is that's a factually wrong statement to say, well, this doesn't matter because we know that it does matter. But the second thing that I think is even more important is this is a false dichotomy. For what group of people are you given the option of saying, well, we're going to work on important issues such as alcohol, depression, or we're going to stop people using a racial slur? I mean, you would never hear that with any other group of people. And I think it shows you the depths of the discrimination against Native Americans in this country, that people would even make that comparison.

MARTIN: Shankar, any thoughts about this?

VEDANTAM: You know, I think Dr. Friedman's right. I mean, we don't say cancer's a serious issue so we shouldn't worry about diabetes, right? I mean, we just don't do that for many issues. And I think what's certainly true - and I think fans of these sports teams themselves would agree - was if you were naming those sports teams today, it's extremely unlikely that you would pick those mascots and those names, and that in itself should tell you something.

MARTIN: It's also - you were also making the point to us early that it's extremely unlikely that you would walk up to a person and address that person directly if you had any common sense or manners by that term. So why then wouldn't it be in sort of common courtesy. Well, again, this is a - all of you sort of have a particular point of view on this. We are aware that there are other people who have very strongly held views on the other side of the equation, which I think have been well aired. So if I could give you, Mr. Pipestem, the final word here. What would you want other parents to think about when they think about this issue?

PIPESTEM: Well, I would just ask them to think about the impacts that your values or not thinking about this could have on native children. They're, again, I think in 99 percent of the cases, this is not intentional. But this institution, you're now being confronted by the truth of this name and what it means and its history. And so just ask them to consider not perpetuating it.

MARTIN: Wilson Pipestem is a member of the Bear Clan of the Otoe-Missouria tribe. He's an attorney. He works on tribal issues. He's a dad of four. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Shankar Vedantam, NPR science correspondent, also a dad. Michael Friedman's a psychologist. He's author of the report, "The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot." It was commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation. It was presented to the NFL by them at a recent meeting. And he's also a dad. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR New York. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

FRIEDMAN: Thanks, Michel.

PIPESTEM: Thank you.

VEDANTAM: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. And you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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