Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Subtle stereotypes and their negative effects on targets

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Long before the movie Avatar, the filmmaker James Cameron captured the nation's imagination with The Terminator. By now, of course, the wonder of the premise has worn off-- but at the time, the notion that a machine would come from the future to destroy the mother of the leader of the Resistance was so deliciously mind-bending that it had people lining up for hours.

Being fourteen at the time, I of course went to see the movie with a group of friends my age. The group included a girl, Sophie, that I had a substantial crush on. We wore headbands and high tops and stonewashed jeans, the whole group blowing bubbles and giggling and oblivious to the scene we were making in the way that only pre-teens can be. I desperately wanted to impress and be considered part of this group.

I wanted, in short, to belong.

The movie, as advertised, blew us away, but as my friends poured out of the theater I was privately feeling deeply ashamed. The end of the movie, which you can see in this YouTube clip, ruined the whole thing for me. Linda Hamilton is driving down a Mexican highway and stops at a dusty gas station. She has a 30-second interaction with a scrawny Mexican boy, and in those brief moments we learn that he can barely speak Spanish (never mind English), that he hustles American tourists for money, and that his father beats him. My friends, of course, didn't think twice about this as they gushed about the film's killer ending. But I too was a scrawny Mexican boy, and the thought that I might be associated with those images -- by my friends!-- was mortifying. We all went out for ice cream afterward, I think, but in my mind I felt far away.

It's funny how small details that seem so unimportant to one person can have profound psychological implications for another. Commenters of that YouTube video absolutely love the ending; it captures their childhood. I have mentioned my reactions to this scene to other people who are not of Mexican descent, and although people nod, I can almost hear them saying, oh please. Relax, Amigo!

I understand this reaction-- as I write in this post, it's very hard for people to understand the most deeply felt experiences of others precisely because they haven't had these experiences themselves. But this memory comes back to me at odd moments, when I witness people using stereotypes offhandedly, without even an intent to offend. Like the scrawny boy in the Terminator, these images are generally part of a broader mosaic, and focusing on them can lead to accusations that one is overly sensitive and missing the larger point.

Take for example, this recent post on CNN by James Carville, political strategist and commentator. The larger point of his piece is about Rick Perry's political missteps, and the piece is written with Carville's usual candor and edge. However, Carville ends with the following line:

"the media is reporting that Perry is "retooling" his campaign. I think their problem is with the Indian, not the arrow."

While Carville's column made news in the political world (as intended), the Indian with the arrow got lost in the broader mosaic. As I read the piece, I wondered how many people of Native American descent who read Carville's column paused a little longer at this last image, with an uncomfortable feeling deep that even in this open political discourse, they were being marginalized.

Please. Relax, Chief!, I imagine some readers saying, It's just a saying. Perhaps, but these images have different effects on different people that we should be aware of. A group of researchers led by Stephanie Fryberg at the University of Arizona (Fryberg, Markus, Oyserman, and Stone, 2008) conducted a study in which they exposed Native American and White high schoolers to different types of images associated with Native Americans. Some of these images were explicitly negative stereotypes, and predictably the self-esteem of the Native American students who were exposed to these images suffered relative to the White students. But the surprising finding is that even images of Pocahontas and of Chief Wahoo (the mascot of the Washington Redskins), though benign on the surface, had a similar negative effect on the self-esteem of the Native American students. The key here is not whether the images are blatantly negative or seemingly benign (as, some argue, Pocahontas is). The key feature of the images, rather, is the lack of belonging that these images communicate. These images instigate a suspicion that one is not being seen as a whole person, but rather, as a partial, tainted, two-dimensional cartoon. And what cartoon can participate in the national debate about the next president?

Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.