Stereotypes are everywhere in today’s world, the worst are often harmful and inaccurate depictions of an entire group of people. Stereotypes are the belief that a group of things or people with particular characteristics, such as age or ethnicity, are all the same; a sort of cognitive shortcut that cultures make. These can range from how millennials are all lazy to demeaning racial slurs. Harmful stereotypes go further than just words and ideas, they can also be represented in visual imagery as well. These stereotypical images are at times clearly offensive, such as the

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Washington Redskins Logo

Washington Redskins name and logo, which has recently caused a huge uproar from both Native tribes and respected research organizations saying that sort of Native American imagery by sports teams is no longer acceptable. [1]

Sometimes, however, the use of racial stereotypes can be far more complicated. The box of Wild Rice, shown here, is rife with Native American stereotypes. Centered on the box is a cutout in the shape of a teepee, a cultural feature of the Native tribes of the Great Plains. The imagery on the front of the box depicts two Native men paddling a canoe

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Rice Boz, ca. 1995, paper, H: 6 in. x W: 4 in. x D: 1 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, Gift of Joel and Kate Kopp

in a lake, which are meant to represent the Manomin tribe who traditionally harvested the crop. One is wearing a tasseled coat, and both wearing feather headdresses. Near the top of the box is a stearn and wrinkled face of a Native American man wearing a feather in his hair. These images play into the stereotypes that the general public holds about Native Americans living simpler lives, but it also supports the false idea that Native American tribes are homogeneous and have no regional differences.

 

What makes the use of these images especially complicated, however, is that the company that produces this brand of rice, Grey Owl, is a Native American owned company. These stereotypical images are therefore being used by a group of Native peoples themselves to represent themselves. One possible reason is that for marketing their product, Grey Owl has decided to use the association of natural and organic, which this product is labeled as, with the idea of primitive nativism that popular culture often attributes to Native Americans. This, therefore, could be considered a co-opting of commonly held stereotypes about Native peoples by Native peoples to sell their own products.  These products use stereotypical images of Native men to market to a mostly female grocery-shopping audience, thereby reinforcing an additional stereotype of who the customers are.

Are stereotypes harmful even when those subjugated use them for their own benefit? Is the use of these images in marketing unnecessarily prolonging the life of the stereotypes? The answers are unclear, but either way, we as a culture need to be careful about how we use stereotypes, because eventually rather than seeing a collective of individual people all we will see is the stereotype, and that ignorance of individuality is something we must strive against.

[1] These include including the American Psychological Association, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People http://www.ncai.org/resources/ncai-publications/Ending_the_Legacy_of_Racism.pdf

 

 

 

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