Impact of Offensive Mascots

New study shows continued use of stereotypical imagery has negative effect on charitable donations and inclusion at universities.

May 30, 2019
 

Colleges reluctant to end the use of Native American and other mascots deemed offensive often cite fears that getting rid of the icons could hurt fund-raising. But a new study shows that failing to phase out prejudicial mascots can have a negative impact on donations and students' feelings of belonging.

The study by researchers at the Yale University school of management focuses on an unnamed Midwestern university -- clearly referring to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- which officially ended the use of a stereotypical Native American mascot known as “the Chief” but had not replaced the mascot. The study showed that images of the mascot persisted in 50 percent of spaces on campus and more than 10 percent of clothing worn by students.

“The imagery is present on campus, and because of that you have the option and opportunity to purchase the imagery,” said Michael Kraus, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale. “When you don’t replace the mascot, what other imagery do you have to show your school spirit or link up to sporting events? Then it takes on a normative place in the community.”

The study of the persistence of the imagery was conducted by observing students and students’ clothing at various locations across campus, as well as examining results when searching campus athletics online. Another experiment in the study found that exposure to this imagery reduced feelings of belongingness among students, particularly students of color.

“More broadly, I think you could think of a mascot as sending a signal about what this place is going to be like and whether it’s going to be welcoming and whom it’s going to be welcoming to,” Kraus said. The failure to replace the mascot, and its continued presence on clothing, Kraus said, “sends a message to students that they are less central to the campus.”

Researchers in the study also found that exposure to the prejudicial imagery reduced the likelihood of an individual donating to that university by 5.5 percent. The study asked those surveyed to split a $2 donation among several universities, some after being exposed to the imagery of the Chief at Urbana-Champaign.

In 2006 the NCAA aggressively pursued changes to these mascots and images at universities across the country, instituting prohibitions on displaying “hostile or abusive” imagery. Since then, many universities have found new mascots. Those who pushed back against this shift often said the mascot played a role in the tradition of the university and changing could alienate donors.

Though the findings in the Yale study did not survey alumni or university donors, the reactions of residents in Illinois showed a potential for more donors should the university make larger efforts to reduce the stereotypical imagery. Research scales were used to determine an individual's explicit and implicit tendencies, and those who rated on the lower ends of a prejudicial scale were less likely to see the university favorably.

“From our data, we see that this decrease in donation is especially among people who are lower in prejudice,” said Xanni Brown, a Yale Ph.D. student and co-author of the study. “Perhaps changing these mascots changes who the sorts of people are who are contributing to the university.”

In the American Indian College Fund’s Declaration of Native Purpose in Higher Education, the group writes that several college campuses have mascots that “reinforce racism and white supremacy” and that evaluating this imagery is critical to creating a welcoming space at the university.

Kraus and Brown said creating new university symbolism and imagery in the wake of removing the stereotypical imagery creates a more inclusive environment, as the new imagery takes the place of the old.

“Practically, that means stopping selling clothing with this type of imagery on it and spending time getting investment from the community broadly and deciding what a new symbol and new mascot could be for the school and putting effort into putting it out there and getting people on board,” Brown said. “Symbols are powerful for these sorts of institutions, and you can pick a new one.”

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