As designers, we must take responsibility for the visuals we create and how they may be perceived by our audience. I don't think we do this enough as we re-purpose imagery for our own intentions oftentimes disregarding cultural symbolism. Why is this a problem? Stereotypes are born from the oversimplification of a complex, multi-layered culture with ignorant imagery that grossly misrepresents the people of this culture and defames the culture itself.
While organizing through a collection of keepsakes I found an old patch I received after participating in a high school level soccer tournament in Floral Park, NY. As I enjoyed having this tactile memory in my grasp, I couldn't help but notice a logo in the center of the soccer ball-shaped patch: a profile of an American Indian. Floral Park Indians was one of the teams we had contended against during the tournament. Now I tried to give Floral Park the benefit of the doubt; Maybe they had a large First Nations community or were close to a reservation or perhaps the owner was American Indian.
Well, Google told me otherwise: according to the 2010 U.S. census, Floral Park's population of 15,863 was 87% White, 8.8% Hispanic or Latino, 6.9% Asian, 1.3% Black, and, drum roll please, 0.1% Native American. That's right, you heard me, 0.1%. How could a town with less than 20 American Indian residents feel entitled to use a logo with imagery that culturally (and inaccurately) represented only 16 out of 15,863 people? Based on demographics alone, Floral Park's use of the American Indian caricature was inappropriate and disrespectful to indigenous culture. As if matters couldn't get any worse, the athletic club continues to claim Indian heritage when a majority of those enrolled are White (FYI, just because you live somewhere that bears an indigenous name nearly barren of American Indians due to your ancestors displacing thousands does not justify stealing their culture). Just in case you were still wondering, this memorabilia hoarder threw that Floral Park Indians patch in the trash without hesitation.
This patch triggered some self-reflection and a jump start on spring cleaning: what other products, businesses, and organizations have I come into contact during my life that inappropriately use American Indian imagery? Were there any positive? My own soccer club was guilty of branding our uniforms with an emblem depicting an American Indian in a feather headdress— a restricted item reserved for the men of various Plains nations who earned the right to wear them (similar to a military award like the Purple Heart, reserved for U.S. Veterans killed or wounded in battle or a degree set aside for college graduates). The club felt entitled to this imagery because it was based in an area named after the displaced Wappinger, an Eastern Algonquian-speaking tribe from New York and Connecticut. Yet the Wappinger are inaccurately portrayed, donning an indigenous item that originated in the Interior Plains.
For past birthdays, I was gifted a neon pink dreamcatcher and "traditional" dreamcatchers in the form of necklaces and earrings. Based on an Ojibwe legend, the dreamcatcher is a Canadian-Indian tradition gradually adopted by neighboring nations, such as the Lakota, that grew in popularity among the indigenous community during the 1960's and 70's Pan-Indian Movement; eventually the Ojibwe item was appropriated and commercialized by the non-Native mainstream media, often abandoning the traditional form of the dreamcatcher. Although I could not learn more about the origins of my dreamcatchers, I don't have high hopes for their authenticity since dreamcatchers were originally hung in Native children's nurseries to ward off negative influences as opposed to being worn as a fashion accessory. Even my UGG moccasins, a trend that infiltrated my high school, were culpable of commercialized attempts to bootleg footwear historic to many indigenous peoples across North America.
Yet thanks to a diverse collection of historical characters portrayed by the American Girl brand, I was lucky to play with an American Girl doll named Kaya'aton'my who, accompanied by a book series, depicted a fictional Native American girl of the Nimíipuu or Nez Perce tribe. When designing the doll's mold, the company carefully researched Kaya's culture and chose to give her a closed mouth due to a Nimíipuu cultural taboo of baring teeth. Today, Kaya is still "marketed as the First American Girl, properly acknowledging that Native people were here in America before any European contact or settlements."
Misusing imagery studded with cultural inaccuracies can psychologically damage American Indian children. They grow up confined to stereotypes— i.e. the excessive drunk, the savage, the princess (oh yes, I'm talking about Pocahontas)— limiting their aspirations, lowering their self-esteem, and shaking their cultural pride. Stereotypes lead to discrimination in employment, housing, and credit due to society's warped, misinformed perception that American Indians are more prone to violence, alcoholism, and economic instability. In her legal paper "Straight Stealing: Towards an Indigenous System of Cultural Property Protection," Angela Riley states that "the appropriation of [indigenous] culture by the majority of society continues the systems of dominance and subordination that have been used to colonize, assimilate, and oppress indigenous groups." Appropriation encourages the dominant culture to forget that American Indians are modern people who still struggle with overcoming a history flooded with colonialist attempts to eradicate them and pillage their culture. Starting to sound familiar?
As a Black woman, I understand the harmful effects that result from the misuse of imagery crudely portraying Black culture. Images of the "Mammy" archetype are still used in today's media; you know her better as Aunt Jemima, the face of Quaker Oats Company of Chicago, or even the Pine-Sol Lady uttering her sassy one-liner, "That's the power of Pine-Sol, baby!" The Mammy was created to humanize slavery (acting in the interest of White people) and confine Black women to subservient, caretaker roles "mak[ing] it difficult for them to rise past oppressive structures in work, education or a number of other institutions." The Jezebel archetype, on the other hand, fetishizes Black female bodies, further defining us as sexual objects for the white and male gaze while serving as an excuse to sexually assault and abuse Black women. You may know her contemporary as the Video Vixen or Hip-Hop Honey. But don't forget about her predecessor Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman, a famous Khoikhoi woman exhibited as a European freak show attraction dubbed 'Hottentot Venus' during the 19th century.
We, as graphic designers, must stay vigilant about cultural misrepresentation that may hide within the imagery we use in our work. Stereotypes are perpetuated by the misuse of cultural imagery in advertising, branding, entertainment, fashion, sports, and so on. How do we fix this? Get educated. After researching a specific culture, wouldn't you be less inclined to re-purpose an image that you learned was historically used to oppress? So unless you are trying to make a piece with commentary about cultural stereotypes, proceed with caution and the utmost respect. Remember, our design choices can have grave consequences on not only your reputation as an ethical designer but the cultural sensitivity of your audience. With great wokeness comes great responsibility.