Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 08, 2019

What Happens when the Mascot is Racist?

by Michael W. Kraus
Sad dejected sports team lion mascot laments on bleachers

According to a recent count, more than 2,000 mascots across the United States depict harmful stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. How these mascots shape campus life is a topic of debate on many college and high school campuses throughout America. To examine how current norms surrounding Indigenous peoples on campus shape students’ feelings of belonging and engagement, Xanni Brown, Hannah Swoboda, and I conducted research on the effects of the mascot at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

As a faculty member at UIUC from 2012-2015, my most memorable exposure to the norms surrounding the communication of the university’s relationship with Indigenous peoples was at a basketball game where the former university mascot, Chief Illiniwek, appeared in what seemed, to the naïve observer, like an official university capacity during breaks in the game action. This was surprising to me because UIUC had decommissioned the mascot in 2007 based on pressure from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The Chief, as he is known on campus, is talked about as a symbol of respect and honor for Indigenous tribes of Illinois, but this positive impression is not shared by the majority of Indigenous peoples who report that these mascots depict harmful, racist, and inaccurate stereotypes of their cultures and traditions. In our research, we were interested in understanding how the decommissioned mascot’s presence on campus influences engagement and belonging among students and the public.

In our first study, we examined whether the Chief mascot really was still a part of campus life.  We conducted field observations on the UIUC campus, watching students as they walked through busy parts of campus, exercised, or studied in large lecture halls. We found that the decommissioned mascot was present on the apparel of students in 50% of the campus spaces observed, and on 10% of the UIUC branded apparel. We also found that more than 70% of the students wearing the decommissioned mascot were White as categorized by our observation team. When we conducted an image search online, we found that the decommissioned mascot appeared in 5% of image searches directed toward UIUC.  These data indicate that, despite its decommissioned status, the Chief mascot still has a prominent presence on campus.

Next we examined the effects of the Chief mascot on students’ feelings of belonging at the university. We expected that the common presence of racist images of Indigenous peoples would communicate to the broader student body that such prejudice belongs at the center of campus, and as such, students who are high in prejudice would feel a greater sense of belonging there. In a sample of 201 UIUC students, we found support for this prediction: Students higher in prejudice in general, and toward Indigenous peoples in particular, tended to feel a greater sense of belonging on campus than students lower in prejudice. NonWhite UIUC students also felt less belonging relative to their White counterparts.

We then tested whether the images of the Chief mascot actually affected how students felt at the university.  We conducted two experiments to examine the impact of exposure to these racist images of Indigenous peoples on feelings of belonging and actual financial donations to UIUC. Participants in these studies were shown images of life on campus that included students who were wearing apparel depicting the decommissioned mascot or wearing apparel without the Chief’s image.  We then assessed participants’ expectation that they would belong on the campus and asked participants whether they wanted to donate a portion of a $2.00 bonus that they received in the study to UIUC.  Seeing the pictures of the decommissioned mascot reduced donations by 5.5% across the studies and, again, increased belonging for participants higher in prejudice toward Indigenous peoples.

For students, faculty, and administrators on college campuses across the country, these results provide a clearer understanding of how campus symbols communicate who belongs on campus and who does not. Given that racially-motivated hate crimes are increasing in America, perhaps this is a good time for universities to pay more attention to their role in creating norms and policies that reflect the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion that are expressed in their educational missions. Our research suggests that, in the case of UIUC, that policy might involve finally replacing the mascot.

For Further Reading:

Kraus, M. W., Brown, X., & Swoboda, H. (2019). Dog whistle mascots: Stereotypic Native American mascots as normative expressions of prejudice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 84, 103810.

Estimates of Native Mascots:

Hate crime statistics:

Indigenous peoples on mascots:

Also, a special issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology focused on social norms:


Michael Kraus is a social psychologist who studies societal inequality. He is an Assistant Professor of Organizations and Management at Yale University.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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