Chopping Away the Tomahawk Chop

The American media is a stealthy, powerful tool that shapes the way we perceive race.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As millions of avid American football fans turn on their televisions to watch playoff football, they’re likely to witness a crowd of Kansas City Chiefs fans dressed in red and white, striking their arms forward and backward with open palms. This movement is called the tomahawk chop, a cheer that represents using a tomahawk, a type of ax used by many Native American tribes to chop something down, in this case, the other team. The tomahawk chop is not exclusive to football. The Atlanta Braves, an MLB team, and other teams in sports such as rugby perform the tomahawk chop before each game. This tradition plants a racist stereotype of Native Americans in people’s minds and can be stopped with a change in how companies pick what sports and shows to air.

There has been a fight for change, specifically with the Chiefs, but it has gone unnoticed. Native American activists have spoken out against the Chiefs’ actions. “I find a tomahawk chop to be extremely insulting because it is essentially a cartoon stereotype version of what a Native American is,” Akwesasne Mohawk journalist and editor Vincent Schilling said in an e-mail interview.

The issue is that organizations are not acting on these calls for action and are instead deflecting the heat. The Chiefs have banned face paints and headgear that disrespect Native American culture, but they still haven’t done anything about the main issue, the chop. It is shown during every Chiefs home game, racking up millions of views across America and implanting racial stereotypes in the minds of many.

The embedding of racial stereotypes in media is not exclusive to national issues. It is pervasive in local news as well. A study published in the International Journal of Communication showed that the amount of local news watched correlates to one’s racial bias toward African Americans. During the study, 316 participants filled out a questionnaire regarding the amount of local news they consumed and took the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in which participants associate images of people with their races and words with their connotations. The study revealed that most people were able to sort faces faster when the same key was pressed to indicate positive word/white person (and the other key negative word/black person) than when the same key was pressed to indicate positive word/black person (and the other key negative word/white person). The test showed heavy correlation between IAT results and amount of local news consumed. These results are caused by the traditional media’s portrayal of African Americans as criminals and other negative stereotypes.

This issue isn’t limited to African Americans or Native Americans. It has also affected Asian Americans. In many shows, such as “Emily in Paris” and “Arrow,” Asian Americans are portrayed with stereotypical qualities, including poor child-parent relationships, inability to speak English well, “tiger” parenting, and kung fu mastery. In “Emily in Paris,” Mindy Chen, a woman from mainland China, doesn’t get along with her dad and speaks disparagingly about Chinese people being mean to others. In “Arrow,” the group of martial arts experts is all Asian, reinforcing the stereotype of Asians as kung fu masters. This depiction of stereotypes on television affects how minorities are perceived in the real world. People have assumed that my mom is a stereotypical tiger mom without having met her and have also asked me questions like, “where are you from?” and “what language do you speak?”

In order to prevent these biases from continuing to dominate media, companies need to hire more people of color in executive and decision-making roles. This change will allow people who better understand the importance of the situation to take control and have some say about messages broadcasted to the American audience.

The media that we present to the public is crucial if we want to change how we perceive the topic of race. It all starts with who receives power, not just pestering organizations such as the Chiefs to change their racist ways. If big television companies lead the way by hiring more people of color into important positions, it will pave the way for an America that is not poisoned by stereotypes.