06 July 2013


I didn't know whether to laugh or swear when I saw the headline ~ Christians Upset Over Depp's 'Tonto' Being Too Pagan in 'Lone Ranger' ~ referring of course to actor Johnny Depp's portrayal of the Comanche spirit warrior (see above) and ally to a nearly-slain Texas Ranger in the eponymous film 'The Lone Ranger'.  There is a deep and serious disconnect if conservative Christians are flailing at a fictional Native American character for not being sufficiently Christian.  Of course Tonto is a pagan, by definition.  Flip side, Christians who didn't believe in Native American ways were held to be infidels as well.  What's the problem?

The problem is stereotypes ~ "overarching assumptions that ascribe a specific set of characteristics to all people of a certain culture".  If you believe that all Southerners are racists, all Poles are stupid, all Jews are miserly, all Muslims are violent, all women are bitches, all liberals are anti-gun, or any of a hundred other sweeping generalizations which conveniently (and wrongly) assign a trait to someone based on their religion, race, gender, ethnicity, or membership in any demographic, then you are indulging in lazy thinking.  Stereotypes may be handy shorthand, but they are rarely accurate, and therefor are of little use.  They limit our view of others, reducing them to caricatures.

Coincidentally, I recently discovered a relevant article ~ Common Native American Stereotypes Debunked.  Shannon Ridgway brings up an interesting point ~ there are both negative (critical) and positive (idealizing) stereotypes.  While a certain trait may apply to individuals within a group, it doesn't define or apply to the entire group.  Further, it's likely that members of other groups share that trait.  We're all human.

To illustrate, here are several negative stereotypes about Native Americans ~

  • All Native Americans are alcoholics.
  • Native Americans are lazy.
  • All Native Americans live on reservations.
  • American Indians receive special benefits and privileges from the government.
  • Native Americans overreact to their likenesses being used in school celebrations or as team mascots.
And here are several positive stereotypes about Native Americans ~
  • Native Americans are spiritual and wise.
  • American Indians are animal lovers, tree huggers, and sun worshipers.
  • Native Americans are all dancers and story tellers.
Note that each trait may indeed apply to some American Indians, and may equally apply to some non-Indians.  But there are far too many exceptions to justify generalizing to the entire group.  

To flesh out your understanding, check out the article (it's not too long).  Bottom line, our reliance on stereotypes says more about us than it does about the complex, dimensional human beings to whom we're referring.  The author recommends that in order to move beyond stereotypes, it is useful to be honest with oneself, check the impulse to generalize, step outside one's comfort zone by learning about other cultures, and interrupt others when they stereotype.

Sounds like good advice.

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