Ethnic stereotyping and ageism

The post office box this week held an issue of the New Yorker which generated mixed feelings. Many New Yorker cartoons ( are funny because they skewer our fallacies and foibles using the stereotypes we all have about each other. Most of the stereotypes protrayed are of rich white folk.

This recent cartoon is funny because it reveals the biased attitude many employers have towards older workers. Unfortunately, the medium of expressing a worthy idea is based upon an ethnic stereotype which is problematic, at the best.

by Lee Lorenz

Hold it—we almost forgot his benefits package.” (Two eskimos sending a third out to sea on a small slab of ice.)

ID: 122851, Published in The New Yorker September 11, 2006,

The stereotype underlying the cartoon’s point about ageism is false. Recently we had a physician lie about just such a scenario, up north. People were quite hurt by the accusation.

JAMA falls foul of fabricated suicide story [JAMA is Journal of the American Medical Association]

by Deborah Josefson, San Francisco

An essay published in JAMA’s Piece of my Mind section, has stirred controversy after it was revealed that the events depicted in it were fictional.

The essay was written by a medical student, Shetal Shah, and appeared last October (JAMA 2000;284:1897-8). In his essay, Mr Shah described an encounter with a 97 year old Inuit [sic. Eskimo people live in Alaska and Inuit people live in Canada.] man, a toothless elderly member of the Siberian Yupik tribe, who, feeling useless, came to say goodbye to the young medical student before committing suicide by walking off into a frozen tundra in the morning fog.

In a letter to JAMA, Dr Michael Swenson, a physician with Norton Health Sound in Nome, Alaska, and Shah’s tutor during his elective, denied the existence of such a patient. Moreover, Dr Swenson charged that Mr Shah’s false account promulgates false stereotypes about the Inuit people and perpetuates ancient myths…. Dr Swenson said that he understood Mr Shah’s tweaking of events to make them more of a story but said that the account was entirely fictional and as such reflected more of our culture’s prejudices towards elderly people than those of the Siberian Yupik….

Read the story in the British Medical Journal, on-line here

I’m not sure there is any evidence for any such a scenario in the past, except maybe under extreme conditions of long ago.

Certainly, such a slur against a large group of US citizens should not have been printed in the New Yorker. As the response to the BMJ article said,

When will medical journals learn to leave anecdotes for Cosmopolitan and fictionalized accounts for the New Yorker? The author’s explanatory note is lame in the extreme. BMJ 2001;323:472 ( 1 September )

On the other hand, I am not as troubled by Sam Gross’ cartoon at the bottom, in part because he skewers every stereotype and in part because it highlights so well the predominant establishment attitude around here about caring and valuing older people.

This is 2006. We have no nursing home; we had an assisted living residence, which was never used as such. Another assisted living residence was promised to open September 2005. After several people inquired publicly, the health corp. finally announced it might open in 2008.

July 15, 2006, Assisted living home construction could begin soon

Construction on an Assisted Living Home in the YK Delta for elders and adults with disabilities may be just beyond the horizon.

“Establishing an assisted living home is important because we have an aging population in our region and we don’t have a facility where we can take care of them properly,” said Gene Peltola, CEO of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

Despite the fact that the elderly make up one of the fastest growing populations in the YK Delta, the region remains as the only area in Alaska that has no long-term assisted living facility.


by Danny Shanahan

“Remember, son, it’s never too early to start saving for retirement.” (Father talking to son as he pushes an elderly Eskimo out to sea on an ice floe.)

ID: 46757, Published in The New Yorker November 26, 2001,


by Christopher Weyant

“It’s your mother. She’s floated back.” (Two eskimos watch a third float back on his ice floe.)

ID: 122883, Published in The New Yorker September 18, 2006,

I have never appreciated mother-in-law jokes as they are inherently misogynist. The above is next week’s New Yorker take on Eskimos.


by Sam Gross

“Are you sure this ice floe is going to pass by the nursing home?” (Elderly Eskimo on ice floe shouts back to family who are waving good-bye.)

ID: 42864, Published in The New Yorker November 22, 1999,


Ann Fienup-Riordan, Ph.D. has explored Alaska Eskimo stereotypes and other portrayals in the movies—
Freeze Frame book jacket

“Freeze Frame, Alaska Eskimos in the Movies” by Ann Fienup-Riordan, Pub Date: August 2003,
ISBN:Paper: 0-295-98337-X

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2 Responses to “Ethnic stereotyping and ageism”

  1. 1 Rob Schmidt 2006 December 29 at 11:49 pm

    The recent Eskimo cartoon was a Stereotype of the Month contest entry at For a roundup of Eskimo stereotypes, see

  1. 1 « O’Folks Trackback on 2006 September 16 at 11:57 am
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