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African American Racial Images And Stereotypes Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4393 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Before black individuals entered the United States their image had already been constructed by white men. These stereotypes had a detrimental impact on black individuals as they have been faced with exaggerated images that have depicted them as inhumane and sexually lewd individuals.  Contemporarily, the media has helped perpetuate negative stereotypes on African Americans living in the United States. The images and pictorial stereotypes are seen in the past, as well as contemporary movies, TV shows and commercials, news broadcasts, comedy shows, music, etc. These negative depictions and portrayals of blacks have formed a racist society which still remains today. One would think that today, a century after the unjust era of slavery in our democracy, the stereotypical and racist images of African Americans would be extinguished. Instead, racism still exists in our societies and does so with strong and negative effects. Historical conditions of the past, including slavery and segregation, have shaped society as we view it today. Stereotypes of the past have streamed into today’s modern images and pictorial stereotypes. Today, one can see how mainstream media resorts back to old stereotypes. The many myths and ideologies of the past have remained with us and have been passed down generation after generation with the help of media. For instance, images of African Americans began with the Jezebel stereotype and that stereotype still continues today. The media perpetuates African Americans in negative connotations divided in dichotomous categories; they are either asexual or sexual. Other images include blacks as criminals, violent, and aggressive. These images, however, dispute reality yet have constituted, took over, and controlled the cognition of past and present generations. Throughout this paper, I will discuss African American stereotypes of the past and connect them to those of the present. I will discuss how ideologies of the past were meant to justify the negative treatment of African Americans which resulted in the expanding of stereotypes in media and their acceptance in society.

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The portrayal of race has been constructed through media and has been a mere process of selection [1] . This process of selection is one which can be seen throughout history that has come to build this idea of white supremacy and justification of inequality. The representation of others as inferior serves as a purpose in justifying the negative treatment of others and keeping whiteness as the ideal [2] . Not only do these pictorial stereotypes serve as a justification of unjust acts, they serve to construct and ensure white supremacy through the oppression and exploitation of others. Past as well as contemporary representations all trace back to the myths that were created to justify the inhumane conditions of the past, especially that of enslaving African Americans. Of course, after hundreds of years of being fed spoonfuls of this negative stereotypes and hatred, it eventually gets internalized and has a psychological impact on African Americans giving them a sense that they are hated and inferior which leads to feelings of anger and frustration.

Black individuals were brought to the United States for labor in the 17th century [3] . Upon arriving in the United States, their identity was already constructed by white men who traveled to Africa [4] . These Europeans were astonished to find women who were polygamist and semi-naked, when compared to the white puritan women [5] . At that point, the constructions of the monolithic categories of black individuals were created. Whiteness remained and was a result of the oppression of others. Individuals who associate themselves with groups that are being negatively depicted have internalized the stereotypes and are being fed inferiority, hatred, and frustration in a nation “built upon the exploitation of people of color to ensure white supremacy.” [6] The racialization and construction of different groups in different ways justified their treatment and status in society.

Jezebel Stereotype

Some of the more famous images of the past include: the Mammy and Sambo [7] . These portrayals of African Americans were brought about to justify slavery and to send out the messages that African Americans were actually happy slaves [8] , which I would consider to be an oxymoron. Mammies are depictions of African American women with exaggerated features. African American women were portrayed as unattractive and asexual Mammies. The Mammy is always brought about as an overweight female, with a big smile to show her ‘happiness’ as a slave, whom is obedient to her master [9] . Other features include big lips, a gap in between the teeth, bulging eyes, dark skin, etc. [10] 

The Mammie caricature helped serve white America both socially and economically. [11] The Mammie, depicted as happy and obedient to her master as a house servant, was meant to serve as a form of justification in solving the moral dilemma of slavery [12] . It also served as a way to boost the economy as it was used in advertising household goods such as baking powder, pancake mix, coffee, etc. [13] One of the more famous Mammies is Aunt Jemima, who is still seen today on the shelves of many stores. The image of Aunt Jemima was first portrayed by slave Nancy Green over a century ago [14] . Today, the image of Aunt Jemima is much different than past images as “she now has the appearance of an attractive maid.” [15] Aunt Jemima is just one of the many stereotypical images of the past that still exist in today’s society. This image is one example of how past images exist in modern forms. These images and messages have been in our society for a great period of time and continue to grow as part of our society, sending the same messages of the past into the present and future.

The image of Sambo, was used to send out a much different message. The Sambo expressed blacks as childlike and irresponsible [16] . It is complicated to imagine an individual happy as a slave, yet this was depicted in many different forms. Images of blacks with an exaggerated smile is one way this idea of happy slaves was expressed. This cultural image of the Sambo was meant to fantasize happy blacks in happy places in order to resolve the moral conflict of allowing slavery in a free and democratic society [17] . It sent out the message that African Americans were not normal, were inferior, and different from everyone else. The Sambo, another oxymoron, expressed the fantasy of happy blacks in their happy place as slaves. The depictions of the Sambo do not necessarily bring out the truth, as blacks do not have such features and were not happy as slaves. Yet these images were found appealing to society [18] , which leads to the assumption that they were of some value to the people.

As slavery came to an end, the extreme caricatures began to fade away in the 1960s [19] . However, an end to one aspect of pictorial images of stereotypes did not put an end to the continuous cycle of racism. Segregation led to new images of black individuals. Due to segregated public facilities, African American youth found nowhere to turn to for recreational activities, as such activities like boy scouts were for the white kids only [20] . As a result, African American youth began forming clubs as a source of recreation, acceptance, power, and competition [21] . Police and society however, began labeling these clubs as threatening and violent gangs [22] . Police brutality emerged to maintain order as an effect of this prejudice. These negative labels were internalized and as a result of police brutality against blacks, chaos emerged. The newly formed clubs rebelled against society as a way in bringing self worth upon themselves. They wanted to prove to others that they were not inferior by spreading feelings of pride and power within themselves. With this rebellion came even more violent acts of police brutality leading to violent mass protests and riots that came to construct these new stereotypes of blacks as the face of crime [23] . A new era rose within the media, it created a new image of black individuals which put an emphasis on the violence and brutality of blacks [24] . These new images had the same psychological impact on blacks, giving blacks a feeling of worthlessness, hate, frustration, and anger that they have come to internalize.

It also brings about the division of the black community into binary categories which are the old generation and the new generation. The old generation grew up internalizing the images of the Mammy and Sambo, which was viewed as faithful. Meanwhile, this new generation of blacks was looked at to be rebellious, violent, and aggressive. The image of a black man resisting arrest or being brutally and forcefully arrested by the white policeman is an image that is heavily repeated in media [25] . These new images, similar to the old images were portrayed through different streams of media including, but not limited to television shows and commercials, news broadcasts, movies, comedy shows, and music.

When looking at television shows, commercials, and news broadcasts, one can easily see how the African American race is depicted. TV has come to shape the American culture. The imagery brought out through TV has come to govern our cognition, behavior, and conception of life. The constant repetition of the stereotypical images on TV have come to define society. The bifurcated images of not only race, but also of gender, have constructed social expectations, roles, and rules of socialization. Media’s strict division of the black community has come to define this racial group in two: the wealthy vs. the poor. Media’s split images are opposite of reality yet are heavily depicted. This paragraph needs something..

Again, in the 1960s, the extreme caricatures started to fade, meanwhile the depiction of violent acts by blacks started to rise. Media reports on stories of race in very particular ways [26] , especially through news broadcasts. In cases where the suspect is of color or of a minority group, the media has had and continues to have the power to generalize an entire group based on this one individual. In many cases, like the Central Park Jogger [27] , where the suspect is on the run, the media throws out the assumption that the suspect is of color. When acts of violence are committed by a person of color, the media comes to generalize the entire group rather than report the story as an exceptional crime. However, in cases where the suspect is white, the media comes to categorize it as an unusual or extreme incident. Despite documented cases like that of white female teachers having sexual relations with underage males of color, the issue of race here is ignored [28] . Meanwhile, in cases when a white female accuses a black male of rape, the stories receive extreme exposure through media [29] . Love this idea..Provide proof Stories in which the victim is a person of color are more likely to be ignored, while those of white victims are emphasized with the assumption that the crime was committed by a person of color. These particular ways in reporting stories on race have cultivated fear in one race; praise in another. .

The exploitation of blacks can be traced back hundreds of years ago during the slavery era. Over a century ago the defining of African Americans as inferior was an effect of the many branches of the justification of racism. The exporting of African Americans from their homeland into a land where they would face enslavement was just the beginning. One cannot put enough emphasis on how unjust the era of slavery was, yet there were many ideologies that arose in hope to justify this act. One of which was depicting African Americans as chattel which came to produce about more images of blacks as jezebels, bucks, and breeder women [30] . After emancipation, the image of the black rapists emerged. This image was a result of southern whites’ fear of blacks’ promiscuity as a threat to the southern way of life [31] . Again, the idea of keeping white supremacy and womanhood formed this new myth of blacks as rapists and criminals; which as a result is still seen in today’s modern society.

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The many ideologies of blacks as savages, inferior, aggressive, threatening, etc. have all been expressed through the media. The negative images were meant to serve as a purpose in keeping blacks separate as they were labeled as an inferior and different race, lying in the middle of the spectrum as the link between humans and apes. Not only did the pictorial images of blacks project them as inferior and violent, but also as sexually promiscuous. Stereotypes of black sexuality developed through images in media that came to define gender expectations and roles.

I have plenty to add to this paragraph…plenty!! Y did I not add it yet…I will Shymama! The exploitation of black femininity was resulted through the depiction of black females’ hyper sexuality. Black females are sexually exploited through images that depict them as sexually promiscuous. Black female sexuality was constructed into popular songs and this type of sexuality was suggested as sexual service for money, power, and pleasure. Black women were depicted as sexual property and “the myth that it was impossible to rape a black woman because they were already promiscuous helped mask the sexual exploitation of black women by their owners…” [32] This ideology of black promiscuity in females was yet another form of evidence to justify racism. The racist notion that blacks were closer to animals than any other human race was another approach in exploiting one race in hope to praise white supremacy. The inhumane act of dehumanizing one race had a psychological effect on blacks in which they came to internalize the stereotypes. Furthermore, this act of dehumanizing was accepted by society and with this acceptance we can see why it continues to flourish into our daily lifestyle and culture.

As a result of the depiction of black female sexuality the development of the concept of the “bitch” versus the “freak” arose, which again was just another way in trying to justify these negative stereotypes. The term freak was used to express sexual deviance, sexuality outside the normal boundaries, and proximity close to animals while the term bitch was divided in two: the “Bitch” and the “bitch.” [33] The capitalization of the B in Bitch came to express an admired, strong, and tough female, while a “bitch” with a small “b” was the negative evaluation of the female [34] . These depictions served as forms in exploiting women yet have transformed into aspects of our daily social lives. These negative perceptions are expressed heavily in hip-hop and R&B music, comedy shows, etc.

In contemporary hip-hop and R&B music the terms bitch and freak are heavily used and have come to transform modern societal vocabulary. These terms have been used an overwhelming amount of times in modern music and media that we have almost come to take away from their negativity. The meanings of these words have transformed society as they are also being used by today’s African American hip-hop and R&B singers and rappers. These terms, along with the term ‘nigger,’ have been used among blacks as a term of positive endearment rather than the negative inception in which it emerged from [35] . This term, when used within the black community is used as a way to express family, brotherhood, sisterhood, acceptance, and love, almost trying to take away from the negativity in which it originated from. On contrast, when such terms come from a member of a different racial group, they are viewed as racist terms as their history is revealed yet again.

Not only has music had this effect on society, but so has comedy. Comedy does so by portraying these stereotypes as funny which leads to the assumption that they are acceptable. Stereotypes have been revolutionized as a part of our culture and “we participate in them even when we consciously reject them [36] .” African American comedians also express these stereotypes in their performances. Black Comedians like Kevin Hart, Chris Tucker, and Martin Lawrence are just a few of the many whom come to express stereotypes of both race and gender through comedy. As an audience, we participate in them by laughing, but we do recognize their wrongness. Yet by transforming these stereotypes into jokes, they are easily accepted. However, these stereotypes are destructive. They may be funny to the group that is not being portrayed negatively, yet for the group that these stereotypes are generalizing; they are internalized and have negative psychological effects.

Media’s redundancy of these images has resulted in society’s generalization of many ethnic groups. Minority groups are faced by these negative portrayals of themselves in media; these images get internalized as a result of the constant repetition. Why are these depictions still portrayed in a nation that strives for equality? The answer lies in the past. After hundreds of years of negative portrayals and oppression of minority groups, the concept transformed into a part of media. Representations in today’s societies are based on past ideologies that were created to justify the unjust conditions of the past [37] . Although the many negative contents of the past have faded, they still exist, but they do so in new forms.

Today, media continues to have special ways in reporting stories on race. However, many members of the audience tend to ignore these depictions as they have grown into our daily lifestyles due to their constant repetition in media. Media’s effect on society has come to negatively generalize one racial group as inferior with little power and low status in society. With that said, can we conclude that news media is credible? I believe in some cases we can, in others we must be careful as we can most definitely come to conclude that media deals with the issues of race through selection. The images of race are not completely ignored as the audience continues to realize racial differences in reports, yet with the constant repetition of the portrayals they are most definitely losing value. It is not surprising in today’s society to hear stories of a black male suspect on the lookout or any person of color. What is surprising is that these depictions are completely accepted by society. Very few come to question why one race is always associated with the same act and generalized by doing so. We simply come to accept it. The lack of analysis and critical thinking of this aspect results in the proliferation of these pictorial stereotypes and waves of racism that have been spread throughout the nation. It is a concept that if ignored will only continue to spread rapidly, having the same psychological effects that it has had in the past and continues to have today. It is simply a continuing cycle of cause and effect that has yet to be broken. Historical conditions of the past have everlasting effects on the present and will continue to do so for the future.

“Constructing race is a collective process and practice which produces a distinctive set of meanings [38] .” As a society we have constructed race. We began to categorize by race as a form of shorthand within the community: gender, race, religion, etc. We have come to associate both negative and positive ideas to the concept. The many symbols of race that we have outlined, including but not limited to skin color, language, origin, mannerisms, facial features, clothing (whether it be associated with religion or pop culture), class, etc., are what we look for to define or interpret race. We read these symbols and use them to construct stereotypes of others, and with the help of media these stereotypes spread like wildfire. They convey negative feelings to those who are being categorized; feelings of alienation, hostility, and worthlessness to name a few. Race is an illusion that we created and has been with us since the beginning of time. This illusion of race has led to the loss and/or denial of humanity to those of non-white ethnic groups. Because race was created so long ago and continues to live with us as a part of our society, it is hard to imagine a world without this illusion. Race is unavoidable. Media strengthens this statement with its pictorial images and stereotypes of race that have transformed our societies. This idea is seen everywhere, it is most heavily seen in the American society because of the many diverse cultures that make up the American culture. With that said, we can conclude that media is extremely powerful. Its depiction of race has come to form stereotypes that have had negative effects on society. 100 year old stereotypes still exist today in their new forms and are expressed through the different streams of media that have transformed today’s society. Race is a concept that was created by society’s illusions yet is has developed, transformed, and influenced our culture and continues to do so. We can come to the conclusion that history truly does repeat itself, and we can expect that our futures will hold the same racist notions that were held today, yesterday, and a century ago. It is a never ending cycle; unfortunate yet unavoidable.


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