“We don’t need no more rappers,
we don’t need no more basketball players,
no more football players,
we need more thinkers.”
Images of black people in today’s society are vast, or rather, vastly stereotypical. Thugs. Ignorant. Criminals. Crack feins. Drug dealers. Athletes. Entertainers. But why? Why are black people perceived this way? Popular culture representations of Black people and culture are generally negative and misleading. Ultimately, these inaccurate depictions of an entire culture clout society’s view of the Black community. This blog will cover how and why black stereotypes are perpetuated throughout popular culture and how they will affect future generations.
In the popular BET show, Being Mary Jane, the depiction of Black life and more specifically, maybe, one Black woman’s life portrayed by the main character Mary Jane. She is a single black woman in America more focused on her career than a domestic life and too busy with work for a successful love life. In all actuality she is not too busy but rather busies herself to keep from realizing that she’s falling into the stigma of the “angry single Black woman.” Mary Jane’s executive producer, Kara, makes a bold statement: “be Black at home, but the minute you walk out that door, be American” (Kara, Being Mary Jane). This statement summarizes the general attitude towards the decisions that the Black community are faced with. While this idea would be nice, even desirable for some, it is illogical and impossible.
When I walk out of my front door I am black. I cannot hide my melanin, not that I want to, but I don’t have that choice. None of us do. Regardless of what society wants to think, I am judged first by the color of my skin, and everything else comes after. Even if it’s done subconsciously, we likely all do it. It’s human instinct, and a normal process experienced by every human being. No matter your race, or the color of your skin, this is one aspect of ourselves we cannot conceal. So, I think it’s important that our society doesn’t make us feel like we have something to conceal based on skin color, or even how we choose to identify ourselves. Yes, other identities are discriminated against based on sexual orientation or religious affiliation.
Throughout popular culture, the Black community is associated with violence, materialism, and perhaps most infamously, the objectification of women (Balkaran 1999; Ruffner-Ceaser 2012; West 1993). Various forms of popular culture communicate these same negative ideas.
In his article, “Rethinking Mass Communication” James Curran states the connection between negative racial stereotypes and the media:
“A considerable body of evidence suggests that ethnic minorities are liable to be presented in the media as a problem or threat; they are often featured in association with crime or conflict; and that racial conflicts and disadvantage tend not to be contextualized in terms of their causes” (p. 135).
These types of depictions of the Black community communicate a sense of inferiority reinforcing such “ negative ideas, behaviors, attitudes and opinions about racial minorities that ultimately support real relations of racial inequality” (A. Nama, “More Symbol than Substance”).
Despite the abundance of the detrimental influence of “negative stereotypes on the developmental experiences of Black adolescents, positive Black media images also exist” (Allen & Thornton,“Social structural factors,”; Berry, “Black family life”).
Tyler Perry is one of many Black actors and producers that works to put an end to the misconceptions of the Black community. All of his shows and movies feature a predominantly Black cast and depict real life Black experiences. Through his work like , he demonstrates that Black people are not just the entertainers, athletes, or comedians that we are portrayed to be in mainstream media. Instead, he casts Black people in normal roles bringing them back to reality and emphasizes that we can do more than entertain.
Unfortunately, these images are far and few in mainstream media “compared with the appearance of negative stereotype characters” (Ward, “Wading Through the Stereotypes”). In other words, the bad outweighs the good. The minimal effort put forth from the media to try and override the harmful effects of these stigmatizing stereotypes is too insignificant and limited to be successful.
This picture represents a myriad of ideas. The first that comes to mind, for me, is the posture that many of us in the Black community must put on while outside the comfort of our homes. In school or at the workplace it’s now considered normal or even appropriate to put on a sort of act in order to be taken seriously. Many of the Black community have dubbed it “Black checking” or “acting White.” Mainstream T.V. shows, and memes like this suggest that when you act pursuant to your culture (if you are a minority) that you are acting inappropriately, and this puts you at a disadvantage.
Ideas like this are disrespectful and insulting and further continue the plight of minorities in American culture. But what is worse is this idea that the Black community has instilled in us: to be better means “acting white.” To be better should simply mean to do and strive for more. But centuries of feelings of inferiority placed upon our community has made us believe that we are not as good, not as pretty, or not as successful. This must end so that the youth can feel equal to their peers regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.
In the movie, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, the main character, “Ashtray,” is portrayed as an innocent young black male forced to move into the hood with his family for financial reasons. His cousin, “Loc Dog,” is a stereotypical gangster who both sells and does drugs. He also owns multiple guns and uses them routinely, shooting up his family’s house and waving his gun around at all times for no apparent reason (other than that he’s Black and poor). There is a scene where two Asian convenient store owners display extreme racism against the two cousins: following them through the store and telling them to get out. This is happening all while conveniently ignoring the shoplifting white customers. This is another stereotype that is comprised of popular misconceptions that are harmful to minorities. Instead of seeing that both Asians and Blacks are misrepresented minorities in America, they are used against each other resulting in Black and Brown alienation and separation.
Another scene takes place at a neighborhood cookout. There’s an ex convict and his baby’s mother. The ex con is a stereotypical uneducated black man that lacks respect and morals. His baby’s mother has about seven kids each with different fathers. She is seen as a sex symbol throughout the movie and uses this to her benefit. Even though she’s pregnant, she is still seen drinking and smoking throughout the movie, stating that all her other kids turned out just fine without her having to change her lifestyle. She uses her children as pawns to receive financial assistance from the government and random men in her life.
Though the movie was made for entertainment purposes, this is the classic reputation of a young black male in America today: a menace to society. The idea of black people being uneducated, selling drugs and making unplanned babies is misconstrued and feeble. Another aspect of black culture that has been taken advantage of is the phenomenon of Black children not knowing their fathers. I found it very revealing that this famously applauded film was created and produced by Black people and featured an almost entire Black cast. Yet, throughout the movie they trivialize these stereotypes that have been plaguing the Black community for decades. These common outdated stereotypes are perpetuated by the Black community and then exploited by other cultures to put them into a derogatory light. This movie made me realize that an intended innocent exploitation of a group of people for entertainment purposes can turn into a lasting stigma of an entire community.
Throughout the course of my research I discovered the concept of stigmatizing stereotypes and how this affects a society. So, how are Black stereotypes perpetuated throughout popular culture? Well, aside from mainstream T.V., music, and social media, the Black community may play a larger role than we think in the continuing of these stereotypes. I found it interesting that many of the common stereotypes or misconceptions of Black people are perpetuated by the Black society. It’s not that this is a new finding for me, rather I found it interesting because before we look elsewhere we must first look at ourselves when pointing complete blame or pointing out flaws in the system.
Maybe pointing blame is the wrong course of action, perhaps recognizing and adapting to these conditions is a better strategy. A whole is only as good as the sum of its parts. This idea of Black people being poorly depicted in popular culture began by putting a monetary value on a human life: slavery. But, this creation of inferiority and separateness must now find its end. Unfortunately, no matter how, why, or by whom the stereotypes are started, they are negatively perpetuated throughout popular culture, these perceptions cause the accomplishments of the Black community to go unnoticed, and even perhaps erased. We can only successfully extinguish these plaguing stereotypes by first identifying and recognizing them as a problem rather than exploiting them for monetary advancements. Instead, we should work towards the acceptance and approval of all identities and give them a place in society that we all deserve.
Tupac’s Keep Ya Head Up, talks about the idea of a common plight for a young Black male: selling drugs, running the streets, and ending up in prison. Hip hop is commonly used as an outlet for the youth to connect and voice their ideas. He used his music to communicate to the youth that we are the future of society and its in our power to change society’s standards to fit our wants and needs. With the mistreatment of women, abuse of drugs, and desire to grow up too fast, he describes a story that is all too familiar to the Black community. He discussed the belief of Black people being set up to fail by society through drugs, alcohol, and economic status. He scrutinizes the perception of black society being thrown into this relentless cycle of dead end trials and tribulations. Throughout his lyrics he spoke as the voice of reason for his people and offered a way out.
With his role in music and his strides to improve society, Tupac proved to be a successful role model to Black youth everywhere. The youth began to realize that change begins with us. He also taught that we won’t be taken seriously as a people until we take ourselves seriously, which is an integral part of the advancement of any group of people. Whether it’s a group based on sex, sexual orientation, race, disability etc., it’s crucial that we first recognize the goal of the group and then capitalize on the benefits of these differences for the advancement of underrepresented groups in society. Children need to see that they are important and represented no matter how they choose to identify themselves or how they are identified by society.
In E. M. Roberts, Through the Eyes of A Child, she relays the idea that children’s idea of self concept is heavily influenced by what they see in the media. Roberts argues that “the absence or negative presence of Blacks from television can be destructive to the self-concepts of Black children” because it communicates their disadvantaged placement in society (Roberts, “Through the Eyes of A Child”). As children are introduced to self concept at a fundamental stage in life, they are also subject to the negativity that is placed on different cultures throughout society. By negatively depicting or leaving out an entire community or group of people, this misrepresentation can lead to children continuing these stigmatizing stereotypes further perpetuating racism and prejudice.
We need to create a society where the media properly represents everyone. A society where everybody’s voice is made clear. This way, hopefully our children can pursue and lead an inclusive and productive society. Now, more than ever the voices of our country need to be noted and understood. America is no longer predominantly white middle class. Our society is changing. More cultures are entering the mix, thus comes different viewpoints, fresh ideas and beliefs, and ultimately, a whole new generation of innovators. It is paramount that this new era is more advanced and informed than previous generations because if not we will likely regress in our slow but sure progress as a maturing society. History repeats itself. It is crucial that we don’t relive our heinous past, but rather we create new avenues that allow for the advancement of cultures and societies around the world.
Only through the progression of our youth is such an idea possible. We need to teach the next generation to see past the skin color of their peers and respect and invest in their thoughts and ideas instead. A better tomorrow starts with a plan for a better today. A better today consists of a system where media properly represents the vast assortment of racial, sex, and religious groups. A better tomorrow is a future where there is zero tolerance of racism, prejudice, and exclusion, and ultimately, a time where these things do not even exist. Tupac Shakur wisely sums up such doctrines:
“Where there is a will, there is a will to search and discover a better day, where a positive heart is all you need to rise beyond and succeed, where young minds grow and respect each other based on their deeds and not their color when times are dim say as I say “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Significant Learning Moments
I found the the media literacy analysis to be a great learning moment. In this discussion I learned that relevancy has a lot to do with the value we place on objects and events, and thus determines how important specific news is to any given person. I also discovered that a great question to ask while determining if an article is newsworthy is “why does this information matter?” Too often, many of us (myself included) become engrossed in the latest updates on the Kardashians or other celebrities’ lives and forget that real news is happening in the world: wars, protests, change, etc.
When we fail to see what’s really going on around us we are failing ourselves. We opt out of advancement and settle for complacency in our current situation. It’s vital that we as a society remain aware of current events because often these events shape the ever changing structure of society. If we are uniformed we allow ignorance to take over and obstruct our view of a better tomorrow. We must stay cognizant so that we can do better than previous generations and evade the repetition of our errors as a society. This is the only promise we have to evoke a substantial change beneficial to our future and our children’s futures.
Another learning moment for me was the discussion of stereotypes in the media. I learned a significant amount of information about how stereotypes are perpetuated throughout popular culture and how they affect the lives of those whom they include and exclude. This lesson heightened my sense of awareness surrounding the use of stereotypes and their plaguing side effects. Obviously, as a part of the Black community, I knew all too much about the stigmatizing stereotypes that infect societies’ ideas and beliefs of Black people. What I didn’t know so much about was the use these damaging stereotypes for more than just the sabotage of racial identities, but for the discrimination of sexual and religious groups as well. This discussion prompted me to find out more about the perpetuation of such stereotypes and their repercussions; specifically concerning one of my own identities: being black in America.
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