Recognizing Racist Stereotypes in U.S. Media
For a while now I’ve followed various discussions on the World Wide Web, and frequently questions come up about stereotypes and racist offenses, generally coming from the US, and that aren’t part of daily Brazilian life — at least not in terms of current use.
I believe it’s important to know how to recognize these stereotypes, principally in order to understand controversies abroad, and to have the ability to criticize the Americanized media we consume in our everyday lives.
So Francisco Izzo (my consultant on the English language and American media culture), and I did some very basic research on North American websites and articles to try to speak a bit about some of these stereotypes, in a very educational, simple, and informal way.
This text was originally created as an album on Facebook. The intention was to popularize the topic and create a dialogue, in simple and easy language. There’s probably lots missing, and possibly new terms can be added here over time.
If you have suggestions for additional terms to research, just toss them in the comments and we’ll see what we can come up with in our off time.
Note: This informal article was done with actual research, you know? Not with an academic literature search. We went after terms seen in movies, series, and in various informal articles in English we found on the Internet. Basically what we did was look for forums, discussions, and writings in American blogs to see what meaning they gave to each term and the historical explanations that appeared. These stereotypes are divided between historic and modern, and we attempt to the degree possible to indicate their origins and dates, leaving them out only when it wasn’t possible to find data, and here again, contributions are welcome.
Thomas D. Rice was a New York comedian born at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
To bring some fresh air into his repertoire, the man decided to go visit the South to get some new ideas, reboot his brain and so forth.
While there he discovered that it was a custom of the white folks to compare their slaves to crows, and that the slaves, in their off hours, used to sing a song of unknown origin, about a legendary figure named Jim Crow.
So, like any “normal” human being, the man simply had the ingenious idea to paint himself black and begin performing in concert halls, where he sang his adaptation of slave music — the Jim Crow Jump.
In these presentations, he embodied what he thought was the “typical negro slave”: a dumb guy, wearing rags, walking around like a nincompoop, and generally making a mess of things.
It was such a success that it created an entire genre of similar shows — the minstrel show — where you paid to see several white people acting in blackface to mimic blacks in a variety of comedic and stereotypical situations.
Over time, Jim Crow became a synonym for black Americans being used by whites, and a mark of how blacks were far inferior and less developed intellectually. And this image remained healthy and strong for a hell of a long time.
The thing was so powerful that the racial segregation laws imposed in the United States earned the informal name of Jim Crow Laws.
Have you ever heard of the controversy about the crows in Disney’s animated film Dumbo? Well… in 1941, while racial segregation laws were still in effect, Disney introduced these characters that were basically crows with the stereotyped mannerisms associated with blacks (musical, roguish vagrants with typical accents, etc.), whose leader was called… doot do do dooo!!! That’s right! Jim Crow.
In 1898, when slavery in the United States had been abolished and the segregation laws were already being enforced, a children’s book called The History of Little Black Sambo was released.
The little tale was about a dark-skinned boy who tricked a group of hungry tigers thanks to his skills — he was super-happy, carefree, irresponsible, rascally, innocent and all that.
The original text suggested that the main character was an Indian boy, not much different from Mowgli, who we all know already — BUT, as we are talking about the U.S. during segregation, the little boy of the story quickly became linked to a black boy because of his characteristics.
Of course the whites didn’t need a book to tell them what to think about blacks, not a bit of it. This stereotype had already existed, associated with the word “coon”, a contraction of the word raccoon, which in Portuguese is guaxinin, you know? Raccoon? That little wild animal that steals eggs from hens without anyone noticing because it’s very nimble, etc., and so forth?
So, one of the characters that make their way through the Minstrel Shows (those shows with white folks in blackface that we talk about in the Jim Crow section ) was Zip Coon. While Jim Crow was a take on the southern black slave, Zip Coon, interpreted for the first time by George Dixon in 1834, was what they thought it was the typical northers free black man. A trickster black man who want to show his status as a free man by walking around well dressed, full of arrogance and “not putting himself in his place”, using exaggerated slang and walking in the cities pulling cons.
FINE — coon or Sambo, both have become synonymous with racial offenses used to associate blacks with trickery, laziness, people who avoid responsibility, who live to tell jokes, go around singing the live-long day, and just want to relax happily and eat their watermelon…but we’ll get into that later.
Golliwog, pickaninny e golly doll
Golliwog is the name for rag dolls that appeared in children’s books in the nineteenth century, characterized by a totally stereotypical caricature of a black child with exaggerated features — basically, a doll in blackface.
This doll created an iconographic fashion for the creation of more items, products, and shows that used blackface. And “golliwog” quickly became a racial slur.
Pickaninny is a word adapted from “pequenino,” or “little one” in Portuguese, you know? And it was used to refer to black children — those reminiscent of golliwogs and golly dolls.
Basically, pickaninny, golly doll, and golliwog are derogatory and racist ways to refer to black children, labeling them as forever mischievous, independent, and immune to pain, with no need for anyone to care for them, not even their parents, who can leave them alone — they’ll be fine — while they go take care of the white children of their employers without any problems.
Aunt Jemima (Mammy)
“Mommy,” is the affectionate way to say mother in English.
“Mammy” is how a nineteenth-century black person would pronounce the word “Mommy” in the southern states.
So “Mammy “ comes from the memoirs and diaries written by whites after the civil war, in which they told of how happy they were at the side of the house slave who was “almost family,” the one that nursed them at her bosom, that neglected her own children to take care of them, who had no vanity, nor desires of her own — and who devoted her entire life to all these wonderful white children she loved as if they were her own — oh, how beautiful!
The basic description of Mammy is generally a very fat black woman with huge breasts capable of breastfeeding all the white children of the world, wearing a kerchief to hide that “dreadful” kinky hair, with a strong personality, full of grit, but which is only used to fight for the white family she loves so dearly.
She is a domestic, and was born to it. She cooks like no one else, and has the best recipes. She is loyal and kind, superstitious, religious, gives cleaning tips, is always at the ready to advise housewives and their daughters — a great friend!
Of course, being so dedicated to her white family, Mammy is someone without pretensions, asexual, with no life of her own, and who knows only how to serve; but what’s essential is using her image to emphasize a supposedly good relationship between masters and slaves that attempts to mask the glaring power relationship actually going on.
This image was established in daily life and popular culture mostly after the launch of the Aunt Jemima brand culinary products, and the role of Hattie McDaniel as the mammy companion to Scarlett O’Hara, the main character in the movie Gone with the Wind.
Fixing the image of black women as Mammy was also used in the ideological discourse that kept black women trapped in domestic labor. They were women with a vocation to serve, not to reach for better positions and higher aspirations in the workforce. Moreover, for years this image defined the place of black women in the media: they only appeared in the role of domestics and advisors to the mistress of the house, being represented as nothing more than an eternal Mammy.
Many poster girls in American advertising brands revive the figure of Mammy in a more subliminal way, such as borrowing the hair kerchief or something along those lines — but obviously only for cooking or cleaning products, as it was with the Pine Sol girl until not so long ago.
The male equivalent of Mammy/Aunt Jemima is represented in products and in the media as Uncle Ben and Uncle Remus (more about Uncle Remus in the Magical Negro section).
This story is completely nuts — so let’s get to it:
In 1852, during the controversy over the end of slavery in the United States, and before the famous American Civil War, an abolitionist writer from Connecticut named Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In the book, Stowe told the story of Uncle Tom, an old slave who ends up being beaten to death for refusing to cooperate with his master and reveal the whereabouts of runaway slaves. The novel’s intent is to depict Uncle Tom as a martyr, a symbol denouncing the mistreatment and cruelty of slavery.
However, y’all have no idea how much that book pissed off southern whites — we’re talking seriously pissed. It was the era of Abraham Lincoln, and all those heated discussions around issues like “do slaves have a soul or not,” etc. So what they did was — and it was very mature: they simply rewrote the story to present it in minstrel shows wearing blackface, portraying Uncle Tom as a great defender of slavery and a huge lover of whites in general, who wastes no time in fingering all the other brothers and thrashes away at every effort at black resistance — in short, a giant dick.
And guess which version became more famous? Well, yeah…
Uncle Tom turned into a pejorative way to refer to an overly servile black man, who tries to gain advantages within the racist structure by being kind and loyal to the white man, a kind of traitor to the African American people.
During racist attacks in the early twentieth century, it was common to spread images of Uncle Tom giving “””guidance””” so that black people wouldn’t react and would remain obedient and docile, in order that they wouldn’t suffer more violence.
The character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) is an example of what we’re talking about here.
It’s also common to use the term “bojangles” to refer to this type.
Which is in turn a reference to dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the first African American to make it into the media and the cinema (since at the time blacks were represented by whites in blackface), and who tap-danced his way through films that are now considered the very pinnacle of racism and disrespect to the black image. (Do a search for the 1935 film The Littlest Rebel, starring child actress Shirley Temple and you’ll get an idea of the level we’re talking about).
The Black Bucks (The Mandingo)
This is one everyone knows, they just haven’t been introduced to the American name for it yet.
Basically, the white slave owners promoted the notion that enslaved African men were animals by nature. They said, for example, that “in the negro, all the passions, emotions, and ambitions are almost entirely dominated by the sexual instinct,” thus contributing to perceptions of bestiality and primitivism.
This was the definition of a mandingo — that dangerous and untamable black slave that must be curbed because he has sexual instincts that would probably pervert the daughters and wives of the white masters.
After the American Reconstruction* the term “black buck” was used to reinforce this stereotype.
Black bucks are usually muscular men, who defy the will of the whites and are a damn menace to American society. They are excitable, restless, moody, impulsive, extremely violent, and of course, sexually attracted to white women — and only them.
What did this result in? Yes, lynchings galore.
Black men were killed, hanged, and beaten for being a threat to the virginal young white women.
Over time the character of the sexualized black man who only existed to drive pure white girls crazy became a fixture in the media — and became a staple theme in movies, comics, and pornography, where it’s still going strong to this day.
In 1917, in World War I, there was a poster with anti-german propaganda. In the poster there was a giant ape wearing the classical german helmet and carrying a helpless white woman. It was an ad with the objective of recruiting new soldiers to stop the spread of german’s savageness. — the angry monkey carry in its hand a stick with the word “kultur”(german for culture) written in it, as if the german culture, as a culture of wilderness and violence, was going to destroy society the same ways a giant beast carrying a stick does. Off course this was made without any association with black people, the monkey was to put emphasis on savageness, destruction, a danger to our woman, and the evil that society wanted to stop. Ok, so in 2008 there was this Vogue’s cover with basketball player, Lebon James and international model Giselle Bündchen. Now notice the good taste and the influences used to compose the image.
The American Reconstruction was the period of literal reconstruction of the country (both structurally, and legally) after the American Civil War, which left the entire place fragmented on a variety of issues. It went on between 1865 and 1877, if I’m not mistaken, and it was the period when they rebuilt cities and began to argue and legislate about what to do with the blacks now that slavery had been abolished. It was exactly because of this atmosphere of questioning how American society would restructure itself, and during this period when the secret societies and white supremacist organizations (such as the Ku Klux Klan) emerged, that the discourses on segregation and violence against blacks, authorized by the State, began to gain force.
Jezebel: The Insatiable Black Woman
Jezebel was a biblical character — the Queen of Israel, wife of King Ahab and basically, according to the Bible, she was a worthless bitch: out of the blue she started worshiping another god, she ordered the deaths of fucking near everybody, didn’t obey anyone, and worse still, she was hella sexy. In other words, she is the fallen woman, the sinner, the one who’s no good.
WELL FINE, in the Victorian era, there was this whole image of the good woman, and she was basically European and Christian — period. Until one day Europeans came into contact with African women and attributed the semi-nudity typical in the tropics to promiscuity.
If they encountered African villages where polygamy was practiced then… whoa, obviously black women could only have an uncontrollable lust, and on top of everything else they were pagan, so they must have no morals whatsoever — just like Jezebel.
But of course this was no problem for European men of the time, right?
After all, if you have these babes over there, and they’re “not of God” and therefore have no morals, and they’re almost always naked and are insatiably lustful, then it’s TOTALLY SUPER OKAY to have sex with them without asking, or to put their bodies on exhibition.
Basically the major impact of this stereotype was that it was responsible for justifying the rape and sexual abuse of black women, after all, it would be “impossible to rape women that promiscuous.”
There was an abolitionist (yes! an a b o l i t i o n i s t) who said “slave women were grateful for the advances of the Anglo-Saxons”………………..erm, right……….
Even after Abolition, the rape and abuse didn’t stop: the fear that black women had of reporting rape and abuse by white men was justified, since the practice remains to this day — that black hottie you’re looking for, you know how it works…
This sexualized image of the man-eating black woman as a counterpoint to the well-behaved white woman is widely used in the media (as in the ad there in the above image).
The white woman remains a great wife, while black women are labeled as the best lovers.
You’ve already seen this in movies and comics, for sure: the angry woman, screaming and hitting at her husband, she’s the one who rules the whole fucking roost and takes “””the man’s role,””” she’s always pissed off, she never smiles and she’ll tell you to stick it up your ass when you least expect it.
Well, during the era of slavery there existed the Cult of True Womanhood, an ideology that defined the standards for female behavior of the period — but obviously these standards for what it was to be a woman were only valid for white, middle-class women.
Sapphire is the total opposite of that: she is a strong, ball-busting woman who dominates the man, steals his role, and usually drives away her children and her partner by being such a total bitch.
She is a mammy but without the least maternal affection or the slightest bit of patience.
Social scientists of the post-slavery era claimed that the unemployment, poverty, and alleged passivity of the black man to get ahead in life couldn’t be blamed on any social or economic policy, but rather the dominance and matriarchal status of the uncontrolled black woman over the man — “if you can’t even control your own wife, how can you hold down a job? “ — yeah, right…
The name Sapphire came from the character in the Amos ’n’ Andy comedy; and she was exactly the stereotype that we just talked about.
So in summary, this was the first stereotype of the Angry Black Woman, which many of you have already been introduced to.
The one that establishes the black woman as dangerous, unstable, dominated by emotions, unable to act rationally, as someone who deserves loneliness, but won’t care about it, because she is so strong she hasn’t any need for the least bit of kindness, care, or attention.
The Magical Negro
This is a stereotype from fiction.
Unlike the others presented here, it is not used as a racial offense in day-to-day life, but is used to extinguish the leadership of blacks in the media.
Let’s start with the example of Uncle Remus, this cool, little old man there in the picture above, with the rabbit. What did he do for a living? He was the nice, charismatic, old Negro who told cute little stories to brighten the lives of white kids. He had no problems, no stress — he just laughed, was pleasant, and was just a cutie. Everybody loves this guy. No one knows anything about him, but he makes the white folks happy as shit. Maybe a little similar to the Mammy figure, but he doesn’t have even enough agency to hand out a scolding, because he’s just so darn fun and docile.
The Magical Negro is like Uncle Remus: the eternal assistant to the white hero.
He may or may not actually have magical powers, but he will always have knowledge that the white hero doesn’t, and will be able to help him and guide him to his goals.
He is humble. He hasn’t the least intention of taking the spotlight or the glory, he’s so overjoyed beyond words just being cool and helping his little white dude overcome the obstacles in his life.
The term was popularized by Spike Lee when he said he was fed up with films with films featuring the “super-duper magical Negro.”
If you stop to think about it, Morgan Freeman has spent half his career playing those wise black men that improve the lives of the white protagonist, such as in Driving Miss Daisy, Robin Hood, Million Dollar Baby, Batman…
“My maid quit her job so she could get pregnant and live off the bolsa familia (Brazilian social assistance plan)”
Are you going to tell me you’ve never heard crap like that before?
Welfare Queen, translating literally, is like “Rainha da Bolsa Auxílio” in Brazil, and it’s a phrase that’s been around for a long-ass time; at the beginning it didn’t even really have such racial connotations, it was just used to offend poor women in general.
The gender was guilty for the conditions of poverty in all colors and races. But racist society soon saw that this equality in shit-treatment shouldn’t exist, and designated African American women as the worst, and responsible for the greatest violations to the American spirit.
Obviously, the black woman, with that ridiculously huge sexual appetite, would have more children and would demand the greatest expenses from the State; after all she’s vain, she’s grasping (because she’s a woman and women always want money) and she doesn’t respect anyone’s morals.
“Welfare Queen” is the label used by the middle class population, the part that thinks it’s always right, to justify cutting social spending and to “””denounce”””” the bad manners of poor women who are poor because they don’t know how to control themselves and are too lazy to work.
I think up to this point this is the stereotype we (here in Brazil) know best, by far…
That Whole Watermelon Thing
Oh, this is fucking great… Have you ever seen a movie with some little joke about watermelon that you didn’t understand? A meme on the Internet you just didn’t get? (Take a look, there’s plenty.)
Well, watermelon didn’t exist in America before the period of slavery because watermelon is a fruit that comes from southern Africa. It was the enslaved blacks that brought the watermelons over and they were usually the ones who ate it.
Soon, the white masters associated the habit of eating watermelon with blackness, emphasizing the way in which blacks ate the fruit: with their hands, making a mess, getting their faces all juicy, etc. This emphasis was used to dismiss blacks ways and designate them as uncivilized animals, and to rationalize mistreating the black as a human being in general. After all, if he had his watermelons and his leisure time (to the whites, blacks were lazy, y’know), he wouldn’t need anything more, or any more rights whatsoever.
Watermelon was widely used in racist and stereotypical iconography of the black during the Post-Reconstruction era — in products, caricatures, and representations where the black was a watermelon-crazy nut, capable of dropping everything if you tossed some watermelon in front of him.
Racists generally use the term “nigger bait” to talk about the fruit.
In 1970, for example, they made a film based on The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka, where a white racist wakes up and discovers that he’s turned into a black man.
The film, without the slightest subtlety, tries to be an anti-racist film, where a white racist discovers “in the flesh” all the evil that racism causes, and was so careful and soooooo respectful to black people that it was given the suuuuper sensible title The Watermelon Man.
At the end of the film the protagonist becomes black forever, is abandoned by family and friends because of his color, and becomes a pastiche of an Angry Black Man, that jumpy black dude jivin’ around and walking the streets making trouble for everyone…hell of a life lesson, right?
For decades, Disney has been criticized for its lack of black characters, and in 2009 they finally released a film with the legendary “””first black princess””””, Tiana. When they created the marketing campaign, just guess what flavor of candy was reserved for her, while Princesses like Aurora and Belle were given the flavor vanilla????????? And that my friends, caused a biiiit of trouble…
Since the late 80s, it’s almost become common sense that showing blacks eating watermelon in the media is politically incorrect, and if you insisted on it, you’d end up buying more trouble than you really want. So, many believed that this was an extinct stereotype, until the marvelous appearance of our beloved internet, which reacted to the election of a candidate named Barack Obama with countless memes and discussions where the watermelon cliché was used to offend, showing that on the Internet this racist stereotype is alive and well.
Feel free to toss it up there on the google, but this time I’ll pass.
That Whole Fried Chicken Thing
Well, in addition to watermelon, some other foods are linked in a pejorative way to blacks and their culture, and basically they all have a similar origin.
For example, grape soda: it was a lot cheaper than all the other soft drinks, and way lower class — basically a grape Dolly Brand with three times the sugar and costing 25 cents. It was a ghetto thang, to want to drink the stuff, because no one wanted it, but it was cheap and it had sugar, so the black kids were the biggest consumers… To turn it into an offensive racial stereotype was like, instantaneous.
*Nicolas Antonio Bargiela came in the comments of this text and gave a nice information: This negative connotation of grape soda, picks now more on the Kool Aid, including the same connection on drink value and etc. In The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick Lamar's newest album, he lists some black stereotypes in the final stretch and there's the Kool Aid, firm and strong:
The same process occurred more or less with waffles, collard greens, and blah blah blah, BUT, at least in Brazil we’ve heard plenty about this fried chicken business.
So here we go:
Fried chicken is a typical dish of the American South, the most racist place of the universe, and so forth. Mammies were experts at making cooking chicken, an abundant meat in the region, and everyone admired the secret recipes of these Mammies and so on.
Soon it was almost a catchphrase to think of blacks when thinking of a good southern fried chicken.
BUT, the offensive connotation was popularized because of the D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation — the most racist movie of all time, which defended good stuff, like the Ku Klux Klan.
In one scene of the film, during a fight for black rights, a black man appears in the Legislative Chamber. All the other people behave according to proper etiquette for such a place, but the black man pulls out a bucket and begins to devour a shitload of fried chicken in an extremely rude and ridiculous manner, in a scene with comic intentions.
From then on, the party never ended.
Fried chicken took the place of watermelon in modern racist stereotypes and it remains there to this day.
TIP: in this site you will find lots of information about people, places and other points that have been mentioned here - enjoy!
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