In Professor Shawn Michelle Smith’s Guest Editor’s Introduction of the Summer 2014 Visual Culture and Race, she discusses the intersection of visual culture studies and critical studies of race in the United States, and presents the idea that, through the lens of the “white gaze,” and considering sight as itself a social practice, historical depictions of Black people in our culture not only racialize Black people, but also produce racialized viewers (Smith, 2014, p. 2). A particularly divisive way in which popular culture through the white lens often depicts Black characters is by utilizing Black stereotypes. While the white viewer may recognize that these representations are offensive to Black viewers, keeping Smith’s concept in mind, it seems that a more enshrouded aspect goes unnoticed, which is how it also stealthily perpetuates racism by reinforcing ideas of white supremacy to white viewers, and in doing so, also facilitates a position from which white viewers’ privilege remains invisible to them.
Racial stereotypes that we see depicted in today’s popular culture have roots dating back hundreds of years. Colonial Christianity and Eurocentrism shaped the image of Black people, and in that context, “all categories of good and righteous were qualitatively and quantitatively measured through the constructs of Whiteness and Blackness” (Anthony, 2017, p. 4). Having citizenship and being favored by God placed white men in the position of dominance, a contrast which only further eternalized the Black man’s status of the racial Other. Over time, the parameters of these constructs have been adapted to fit in with modern realities, however, the narrative has remained the same — Black people, particularly men, and People of Color are often seen as lazy, criminal, and ‘less than’. “The consequences of this normalized narrative,” explains Anthony (2017), “have been devastating. From the 1600s to the present, old and new discourses have helped to anchor an unquestioned idea that Black men were dangerous and irresponsible” (p. 4).
It is important to realize that these stereotypes extend beyond the characters we see in movies and on television; there are real-world implications, particularly in the way in which Black people and People of Color are viewed by government authorities and law enforcement still today. Social psychological theorists and historians of genocide contend that this “dehumanization of others is a necessary precondition for culturally and/or state-sanctioned violence” (Goff et al., 2014, p. 2). As such, in the U.S. we continue to see Black people disproportionately incarcerated in prisons and immigrants detained and separated from their children, as it still claims to be a free nation. Recognizing how ingrained these stereotypes of Black people and People of Color are in U.S. popular culture, white allies might consider focusing less on the “racist representations but on the gaze itself, and the power of resisting the social act of looking” (Smith, 2014, p. 1).
Being the agent of oppression, racism in the U.S. is a white person’s problem. Acquiring the ability to recognize the ambiguity of racist iconographic imagery and stereotypes in our popular culture and understanding how it shapes our view of not only Black people and People of Color, but also how we view ourselves, could be an effective strategy in helping white allies shift the socially constructed internal narrative, in their efforts to go from being “not racist” to becoming actively anti-racist.
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Bärwald, Annika, et al. “People of African Descent in Early Modern Europe.” Oxford Bibliographies, 15 Jan. 2020, www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199730414/obo-9780199730414-0326.xml.
Brown, A. L. (2017). ON BLACK MALES IN HISTORY, THEORY AND EDUCATION. Race, Gender & Class, 24(1), 107–119. Retrieved from https://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2152/docview/2119846773?accountid=14902
Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B.,Allison Lewis, Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: Consequences of dehumanizing black children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(4), 526–545. doi:http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2099/10.1037/a0035663
Smith, S. (2014). Guest Editor’s Introduction: Visual Culture and Race. MELUS, 39(2), 1–11. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44392734