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Ethnic and Racial Stereotypes in American Media and Literature


Race is an aspect of categorizing people into groups based on a set of observable transmissible traits. People can be placed in their race by observing significant physical features like the color of their skin, hair color and texture, body height, and features of the face (Segal, 1991). An ethnic group is a people who identify themselves through a common legacy that is either existent or as a presumed opinion about themselves. Such a group can have common cultural practices, language, beliefs and even customs which they use to distinguish themselves from other groups. At times, these groups interact with others and borrow from one another some elements of culture, which in turn can lead to changes in the overall traits of the group. However, some elements may remain to be transmitted to the next generation (Mevorach, 2007). Both race and ethnicity have been used to identify various peoples living in the same region, perhaps in the same states but have distinct identities about themselves. Arash Abizadeh (2001) notes that identifying a race or ethnic group varies from one culture to the other and may change over time, sometimes becoming socially controversial because people tend to classify each other based on the level of achievement. In this case, racial and ethnic identities create stereotypes. Daniel Segal defines [racial/ethnic] stereotypes as those commonly held thoughts about a particular social group by another group or individual. They are formed on ideas of conceptual knowledge like similar behavior or trait being repetitively noted by many people over a certain period of time. This makes people to socially recognize any member of the said group within the beliefs about their race or ethnic group (1991). Stereotypes have manifested themselves in various activities of human life and have been the subject of discussion in the media, sports, literature and the general aspect of human rights. Stereotypes may become the basis of discrimination. This paper looks at racial and ethnic stereotypes in American media.

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Racial/Ethnic stereotypes in the US

In the US, stereotypes are directed to minority groups such as the Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, blondes, aboriginals and even the Jews. Many people equally access similar news media, movies and video games but this is not reflected in the media themselves (Gilliam, Valentino & Beckmann, 2002). For example, in most movies and video games; non-whites play subordinate roles like being scoundrels or helpers. A recent study noted that only less than 5% of video game characters were from the Hispanic community. Nevertheless, their role was not even to act as characters that would be manipulated in the games. African Americans would only be restricted to specific genres like sports and rap music. Moreover, African Americans were depicted more as villains than heroes; often taking part in law-breaking activities like robberies and violence (Mevorach, 2007). The way other races view each other has been translated to the media in entertainment, advertisement and news content. A case in point is the depiction of African Americans.

Models of stereotypes against African Americans

Stereotypes of African Americans involve generalized notions about their behavior. They rose to become part of the American culture from the colonial period, especially after slavery became an institution that perpetuated racism (only blacks would be enslaved) (Turner, 1994) Early American comic shows like the Minstrel Show involved skits, dances and songs by whites wearing black faces. They ridiculed blacks in belittling terms like lazy, impolite and superstitious; a belief strongly held by slave masters about slaves. The content of these comics begun to change only in early 1900s when blacks have begun to fight for their legal rights (Lott, 1993). Patricia Turner identifies media as objects for stereotyping blacks. They show them as archaic, unintelligent and servile. She identifies such traits as possible pressures that strengthen anti-Black feelings among white populations in the US (1994). Between 1933 and late 20th century, Patricia Devine and Andrew Eliot found that the descriptive words used on blacks had been consistent in the media. In this period, blacks were referred to as strongly religious, uncertain, poor, primitive and unclean. More worrying was the fact that all these adjectives were demeaning (1995). In today’s media, the same stereotypes have been advanced to include criminal, noisy and stupid. Constructive descriptions, though sometimes equally debasing, include being musically rhythmic and athletic. It has been argued that the continued emphasis of black supremacy in sports and entertainment devalues their need for education. As a result, the portrayal of blacks as uneducated continues to be a stereotype (Devine &Turner, 1995). However, the Centre for Disease Control [CDC] positively affirms that African Americans have a lower percentage of drugs-taking than other races (2000).

Stereotypes against African Americans in the Media/Literature

There have been several models that have been used historically to depict African Americans. They include the black-face, sambo, Mammy, and Magic Negro archetypes (Boskin, 1986). The black-face model originated from the aforementioned Minstrel shows of the 19th century. It involved theatrical representations of actors wearing black masks to portray the expression of a popular American racist attitude at the time. White actors usually wore black masks made from burnt cork and painted with oil paints to make them black, and with unusually huge lips. The actors would also wear torn clothes, wigs and gloves to signify the belief that African Americans were indeed dirty, poor and very religious (Goings, 1994). In the Sambo model, blacks were shown as reckless people, often laughing at anything and unusually careless. Sambo is a word that describes a person with American Indian and African parentages. It’s believed to originate from the Caribbean word, Zambo; meaning a black person. The word was used in most of the 18th-century publications to describe slaves. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the Sedley family had a black Indian servant with the name of Sambo. Harriet Beecher wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which one of Simon Legree’s supervisors was called Sambo. African Americans were called Sambo during the American Civil War. However, a racist lace was attached to the name later possibly in response to black activism. In 1894, Little Black Sambo was written by Harriet Bannerman. It showed a young boy named, Sambo who managed to dodge the might of tigers. The book has often been viewed as an insult against African Americans (Boskin, 1986). In early 1900 puppets, animations involved clueless characters called Sambo. They had high-pitched voices and were black. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry, Jim is depicted as one of the few Sambos, grown up to be respected.

Mammy archetypes involved the narrative depiction of a domestic African American servant with good manners but having a fat physique and a loud voice (Goings, 1994). Mammy was a corruption from mother in North America. It was used in most narratives to represent housemaids who performed house chores like cooking and breastfeeding. In pop culture before civil rights movements, mammies were shown in brands like Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes to show how mammies were using the brand to prepare food for their masters (Wallace-Sanders, 2009). In the media, the original Minstrel Show exposed mammies in various performances. For instance, the song, Swanee, done by Judy Garland was a representation of the black mammy. Mammy characters were also used in TV shows like the Beulah where black servants would be shown to be contributing in the solution of white family troubles (Goings, 1994). Mammy Two Shoes was an animation of a mammy with a dark skin who spoke with black accent (Wallace-Sanders, 2009). Generally, mammies had dark skins, fat and always wore matron clothing like aprons, handkerchiefs and gloves. They were depicted as loyal to white authorities. Although whites used it sentimentally, many blacks viewed the term as insulting (Turner, 1994).

Mystical Negroes represented a helpful character in fiction stories that worked with their special powers to get white heroes from danger. The use of Magical Negroe was an improvement from ‘Numinous Negro’ initially introduced by Richard Brookhiser to signify the virtuous and appreciated black mentor. In most fictions, this character was showed to have no origin but would simply appear abruptly to save the white protagonist. In saving the hero, the magical Negroe would do anything that even included loss of his own life as it was exposed in Sydney Poitier’s the defiant ones. Although the word Negro would now be seen as offensive and often used around the globe to racially denote blacks, it was used in various media fictions to identify blacks as friendly and adventurous people (Devine & Eliot, 1995).

Theories of Media stereotypes

As early entertainment shows continued to ridicule the intelligence of African Americans, the then secretary of state John C. Calhoun [1844] was recorded to have said that African Americans had to be under the care of whites because freeing them would lead to misuse of freedom. Blacks were mentally unhealthy and the only way to avert social problems was through enslaving them (Abizadeh, 2001). These mental-incapacity tags continued in the media even after slavery had been abolished. For instance, movies such as the birth of the Nation in 1915, exposed doubts about African Americans’ ability to hold public offices. Similarly, some authors of fiction like John Grisham have continued to use words like ‘nigger’ in their works Grisham, with a background in law, portrays the way different races exist in the US and how they search for justice (Grisham, 1987). Apparently, his books set in most of the southern states of the US depict the view of southern whites against other races like blacks and Hispanics. In a Time to kill, a black father had to shoot white suspects thought to have raped his daughter because he believed justice would not come his way. Prior to that, Grisham describes the horrible rape ordeal performed by this white gang to the girl; taping her mouth, urinating on her, raping her in chains before leaving her for death! Ideally, while Grisham tried to portray that whites too can be criminals, he still emphasized the fact that African Americans are violent. He still stuck to the same old stereotypes about African Americans as portrayed by earlier authors (Williams, 1999).

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Blacks have been shown in most movies as uncertain and morally inferior. In movie series like Prison Break, the jail is full of conflicts perpetrated by blacks against whites. Inside the prison, blacks confront white newcomers and warn them of future attacks if they don’t refrain from associating with their white enemies within the prison. Acted by Tyrese Gibson; the leader of the African American camp in prison marshals his troupe during break time to issue warnings. While the whole movie series became a darling of people’s entertainment needs, the portrayal of African Americans as more violent and criminal even within other criminals is an extension of usual stereotypes. In other most popular series like the Transporter and 24 have continued to churn out prejudice against African Americans through the roles they take part in. American music portrays African American women as promiscuous. In most music videos, dancers are usually skimpily dressed black women often dancing to make sales for musicians who may be white. Musicians like Eminem have used black dancers in their clips. Perhaps depicting how cheaply available they are. Even more surprising is Eminem’s Song, Just Lose It which shows his nose falling off as though to ridicule Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery. In a deeper analysis, one may think Eminem intended to show mental insufficiency of Michael Jackson, an African American, in deciding to remodel his body (Dill, Brown &Collins, 2008).

Scholars have argued that indeed media sources can strengthen stereotypes among people about others. In the US, activities from the Civil Rights Movements led by Martin Luther King to victorious black court cases like the Brown Vs. Board of Education in 1954 and the Cooper Vs. Aaron in 1958 helped to improve racial discrimination. However, racial stereotypes have continued to exist (Gilliam Jr., Valentino & Beckmann, 2002). In social contact theory, we learn that closeness of different groups of people may reduce prejudice against one another. However, this may also lead to rivalry over resources and turn out to be the source of conflict (Roberts &Foehr, 2004).

We can determine whether the role of information can lead to ethnic or racial conflicts between two groups of people. First, the media can affect racial or ethnic beliefs through public opinion. In the US, there is a stable flow of information from different media sources. Persistent racism despite its abolition can be linked to the content carried in the media. Usually, people rely on the media for information about things they have not experienced on face-to-face. This information could be skewed and carries social beliefs about every racial group within its reach (Gilliam Jr., Valentino & Beckmann, 2002). For example, most news media cast blacks as perpetrators of crime. Robert Entman (1990) observed that TV news represented blacks as aggressive and dangerous towards whites. They were also egoistic and would always criticize the government for some problem. Usually, American media portrays purveyors of crime as non-whites. In both the cause and nature of crime, whites are shown as victims. Moreover, there are rare occasions when white crime suspects were shown on TV either handcuffed or under tight security. Whereas whites could be shown in courts, well-dressed; blacks were shown from the point of arrest, in handcuffs, scenes of their crime, impact of their crime to the society, their occupations-usually slums, and even the kind of accomplices they had (Gilliam Jr., Valentino & Beckmann, 2002). Hence, news-making and presentation adds to the common phenomenon about non-whites as depicted in fiction.

Features of Racial stereotypes

Exposure of a white person to violent crime in news results to formation of negative stereotypes about African Americans, argues Entman (1990). Having seen that the usual perpetrators of crime are blacks, these audiences are likely to decide that punishments to such crimes be terminal: Death penalties and Life Imprisonment. Television news uses the usual belief that crime is linked to specific races and hence can reinforce racial stereotypes against a particular race. The result of priming of racial attitudes can be the rating of political leaders based on their racial backgrounds thus making it difficult for an African American to win in an election (Gilliam Jr., Valentino & Beckmann, 2002).

A racially separated community with no past encounter with other races or ethnic communities relies on media information to make beliefs about other races. In this case, they become at the mercy of the media’s manipulation. When the information depicts another race in the context of crime, immorality or uncertainty, it heightens opposition against the said race. Thus, in the absence of first-hand experience about African Americans, the news media formulates attitudes in the white communities that may translate into labels against any African American that they might later see (Entman, 1990).

The limitation to personal meetings among races makes people to derive social labels from where they spent most of the time. A majority of young people in the US spend most of their time interacting with TV, movies, the internet or even playing virtual games (Roberts & Foehr, 2004). Any racial tilt in the packaging of this content is apt to restructure the behavior of these people. For instance, in virtual games, African American characters could be taking part in supportive roles; this can make the players to imagine that they are always in the subordinate. Cumulatively, the belief that African Americans are weak will strengthen.

According to the media and aggressive degradation theory [MAD], pessimistic mass media metaphors against a particular person can harm the victim’s group. For in stance, if a member of a particular race or ethnic group is portrayed in degrading terminology, it provokes hostility against members of the whole group in future (Dill, Brown &Collins, 2008). It has been argued that the media carries socially accepted notions that can devalue members of other communities if the media consistently airs derogations about the said race. In this case, the labels against African Americans as criminals or unfriendly imparts in the audiences from other races that blacks are not suitable to live alongside other human beings. In most of the southern states, African Americans live in different estates from those of the whites. The continual flow of negative images about blacks may never help to make these communities to live alongside each other (Entman, 1990).

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How Stereotypes are perpetuated

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are sometimes routed in our social expectations. The Expectancy violation theory asserts that stereotypical expectations about a person when dishonored may make people to be evaluated in extreme terms. Every social group has got certain standards and expectations regarding other people’s behavior. Blacks are stereotypically lower than whites. That is, most communities view whites as more sophisticated, calm or intelligent while blacks are seen in low descriptions as criminals, uneducated or subhuman (Dill, Brown &Collins, 2008). In this case, a black person can be seen as normal if he is found in a criminal act or is illiterate. Here, the white majorities have evaluated African Americans in this expectation. On the other hand, it would not be a surprise if a white man wins a Nobel or is admitted at Harvard: This has been the trend which most people are used to. Thus, it has becomes a social expectation. Violations to these expectations happen if for instance a white person fails an aptitude test and his failure is aired in the press. People’s attitudes might change against the white supremacy. On the contrary, an African American is likely to be elevated in status if he wins a governor’s post or gains entry at Harvard. In other words, violating social expectations by breaking the socially demeaning descriptions is likely to improve the stereotypical evaluation of people’s racial and ethnic backgrounds (Roberts &Foehr, 2004).

How can one recognize racial or ethnic stereotypes? Leslie Aguilar (2006) gives the three important features of discovering that. First, notions about a particular race or group usually take members of the group to be the same. Statements like, ‘blacks are like that’ or ‘you know how criminal blacks can be’ deem that blacks usually behave alike. Stereotypes also have judgments about a group. They show what a group is expected to be like. For instance, when we say, ‘African Americans are rude’, we indicate our mental fixation that everyone should expect rudeness from this group and people ought to refrain from such behavior. Stereotypes fail to accommodate the fact that people within a group have different personalities or that everyone has different moods. Also, stereotypes are not flexible. Persons violating our expectations are considered as odd rather than being invalidation to our expectations. For instance, at a journalism lecturer’s conference, a white person may comment to a black person,’ you don’t look like a scholar!” This is because we believe African Americans as unlearned.

Most common ways of perpetuating racial/ethnic stereotypes include: The use of jokes as in ‘you know how it feels to have a black girlfriend!’ Use of labels like in ‘a dark-skinned muscular man’ use of oversimplified proclamations like ‘African Americans are stupid or Latinos are addicts’, use of hackneyed descriptions like ‘a typical black girl’, use of suppositions like ‘assuming that all African Americans are good athletes, how many medals will we win at the Olympics?’ use of spokesperson’s Syndrome like in asking an African American member of staff to show how a company can break through the African American market with ease, the use of descriptions that suggest a stereotype because they challenge with the stereotype itself such as in ‘the company is looking for a qualified African American’, and the use of statistical stereotyping where persons are gauged on the basis of a research finding about their group. For instance, asking an African American to give opinion in ‘research show that most African Americans choose rap as music, what is your favorite music?’ (Aguilar, 2006)

Effects of Racial/Ethnic Stereotypes

Perhaps it is important to know how this racial and ethnic stereotyping affects us. Whether positive or negative, stereotyping remains harmful to both stereotypes and the stereotyped. By looking at people in the same wavelength, we deny ourselves a chance to see their personal abilities because we underestimate them (Aguilar, 2006). Similarly, the misjudged person remains offended and can likely give up personal ventures. For example, an African American student who likes studying Languages but is being judged as an athlete may give up her true ambitions. On the overall, stereotyping leads to the devaluation of persons based on their ethnic or racial background. It serves to perpetuate racism and can easily continue the inequalities in our society today (Wallace-Sanders, 2009).


In conclusion, ethnic and racial stereotypes are those notions that people have about other communities. In the US, they began during the abolition of slavery and were shown in major entertainment media. They can be perpetuated by the media and literature in the way they frame their information and the characters in literature. A particular community can nurture racial stereotypes if it has not been in touch with other races but depend on the media to know about them. This is because most media content carries the social stereotypes about groups. The end result is the devaluation of some communities and hence continual inequalities. Reframing our information content can help reduce stereotypes about races and ethnic communities.


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