Tag Archives: stereotypes

The Revolutionary Weapon in the Media War Against Black Women

Laurie and Debbie say:

It’s great to have Laurie back from her long vacation, and be blogging together again!

We’ll start by showcasing this trenchant book review from Tracey Ross for Racialicious. Neither of us has had the chance to read Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman, by Lakesia Johnson, and both of us are now eager to get our hands on it. Here’s the author being interviewed about her book:

Johnson presents a double thesis: first, that media images of black women have consistently pushed black women into a very small set of stereotypes: “angry, emasculating, mammy, sex object”; and second, that black women throughout American history have strongly and tirelessly used their own power to push back against these stereotypes.

She illustrates this by honing in on some of history’s most iconic figures–Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Michelle Obama, to name a few–and analyzes the imagery, interviews, film, literature, and music by and about these women. …

Johnson covers lots of territory in only 128 pages, but the main contribution of her book is that it serves as a reminder that we need to do better by black women. Starting with the black community.

We often find ourselves outraged when we see members of the white community diminish our women, and rightfully so. When Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) attacked the First Lady’s work to promote healthy eating by saying “She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself,” who among us wouldn’t be mad? How did he mistake her curvy body for being unhealthy? And why are we talking about her body at all? There is a long history of such disrespect, but there is also a history of the black community marginalizing and stereotyping our women as well. This isn’t to let the white community off the hook, but is to say we can’t let ourselves off the hook either. And Iconic comes out at a time when there has been much debate over the images of black women perpetuated throughout the black community.

In the video linked above, Johnson (at the interviewer’s request) makes some useful connections to how this kind of media stereotyping extends beyond the black women’s community, to a range of media figures including Sarah Palin. However, her focus stays on how black women are portrayed–and how they have historically and currently pushed back against imposed limits.

While these debates reveal the need for us to do better by black women, they also highlight the fact that in every instance, black women are the ones stepping up and expressing frustration that we’re still talking about these things–that the concept of the video girl is alive and well, that the angry black woman and mammy are go-to characters, and that our hair seems like it will always be a topic of conversation. Johnson concludes Iconic showing how the black women she features are able to combat negative stereotypes and pursue their goals, saying “their knowledge of these stereotypes helps them develop counterimages that support truths about themselves.”

All too often, critiques of media stereotyping present the stereotyped group as passive and/or powerless victims of a power so much stronger than themselves; in contrast, Johnson’s spotlight on the revolutionary strength of defining your own image offers both agency and energy.

African-Americans with Watermelon: Always a Racist Image

Debbie says:

The first time I encountered a black person offended by being served watermelon, I was about 14, which means it was about 1965. We ate watermelon all the time in my house, and I could not understand why our guest took it so personally. It was one of my first encounters with the “innocent” racist act, where something a white person does combines with the context to create a problem. And I hadn’t learned then that the only thing to do is apologize, remember not to do it again, and move on. Or that “intent” and “innocence” are not the important issues in fighting institutionalized, embedded-in-the-culture racism–not to mention in excusing oneself for causing pain to another person.

Walt Disney Corporation engaged in a perfect example of embedded racism when they put their only black princess, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, on their watermelon-flavored candies.

white princess on vanilla candy package; black princess on watermelon candy package

This choice does two terrible things at the same time: first, it hurts and offends African-Americans. Second, it reinforces the underlying stereotype for everyone who isn’t aware of it. Sociological Images examines the roots of that stereotype here.

According to David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum, defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity. African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves. They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.

The stereotype has never gone away, and it came back in a new ugly form when Barack Obama was elected. If you want to upset yourself, Google “obama watermelon racist.” Here’s one of the milder images; this one caused a furor in 2009 because the mayor of a small town in Orange County found it funny enough to email to town notables sharing it.

white house lawn as watermelon field

This all happened almost two weeks ago. Disney hasn’t made a public comment and, as far as I know, they haven’t removed the product either, despite a significant amount of internet furor. The only respectable thing Disney can do here is what they won’t do–because they haven’t done it by now. And that is: apologize, take the product (and ideally the whole series of flavors) off the market, and hire some high-end diversity consultants of color (they can afford it) to work with the marketing team that had the idea.

They could start by regularly reading Racialicious, where I first saw the story.