Here are the common signs in American film and television that a character is an ethnic or racial stereotype. Any one of these might be innocent, but each is a red flag. In this post I use “ethnic” to mean someone who is not mainstream White American (or British), “white” for those who are.
- Fits a known stereotype – Asian martial arts expert, Muslim terrorist, Indian brave, black drug dealer, etc. But these are the easy cases because you already know the stereotype. For cases where you do not, read on:
- Ethnic sidekick – the character lives only for the white hero, has no life of his own. Tonto, Spock, every single Mammy character.
- Token – he is the only one of his race or ethnic group and he is not the hero.
- Helpless Darkies – everyone is ethnic except for the white hero and the white bad guys. You are watching a white saviour film where the purpose of ethnic others is to prove how good white people can be.
- Lacks moral complexity – compared to whites: either too good (God, judge, guru) or too evil (stock bad guy), not in between. Never a mix of good and evil, never torn about moral decisions. At one end you have Morgan Freeman playing God (Magical Negro stereotype), at the other end you have Evil Ethnics who kill for no reason. In “Daria” all the main white and Asian characters have clear faults, but the two black ones do not.
- Lacks an inner life – no thoughts or feelings of his own. On a television drama the dead giveaway is the lack of a love life or family life. But you have to compare this to the white characters with roughly the same number of lines – they might be just as bad. Freema Agyeman on “Law & Order: UK”, for example, seems to play a Noble But Boring Negro – she has no life outside of work – but then neither do the white characters! In “Doctor Who” she does have a love life, even if it is unrequited. Regina Taylor’s character in “I’ll Fly Away” does not have much of a love life, but her journal and family life makes her inner life plain.
- Fails the Bechdel Test for Race – the character only talks to whites or only talks about whites.
- Ethnic girls are easy - always a stereotype.
- Speaks otherized English – speaks broken English (That right, Kemo Sabe!), non-Standard English or with a Recognized Ethnic Accent (Yah man!). Because only white people can speak “perfect” English!
- Conspicuous Ethnic Characteristics – clothing, hairstyles, accent, slang, etc. Like Jamaicans wearing dreadlocks (even though in real life most do not). White viewers see this as just being true-to-life, because they think the stereotypes are true – because they see them over and over again in film and television. But a real-life ethnic is far more ordinary yet interesting than that – like the black characters on “The Cosby Show” or the Jewish ones on “Seinfeld”. Or, you know, like white main characters in general.
- Zora Neale Hurston: What White Publishers Won’t Print
- “Stereotypes have some truth to them”
- Black people according to American television
- The Bechdel Test and Race
- White Saviour trope
- not very stereotyped: