Archive for the ‘stereotypes’ Category

Chimamanda Adichie

The single story is where the same story gets told over and over again about a people or a place we do not know first-hand. The danger is that it leads to stereotypes, to half-truths not the full truth. So, for example, many Americans think of Africa as being full of wild animals and hungry, unwashed children, not a place where there are libraries, bus drivers and true love. Or they think of Australia as the land of kangaroos, the outback and Crocodile Dundee, not a place of boring suburbs and proper English.

The single story is the opposite of what Chinua Achebe calls “the balance of stories”, where all people tell their own stories in their own words. Something that has only begun with the rise of postcolonial literature – “the Empire writes back”, as Salman Rushdie puts it.

But for the most part our stories are still stuck in colonial times where mainly just white men tell their own stories – or their stories about others – over and over again. Not just in books written, but in news stories told and films directed. The only difference is that now a few tokens, like Achebe himself, are thrown in for good measure.

But tokenism is not enough. Imagine if everything you knew about America and white people came only from the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino. There is no way that any token – any single story, author or film director – can present the human fullness of his own people, his own time and place. It will necessarily be limited, making his own people seem limited, strange and exotic to those who know nothing else about them.

Even within America white people think of black men as drug dealers with 13 children by six different baby mamas. I know someone like that, so it is not made up, but most black men I know are hard-working, middle-class family men. And it is not just me: half of blacks in America are middle-class. But you would never know that from watching American television – because there is no balance of stories.

Chimamanda Adichie (pictured above) gave a beautiful, beautiful speech about the danger of the single story (see below for the link). You might remember her as the author of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006). She grew up in middle-class Nigeria, the daughter of a professor. When she came to America to study her American roommate was shocked that her English was so good and that her tape of “tribal music” was, in fact, Mariah Carey.

But then came Adichie’s turn to be shocked: from the American press she thought of Mexico as this place where poor, helpless people came from. But when she got to Mexico she saw people laughing and smoking and going to work. It should not have shocked her, but it did.

It was not that the American press had lied to her. Instead it was the power of the single story to paint a false picture of the world.

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dumpyourpenfriendThe perpetual foreigner stereotype in America is applied mainly to Asian Americans. No matter how long they or their families have lived in the country, they are still not seen as True Americans, they are still seen as foreigners. That is why people are surprised at how good their English is and ask them, “Where are you really from?” – where New Jersey does not count as an answer.

Please note: Asians born in America speak perfect English with an American accent. For most of them America is the only country they know. It is their country too. They are every bit as American as white people.

The girl pictured in the Virgin ad that says “Dump Your Pen Friend” is not from Japan or anywhere in Asia: she is American – at an American barbecue, no less. If that surprised you, then you were applying the perpetual foreigner stereotype to her, as did Virgin.

This is not some small point.

For example, General John DeWitt, in charge of defending the western American states during the Second World War, said this:

A Jap’s a Jap … The Japanese race is an enemy race … It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese…  we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.

And so Japanese Americans, despite being native-born citizens charged with no crime, lost everything they could not carry and were sent to live in prison camps during the war. Even the Supreme Court thought their race mattered more than their citizenship.

Japanese Americans have been in America longer than most Italian, Polish and Jewish Americans. So, if anything, they should be seen as less foreign, but they are not.

Another example: Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer, had his brains beat in and was killed by two white men in Detroit in 1982. One of them had been laid off by Chrysler and blamed Japan. But Chin was not Japanese. He was not even Chinese: he was American!  But despite that neither white man served any time in prison: they got off with a fine of $3,000 and three years’ probation. The judge said of Chin’s killers: “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”

Two ideas underlie the perpetual foreigner stereotype:

  1. America belongs to white people.
  2. Race and culture are pretty much the same thing.

Race, how you look on the outside, is seen as a good sign of how you are on the inside.

khanIn America the stereotype is mainly applied to those with East Asian roots, but lately, since 9/11, Muslim Americans are increasingly seen in this light too, so much so that their citizenship does not always grant them the protection and rights that it should.

The stereotype is assumed by those who call Obama a secret Muslim. Colin Powell made the excellent point that even if Obama were Muslim, so what? Plenty of Americans are Muslims, many have even fought and died for the country. If they are not True Americans, no one is.

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Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster“Imitation of Life” (1933) is a book written by Fannie Hurst, a once-famous American writer. The book was made into a Hollywood film in 1934 and 1959. It was the only Hollywood film of the 1930s to view race as a serious issue. The film was so famous among blacks that Peola, the name of one of the main characters, was still a byword for self-hating blacks as late as the 1970s.

My understanding of the story before I saw the two films was that it was about a black girl named Peola who looked white and tried to pass for white by disowning her very black-looking mother. In the end she sees the error of her ways and comes home to make up with her mother – only to find that her mother has just died! She cries on her mother’s grave and the story ends, the story of the tragic mulatto.

That would have been a great film, especially if they showed how her heart was torn between the white world and the black world and her fight to become a whole person at peace with herself.

Well, that in fact is pretty much the story of “Passing” (1929) by Nella Larsen, herself a black woman who could pass, not “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst, who was white even if she was part of the Harlem Renaissance scene.

Unlike “Passing”, “Imitation” has white main characters and was made into a Hollywood film. It seems that American film-goers, who are mostly white, do not care enough about a black girl passing to make a whole film about it. So, like in the 1959 poster pictured above, the black characters have the less important part of the story. (On the 1934 poster only the white characters appear!)

Both films are mainly about a white woman who becomes rich and famous and gives her daughter everything – but her love. Peola gets the subplot. She thinks by being white she will have everything – but she will not have her mother’s love.

The 1934 film sticks closer to the book, but it is slower and stiffer, like a stage play. Peola’s mother is pure Mammy, even to the point of wanting to give up millions to remain the servant of a white woman! Peola is not believable either: she wants to be white no matter what, her mother be damned! She is also a stereotype: the tragic mulatto – the idea that mixed-race people can never be happy.

In the 1959 film Peola, named Sarah Jane, gets more of a storyline so we find out more about her, but she and her mother are still the same two stereotypes, although less extreme and more believable. It also has a more powerful ending. Mahalia Jackson sings too!

The 1959 film is worth seeing, but do not get your hopes up. And, as always, the book is probably better than either film, though I do not know that for a fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald did say people would forget the book in ten years.

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I saw this on Siditty:

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The American president, William McKinley, was shot on September 6th 1901 and died a week later. At the time of the shooting the president was being guarded by the Secret Service, 11 soldiers and some policemen.

What went wrong? As the Secret Service later admitted, they were too busy looking at an unarmed black man to notice the white man right in front of him who was hiding a gun in a handkerchief.

The killer, Leon Czolgosz (sounds like Cholgosh), a white man from Detroit, had got in line to shake the president’s hand at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Schumann’s “Traumerei” was playing. Behind him in line was a “dark complexioned man”, who turned out to be James “Big Ben” Parker, a waiter and former constable from Savannah, Georgia.

Czolgosz had bandaged his hand in a handkerchief to hide his gun. When McKinley went to shake his hand, Czolgosz shot him twice. Before he could get off a third shot, Parker hit him and knocked him down and knocked the gun out of his hands, saving the president from certain death.

They took McKinley to the exposition hospital for an operation. The second bullet had gone in, through his stomach and his kidney. The doctors could not find the bullet. Two of the new inventions shown off at the exposition – electric lighting and the X-ray machine – could have helped them find the bullet, but neither was used. No one thought to put electric lights inside the hospital and the doctors thought the X-ray machine was too dangerous.

When word first got out about the shooting, it was said that a black man did it.

In the days that followed McKinley seemed to be getting better, but then on the 12th, almost a week after the shooting, he took a turn for the worse. On Friday the 13th it got so bad there was nothing more the doctors could do. In the early hours of the 14th McKinley died.

Czolgosz was an out-of-work factory worker. His parents had come to America from Poland. When he heard anarchist Emma Goldman speak in Cleveland, he tried to become friends with her, but she thought he was with the police. Her words burned inside him. When he heard that the president was going to be at the Pan-American Exposition he went to Buffalo to kill him.

Czolgosz saw McKinley as the enemy of the good working people: his power only helped the rich against the poor, so Czolgosz was not sorry about killing him. This was a new position for him: he used to vote Republican.

His trial lasted less than nine hours. He was put to death by a new invention of the age: the electric chair.

What changed because of the shooting:

  • Theodore Roosevelt became president.
  • The anarchist movement got a bad name in America and lost ground to socialism.
  • The Secret Service was required by law to protect the president.

What did not change:

  • Racial profiling.

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The model minority stereotype (1966- ) is how many in America see Asians, what I will call those whose family came to the country from East Asia (though much of this applies to South Asians too). They are seen as doing well in school, not causing trouble and so on.

Although it might seem like a good thing, many Asians hate being seen that way. Because it is not true. Because Asians are just people, not some strange stereotype cooked up in the minds of white people.

To see just how cooked up it is, notice how it is always the opposite of the stereotype for blacks:

black men Asian men
ill-mannered well-behaved
brainless brainy
cool nerdy
good at sports bad at sports
do not like to work hard-working
do not care about their children family-oriented
violent peaceful
break the law make little trouble
have little education have good educations
poor well-to-do
succeed by preferences succeed by merit
black women Asian women
ugly pretty
loud-mouthed quiet
bossy submissive

That is pretty strange when you consider that the stereotypes about blacks have very little to do with Asians but everything to do with the ugly history of race in America, with whites trying to cover up their crimes against blacks.

The model minority stereotype comes from whites trying to blame blacks for their condition. It lets white people believe that Asians come here with nothing and, even though they are not white, they still make it. So there must be something wrong with blacks!

By holding this stereotype, whites are not patting Asians on the back – they are patting themselves on the back!!

It is a fact that Asians in general have better educations and make more money than even whites. That is because many came to America to get university degrees and stayed. They did not pull themselves up from the bottom – they started near the top!

But it is also a fact that Asians are more likely to live in poverty than whites. Some Asians started out at the bottom and many of them are still there, like Cambodians, Laotians, Hmongs and some of the Chinese. One of the most violent parts of Manhattan is Chinese. Some of the poorest people I have ever seen in America are Hmongs.

And even well-to-do Korean Americans, say, still experience racism. Even when they are born in America whites still see them as foreigners: they are always Asians, never just plain old Americans. Whites do not trust them with important positions. Why? Like with blacks, whites see them as being “not like us”, meaning that in a bad way.

I think in time Asians will come close to being like Jews: in the white American mind they will go from “not like us” to “not quite like us”. They will come to understand that you can be a true-blue American and still look Asian. But Asians will never get closer than the Jews so long as whites are racist: unlike Jews, Asians cannot hide where they came from.

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The pure white woman stereotype was a picture that white Americans had in their heads about white women. It pictured them as being pure in terms of both sex and race. It was the main excuse given for Jim Crow, the laws and customs that kept down black people for a hundred years after they were freed as slaves.

Even today the stereotype lives on in a weakened form, making white Americans uncomfortable when they see a black man with a white woman.

The pure white woman determined how whites looked at blacks. If white women were pure, then black men were the threat. Thus the black brute stereotype, which saw black men as savages. And if white women were pure, then black women were not. Thus the Jezebel stereotype, which saw black women as easy and loose.

This picture of white women had such force that a black man could be killed just for being too friendly with a white woman. Thus the lynchings, where black men hung dead from trees.

At the heart of all this was the raw fear in the hearts of white men that black men would take all of “their” women – meaning the white women. They thought black men were better at pleasing women in bed. So they had to be stopped.

They were stopped in three ways:

  1. White men kept the races apart with Jim Crow laws, laws backed up by lynchings.
  2. White men made sure that most black men were kept poor, making them undesirable to white women as husbands.
  3. The One Drop Rule meant that any children a white woman had by a black man would be black too.

Black men were kept from white women, but white men continued to rape black women without consequence.

So, in the name of keeping white women pure, to keep them up on that pedestal, blacks were kept down.

But white women were kept in their place too, even if it was up on a pedestal somewhere closer to the angels.

The American magazines and religious books of the 1800s told white women that to be good and pure they should leave the dirty business of running the world to their husbands. So no need to vote. They were told that making beds was much better for them than reading books, which would only fill their heads with the wrong ideas. And so on.

The Jim Crow laws came down in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1967 black men could marry white women anywhere in the country.

But even now some white people are still not comfortable seeing a black man with a white woman. White women are still held up as more beautiful than anyone and more morally upright, despite “Girls Gone Wild” and other things. And when a white woman is missing it can be on the news for days and days, while missing black women never seem to make the news for some reason.

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The coon stereotype (1600s – ) is one of the main ways white Americans have of looking at black men. It sees black men as being not particularly bright or hard-working, as shiftless and good-for-nothing, as someone you cannot count on, who would rather live off of the work of others. Whites saw them that way as slaves and still tend to see them that way even now.

Coons, in the pure, lived in slow motion: they moved slowly and talked slowly. They could never manage to speak proper English and always messed up long words. They were easy to fool and take advantage of. They loved to eat watermelon and play games of chance. When they had money they dressed to show off. They avoided marriage, creating matriarchs, but when they did marry they were ruled by their Sapphire wives. They have big smiles and wide-open eyes. They were friendly, not violent, but could not be trusted with anything.

From what we know, blacks as slaves were worked hard. Before the British stopped the slave trade and slaves were still cheap, they were sometimes worked to death. Someone in Barbados had worked it out: you got the most for your money if you could work a slave to death in seven years. And they did.

So, like many of these stereotypes, this one is less about how black people truly are and more about hiding an uncomfortable truth about white people: that whites are not hard-working enough, that they would rather live off the work of others. It comes from the guilt of owning and using slaves.

The coon image has been firmly planted in the American mind, first by minstrel shows in the 1800s and then by Hollywood.

Coons were common in American films in the 1930s and 1940s. The black actor Stepin Fetchit became rich and famous playing coons. He thought he was helping the cause of black people. It was kind of like Halle Berry winning an Oscar for playing a Jezebel character. You can be liked by whites for the wrong reasons.

Part of the coon thing is to speak bad English. It shows whites what little intelligence blacks have. The English you hear coons speak in Hollywood films was taught to them by whites – it is not something that blacks spoke themselves in those days, if ever. “”I’se be catchin’ ma feets nah, boss.”

In the 1950s even whites stopped laughing at coons, but you still see them in films. Tyrese Gibson in John Singleton’s “Baby Boy” (2001) comes to mind, though he grows out of it. Some say Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars films was one too.

These days the coon stereotype is used to excuse the low position of black men compared to whites: you need brains and hard work to succeed in America and, the stereotype says, too many black men are just too coon to keep up.

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The black brute stereotype (1870s – ) is one of the pictures white Americans have in their heads about black men: as savage, violent, amazingly strong and not caring about right and wrong. Black men rape and kill for no reason. They cannot control themselves. Whites do not believe that every black man is like that, but they think plenty of them are.

Willie Horton, Emmett Till and Rodney King were all seen in this light. It is why Susan Smith could blame a black man for killing her children and be believed: because black men are like that: they kill for no reason, even children!

It is why whites are afraid to walk alone in black neighbourhoods: some black man might jump out of nowhere and rape or kill them. They especially like to rape and kill complete strangers at night. It is why whites cross the street to the other side – just to be safe! As if savage killers cannot cross the street too!

When a white man kills someone, white people ask, “Why did he do it?” But when a black man kills someone they do not ask why. They already know: because he is black.

As stereotypes go, this one is pretty new: it did not arise till the 1870s, after the black slaves were freed. As slaves they were seen as simple and childlike. Once freed, they were seen as being wild and out of control.

So if blacks were not kept in line by terror and lynchings, black men would freely rape white women. What, after all, would stop them? This became the stated excuse for Jim Crow – to protect pure white women against savage black men. When Congress tried to pass a law against lynching, white Southerners blocked it in the Senate for just this reason.

As it turns out, of all the blacks who were lynched only about one in seven was guilty of raping a white woman. In the case of Emmett Till all he did was call a white woman “Baby”. That was enough for her husband and her brother to kill him, a 14-year-old boy – and get away with it.

The true brutes in Jim Crow times were white men. They raped far more women, black and white – and, in the case of black women, got away with it. They were the ones who carried out the lynchings – which were far more savage and frequent than anything blacks had the power to do.

And even today blacks are three times more likely to be physically threatened, harmed or killed because of their race than are whites. So this idea of whites as peaceful and blacks as threatening to whites is not rooted in fact. It is rooted in something else.

Yes, there are black men who are violent and savage, who do unspeakable things. But there are white men like that too. In either case, they are hardly common enough to reasonably determine one’s ideas about the ordinary people of either race.


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The tragic mulatto was a stock character in white American fiction from 1842 till at least 1959. She – most often it was a she – was nearly all white but part of her was black. She would hide or deny her blackness through most of the story but in the end it would catch up with her and her life would end in tragedy.

The most famous tragic mulattoes were Peola in “Imitation of Life” (1934) and Dorothy Dandridge, both on film and off.

Whites do not seem to write about tragic mulattoes much any more, but it still comes up, as in “The Human Stain” (2003). The ideas behind it are still there. Barack Obama, for example, could wind up being read as one by whites: being part white he held such promise, but his blackness proved his undoing.

Even today some whites see biracial people (mulattoes) as having a divided soul: being neither truly black nor truly white, it is hard for them to be at peace with themselves and the world.

In most cases it does not work that way. Because of the One Drop Rule in America a white person who is part black is seen as all black. Blacks will accept him as one of their own but whites will not. To whites his blackness is a stain, a sign that he is not quite right inside. That is why Malcolm X, Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Alicia Keys and other Americans who are partly or even mostly white see themselves as black.

To think they could or would have divided loyalties you would have to be white or be someone who has never found himself at the wrong end of the white American world.

Yet in all the stories the mulatto is torn between the two worlds.

The moral of the tragic mulatto is the One Drop Rule. Trying to pass for white always ends in tragedy. You might fool the world for a while and even yourself, but in the end your one drop of blackness will come out and be your downfall. To be truly white you must be all white.

Tragic mulattoes hate their blackness and all things black. They want to be loved and accepted by whites. They want a white lover. They get one, but it never lasts.

The most famous tragic mulatto was the character Peola in “Imitation of Life” (1934), a film based on the book by Fannie Hurst. Peola became a byword among blacks until the 1970s.

Peola had a black mother but was light enough to pass for white. She was played by Fredi Washington, herself a light-skinned black woman who could have passed for white. Peola hated being black: she wanted to be white. But to do that she would have to turn her back on her own mother. She did. Her mother died of a broken heart. Peola came to the funeral and came to her senses – but it was too late.

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The Mammy stereotype was the main way white Americans looked at black women from the early 1800s to the 1950s. Think of Aunt Jemima, Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and even Nell Carter in “Gimme a Break” (1981-1987). Regina Taylor in “I’ll Fly Away” (1991-1993) was the anti-Mammy and probably ten times truer to life.

The Mammy pictured female household slaves as:

  • fat,
  • middle-aged,
  • dark-skinned,
  • undesirable, at least to white men,
  • given enough power to run the household,
  • happy to serve whites, always smiling and laughing,
  • perfect straight, white teeth.

This is a complete and utter lie.

The ugly truth is that they were:

  • thin, because they barely got enough to eat;
  • young, because only one in ten ever saw age 50;
  • light-skinned, a daughter of rape;
  • desirable to white men and therefore raped;
  • utterly powerless,
  • extremely unhappy.

And most likely had bad teeth too since the rest of the stereotype is such a lie.

Even after the slaves were freed the Mammy stereotype continued to put a happy face on black women’s lowly position in society, helping to set at ease the hearts of good white people everywhere.

Mammies were so happy to serve whites that in the American films of the early 1900s they are shown giving up riches and even their freedom for the chance to continue serving “their white family” (their own husbands and children be damned, apparently).

Household slaves were not as common as you might think. While slaves working in the field picking cotton made their masters money, slaves working in the house did not.

Black women working in the houses of white people only became common after the slaves were freed. From the 1860s to the 1950s almost the only way for a black woman to make money was to become a maid, cook or washerwoman. A well-to-do white family could afford a black maid who cleaned, cooked and looked after the children.

Since well-to-do whites mainly knew black women as maids, the Mammy stereotype became the main one, especially in Hollywood.

Mammy was so much a part of American life that the very first song ever heard in a film was “My Mammy” by Al Jolson in 1927. You can see her two feet in the old “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.

The most famous Mammy by far was Aunt Jemima. Modelled on Nancy Green, she became the face and name of a just-add-water pancake mix. Green was at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, making pancakes, singing songs and telling stories of the old South when black people and white people were so happy. She became known across the country. “I’se in town, honey.”

You can still see her on the box. She now has a perm instead of a kerchief to cover her hair, but she still has the Mammy dark skin, perfect white teeth and smile. Happy to serve.

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The welfare queen stereotype (1976- ) is one of the pictures that white Americans have in their heads about black women. It sees them as living comfortably on welfare (the dole) bringing up a big family without a husband, with children from different fathers. It views black women as unwilling to work, unwilling to control their (apparently considerable) sex drive and unwilling to better themselves.

It is the stereotype that Shirley Q. Liquor plays for laughs.

Changes in the law in the 1990s outlawed welfare queens. You can no longer be on welfare forever. But even when the law allowed it, most welfare queens – women living on welfare as a way of life – were not black but white!

Most people on welfare are not black and about half of all blacks are middle class.

You would never know these things from the stereotype. That shows you how far from the truth it is.

But a stereotype is not so much based on hard-headed facts as on what it is convenient for the stereotyper to believe. Here the welfare queen shines:

  • She supports white ideas of blacks as poor, oversexed and not particularly bright.
  • She takes the blame for the troubles that poor blacks have. That points the blame away from whites, allowing them – and the country at large – to wash their hands of black poverty.
  • She does not have a bad life: she gets paid for doing nothing!
  • She gives the Republican party an excuse to cut public spending on the poor, therefore cutting taxes for the rich.

Like any good racist stereotype it is at once racist and yet hides racism!

You would not believe it now, but back in the 1960s the poor were were pictured as being mainly white – as they in fact are! It was only in the 1970s that “black” and “poor” came to mean almost the same thing. As if there were barely any poor whites or well-to-do blacks.

The true face of welfare is not some 19-year-old black woman with three children and one on the way, but a white woman in her 20s with one child.

The term “welfare queen” comes from Ronald Reagan when he ran for president in 1976. He told the story of a black woman who made $150,000 (36,000 crowns) from gaming welfare. She drove a Cadillac, he informed us.

The press tried to find this woman. They wanted to put her on the evening news. They never found her. Reagan had made it up. Yet the idea stuck – because it is a convenient lie for well-to-do whites to believe.

The bit of the stereotype that does have some truth to it, sad to say, is the number of black women who are bringing up children without a husband. In 1994 about half of all households with black children had no father at home. Compare that to one in five for white children – which is how it was for black children once upon a time back in 1960. But that is another story.

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Shirley Q. Liquor is a fat black woman played for laughs by Charles Knipp, a gay white man. He performs his one-man show mainly in gay bars throughout the American South. He is also on radio and the Internet.

Shirley Q. Liquor has has 19 children, speaks bad English, drinks malt liquor, drives a Cadillac and lives off government benefits. She has daughters with names like Chlamydia and Kmartina.

It is all a stereotype about black women: the welfare queen. It pictures black women as having little intelligence, money or willingness to work hard.

Knipp is doing what is known as blackface. Since the early 1800s whites have been painting their faces black and playing black people for laughs. I thought this stuff died out in the 1960s along with Jim Crow. Apparently not.

Protesters were able to shut down some performances in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, but as of 2008 Shirley Q. Liquor is still alive and well in the gay bars of the South. Knipp has been doing the Liquor character for about ten years.

Jasmyne Cannick, Bev Smith and others are sickened by what Knipp is doing. Cannick is trying to shut him down for good. She has an online petition to sign.

Cannick says that Knipp puts down black women.

But Knipp says he honours them, that black people are “more than intelligent enough to discern the nuance,” that many of them like his show.

One of them is RuPaul, a gay black man. He says this:

Critics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots. Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever. I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD.

I am one of those idiots who missed the subtle nuance. I did not see anything to laugh at. Knipp is tasteless and mean-spirited.

Yet I loved Madea, a big black woman played by Tyler Perry. He is a straight black man.

So is that it? Are those who do not laugh at Liquor the true racists?

No. Imagine if Tyler Perry played Shirley Q. Liquor the way Knipp has. We would still be asked to laugh at black women as having little education or money, as speaking bad English and not working hard.

Most black women are not like that. For them it is a put down – one of many, so it is not a matter of “lightening up”. And for those black women who do have little money or education, it is just plain mean to make them a laughingstock because of it.

That is bad enough. But knowing that Knipp is white makes it that much worse. The humour is no longer just mean but racist too.

He would have never done this to his own mother. Or the Jews.

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The Sapphire stereotype is one of the main ways white Americans look at black women. It is why so many of them think black women are hard to get along with.

Sapphire, named after a character in “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, always seems to have her hands on her hips while she is running her mouth – putting down her man, making everything into a fight, never taking anything lying down. She is an overbearing, hard and undesirable woman who drives men away. Think of Tichina Arnold’s character Pam in “Martin”. Michelle Obama comes dangerously close to being read this way.

A study done in 1993 of white American university students showed that nearly all of them saw black women as Sapphires to some degree. It seems to be common among black men too. I am guilty of it myself, which is why I write this.

Many black women seem to feel they have to be strong. You do not hear that so much from white women. That gives some black women a hard edge. They often come off seeming hard and overbearing even when they do not mean to. That gives the stereotype an element of truth.

But just because there is some truth to it does not mean it is completely true.

Some of it is just pure stereotype. For example, where white women are said to be “independent”, black women are said to be “emasculating”, robbing their men of their sense of manhood. Where white women are said to be standing up for themselves, black women are seen as wanting a fight. And so on. The same actions are read differently.

This makes it harder for black women to become leaders. Think if Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama were both running for president. They would not be judged the same way. Think then of what must go on inside businesses where women are trying to move up.

The Sapphire stereotype also hurts their chances of getting married. What man would knowingly marry a woman like this? Black men sometimes use it as an excuse to go after white women. For many white men it is one of the main things (but not the only thing) that keeps them away from seriously dating black women.

In my own experience the Sapphire stereotype seems to be the most true to life.

Yet, even so, the Sapphire stereotype seems to be cut from the same cloth as the Jezebel one: Just as Jezebels are blamed for their rape by white men, so Sapphires are blamed for the weak position of their men in society – instead of blaming the very same white men!

In the Moynihan Report in the 1960s the government wanted to know why blacks were so poor. Part of the blame went to a form of the Sapphire stereotype: the Matriarch.

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The Jezebel stereotype (1630s- ) is one of the main ways white Americans look at black women. It is why so many whites think black women are loose, immoral and oversexed.

Jezebel, named after an evil queen in the Bible, is a loose woman who wants sex all the time. She’s gotta have it. Yet at the same time she uses sex to draw men in to get what she wants. Sometimes it is money. Sometimes it is to destroy them. Many whites read Anita Hill this way. She presented herself as a good Christian woman, but white people are not fooled by that. Hip hop videos and Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning performance in “Monster’s Ball” push this image of black women. Angela Bassett refused the part in “Monster’s Ball” for just this reason.

This image of black women is not based on the latest government findings or anything like that. Nor is it even a simple misunderstanding of what black women are like. Instead it is a sick and self-serving stereotype pushed by slave-masters that has not yet died out.

Slave-masters forced black slave women to sleep with them. Deep down they knew it was wrong, that it was a crime, even if the law allowed it (it did – black women were their property). But instead of telling the truth about themselves, they chose to tell a lie about black women. Black women had no way to call them on it and even white women believed it. It has lasted down to our time, finding new life in Hollywood, starting in the 1970s with blaxpoitation films, and later with hip hop in the 1990s.

Before the 1960s the stereotype was so strong that not a single white man in the South was ever thrown in prison for raping a black woman. Not one. And even now it is a hard thing to make stick.

Before the 1960s the stereotype was so sick that white people made pictures of little black girls who talked or acted like they wanted sex. It was supposed to make you laugh.

Slave-masters gave the stereotype force and life because it covered their crimes, but it did not start with them.

When white men first came to black Africa they saw half-naked women! That part of Africa did not yet have a Christian idea of modest dress. But the whites of the time drew a different conclusion: that black women were loose and wanted sex even more than men did.

So did they? Was there any truth to it? From what slave accounts we have, the slave women who had sex with their masters did it almost always out of fear, not desire.

So the Jezebel thing was a lie.

But it proved to be a useful lie, one that has since taken on a life of its own and will take a long time to root out.


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