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.

See also:

Read Full Post »

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.

See also:

Read Full Post »

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.

See also:

Read Full Post »

I saw this on Siditty:

See also:

Read Full Post »

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.

See also:

Read Full Post »

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.

See also:

Read Full Post »

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.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: