Cultural Stereotypes of African Americans in Media

People have been categorizing things since the beginning of time to make the life easier and more meaningful. The results of this categorization are the existing cultural stereotypes that highlight the existing differences between people of different nationalities and races. Generally, we use stereotypes for many reasons, but more often to explain and justify the cultural forms of prejudice. Media, which is the most powerful source of stereotypes and this portrayal of people on TV or in films, may influence the general attitude of the society towards them and their life in general. African Americans have been shown in a different way, as people who possess negative personal characteristics and low achieving status and sometimes in a positive manner.

As the concept of stereotype is rather ambiguous, scholars cannot single out one definition of it. Usually, cultural stereotype is defined as a distorted, exaggerated and oversimplified idea about certain group of people, nation, country, race or gender. Stereotypes are usually passed down over generations through traditions and culture. They apply to every member of a certain group and are usually used to justify prejudice and discriminations. Sometimes, stereotypes are not based on facts and created under the influence of social conditions and previous experience. In most cases, the words “stereotype” and “stereotypical” have negative coloring.

Nowadays, stereotype is considered to be a stable image that is formed as a result of generalization of individual’s personal experience and biases of the society due to the influence of the media and public opinion. Sometimes stereotypes are identified with the traditions, customs, myths and rituals. Although they are similar in some  way, stereotypes are notable for their unique psychological basis. Whereas cultural traditions and myths are open and objective, stereotypes are the product of hidden prejudiced attitudes. Speaking about the stability of cultural stereotypes, it should be mentioned, that they can be either time enduring or changing. Some stereotypes may disappear or change within the short period of time while others remain the same for centuries.

It is not a secret, that media have been criticized for negative representation of African Americans. From the 1920s people had been enjoying rather popular sitcom Amos’n’Andy that depicted all the existing stereotypes about the black community. It is proved that media greatly influence on public opinion, thus, such a portrayal may become a major cause of other people’s negative attitude towards others. Nowadays, however, media seems to be more respectful and sensitive to different cultures, races and ethnicities, the oversimplified portrayals still affect the way people perceive one another and the way people value themselves.

As it was already mentioned, media depicts African Americans as people who had service occupational role. Usually, African Americans appeared on TV as servants, cooks, house cleaners, musicians and so on. It is obvious, that these stereotypes are the products of slavery and the prejudice that black people cannot fill any executive position. It is true, that even a couple years ago it was almost impossible to see African American having a recognizable occupation. In many films females with black skin played the roles of maids, housecleaners and servants. One of the stereotypical images of African Americans is “Mammy”, which originated in the film Gone With the Wind. This enslaved woman, who takes care of children, is depicted as devoted and loving. This image had a great impact on the perception of black women and even today this stereotype appears in new movies and TV shows.

Very often, the characteristic features that African Americans possess are illustrated as stereotypically negative. The male individuals, portrayed in media, seem to be brainless, greedy, comical or dishonest. Among the other negative characteristics were untidiness, disrespect, hopelessness, lack of education, and many others. Generally, Black characters had lower social and economic statuses and that is why they were considered low achievers. Females were also shown as weak and less dominant than males. One may notice the existence of a great number of films, where African Americans are portrayed as criminals. Among the most prominent and influential ones are the movies The Birth of Nation, Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society. These films, although they have become multi-million ones, resulted in the stereotype, that the majority of people with black skin tend to be involved in crimes. The problem is that people, who watch films or TV shows, perceive the information without clear understanding that there are thousand of other African Americans who do not resemble the criminals from the movies.

However, there are many positive stereotypes regarding the portrayal of African Americans in media. These stereotypes are becoming dominant nowadays. Indeed there are many TV shows and movies where African Americans are shown as helpers and givers, not aggressive, but caring people. Today, they occupy the positions of policemen, doctors, and teachers. The idea of multiculturalism and equality makes media portray African Americans similar to their White counterparts.

To sum up, cultural stereotypes, which are the stable ideas about a definite group of people, are very important for the perception of reality. Media, namely TV shows, news, and films, are the most powerful sources of stereotypes nowadays. During the long period of time African Americans were illustrated as people with negative traits of character and low achieving status. There are plenty of biases against African Americans  that they are criminals and gangsters. All the mentioned stereotypes were created by media and influenced the perception of reality and attitude towards other people.

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