Stereotypes of Blacks: Wikis


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Promotional poster for Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled (2000) shows an example of blackface.

Stereotypes of African Americans are generalizations about the behavior of African American groups or individuals. They developed in American culture since the colonial years of settlement, particularly after slavery became a racial institution that was heritable. The early blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century portrayed blacks as joyous, naive, superstitious, and ignorant, characteristics related to the way slaveholders in earlier years believed them to be.

Such scholars as Patricia A. Turner note "stereotyping objects in popular culture that depict blacks as servile, primitive, or simpleminded and explains how the subtle influences of such seemingly harmless images reinforce antiblack attitudes."[1] As with every other identifiable group, stereotypes continue today. Blacks are often portrayed as poor, dumb, jobless, lazy, smelly, very religious, dirty, criminals, and violent. These, as with any stereotype, are unrealistic thoughts of the culture as a whole.


Overview of black stereotypes


History of black stereotypes

The idea of "race" in the United States is based on physical characteristics and skin color. It played an essential part in shaping American society even before the nation existed independently.[2] The perception of black people has been closely tied to their social strata in the United States.[3] In early American history, the primary reason that Africans were in the colonies was as enslaved laborers transported by the slave trade.

Historical archetypes

Black-face archetype of minstrel shows

Minstrel shows portrayed and lampooned black people in stereotypical and often disparaging ways, as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical.

Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to effect the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype — that of the darky or coon. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation.

"Sambo" archetype

This stereotype gained notoriety through the 1898 children's book The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. It told the story of a boy named Sambo who outwitted a group of hungry tigers. The original text suggested that Sambo lived in India, but this fact may have escaped many readers. The book has often been considered to be a slur against Africans.[citation needed] Tigers were common in India but never existed in Africa.

However "Sambo" refers to Black men that were considered very happy, usually laughing, lazy, irresponsible or carefree. This depiction of black people was displayed in films in the 1900s.

"Mammy" archetype

Characteristics of "Mammy" include dark skin, a heavyset frame and large bust, and overall matronly appearance, complete with an apron around her waist and a kerchief on her head. She is overweight and dressed in gaudy clothing, as well as genial, churchgoing, and spiritual to the point of delusion — "Lord have mercy" is a common phrase associated with this archetype.[citation needed] She is compliant in the face of white authority, as in the Aunt Jemima and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind's Mammy characters, standards of this archetype.

The term Mammy is a variant of mother, used most prominently by black people in the South during and soon after slavery. White people used the term, as well, to refer to black female slaves, servants and caregivers, who often cared for white children of the slaveholder household. It became a general term for black women. White people often used it in a sentimental way, but many black people considered it patronizing or insulting.[citation needed] Today, the term mammy, when applied to a black woman, is considered highly pejorative.[citation needed]

"Magic Negro" archetype

The magical negro (sometimes called the mystical negro, magic negro, or our Magical African-American Friend) is a stock character who appears in fiction of a variety of media. The word "negro", now considered archaic and offensive, is used intentionally to emphasize the belief that the archetype is a racist throwback, an update of the "Sambo" stereotype.[4] The term was popularized by Spike Lee, who dismissed the archetype of the "super-duper magical negro"[5] in 2001 while discussing films with students at Washington State University[6] and at Yale University.[7]

"Mandingo Negro" archetype

This stereotypical concept was invented by white slave owners who promoted the notion that male African slaves were animalistic and bestial in nature asserting, for example, that in "Negroes all the passions, emotions, and ambitions, are almost wholly subservient to the sexual instinct. . . .” and "this construction of the oversexed black male parlayed perfectly into notions of black bestiality and primitivism."[8]

Stereotypical portrayal in the media

Early stereotypes

Early minstrel shows lampooned the assumed stupidity of black people. Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843

Early minstrel shows of the mid-19th century lampooned the supposed stupidity of black people. In 1844 Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, arguing for the extension of slavery, wrote,

Here (scientific confirmation) is proof of the necessity of slavery. The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death.[9]

Even after slavery ended, the intellectual capacity of black people was still frequently questioned. Movies such as Birth of a Nation (1915) questioned whether or not black people were fit to run for governmental offices or vote.

In 1916 Lewis Terman wrote in The measurement of intelligence,

(Black and other ethnic minority children) are uneducable beyond the nearest rudiments of training. …There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusual prolific breeding.[10]

Stephen J. Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man (1981) demonstrated how early 20th century biases among scientists and researchers affected their purportedly objective scientific studies, data gathering, and conclusions which they drew about the absolute and relative intelligence of different groups, and of men vs. women.

Some critics have considered Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as racist due to its depiction of the slave Jim, among other black characters. Some schools have excluded the book from their curriculum or libraries.[11] The word "nigger" appears numerous times, and is used to describe Jim and other black characters. While the term was contemporary for the period when Twain wrote the book, some modern readers have found it offensive, particularly those who do not understand the book. Other critics have noted that Twain's portrayal of the relationship between Finn and Jim overturned stereotypes of the time, and recognized Jim's humanity and strength.

Film and television

Political activist and one time presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson said in 1985 that the news media portray black people as "less intelligent than we are."[12] Film director Spike Lee explains that these images have negative impacts "In my neighborhood, we looked up to athletes, guys who got the ladies, and intelligent people," said Lee. "[Now] If you're intelligent, you're called a white guy or girl."[13]

In film, black people are also shown in a stereotypical manner that promotes notions of moral inferiority. In terms of female movie characters shown by race:[14]

  • Using vulgar profanity: black people 89 percent, white people 17 percent
  • Being physically violent: black people 56 percent, white people 11 percent
  • Being restrained: black people 55 percent, white people 6 percent


In Darwin's Athletes, John Hoberman writes that the prominence of African-American athletes encourages a de-emphasis on academic achievement in black communities.[15] Several other authors have said that sports coverage that highlights "natural black athleticism" has the effect of suggesting white superiority in other areas, such as intelligence.[16] Some contemporary sports commentators have questioned whether black people are intelligent enough to hold "strategic" positions or coach games such as football.[17] In another example, a study of the portrayal of race, ethnicity and nationality in televised sporting events by journalist Derrick Jackson in 1989 showed that black people were more likely than white people to be described in demeaning intellectual terms.[18]

The news media: criminal stereotyping

According to Lawrence Grossman, former president of CBS News and PBS, TV newscasts "disproportionately show African-Americans under arrest, living in slums, on welfare, and in need of help from the community."[19] [20]

See also


  1. ^ Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (Anchor Books, 1994).
  2. ^ Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ D. Marvin Jones (2005). Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Praeger Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 0275974626. 
  5. ^ Rita Kempley (June 7, 2003). "Too Too Divine: Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day - but at the Cost of His Soul". Washington Post. Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  6. ^ Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu (October 25, 2004). "Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes". from Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  7. ^ Susan Gonzalez (March 2, 2001). "Director Spike Lee slams 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films". YALE Bulletin & Calendar. Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  8. ^ J.A. ROGERS, III SEX AND RACE 150 (1944) [1]
  9. ^
  10. ^ Racism Learned at an Early Age Through Racial Scripting by Robert Williams, Page. 28. ISBN 1425925952
  11. ^ "Expelling Huck Finn". Retrieved January 8, 2006. 
  12. ^ Associated Press (19 September, 1985). "Jackson Assails Press On Portrayal of Blacks". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-28. 
  13. ^ Spike Lee discusses racial stereotypes
  14. ^ Robert M. Entman; Andrew Rojecki (2000). The Black Image in the White Mind. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-21075-8. 
  15. ^ Hoberman, John (3 November, 1997). [who cares bout black Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race]. Mariner Books. ISBN 0395822920. who cares bout black. 
  16. ^ Hall, Ronald E. (September), "The Ball Curve: Calculated Racism and the Stereotype of African American Men", Journal of Black Studies 32 (1): 104–19, 
  17. ^ Hill, Marc L. (22 October 2003). "America's Mishandling of the Donovan McNabb-Rush Limbaugh Controversy". PopMatters. Retrieved 2007-06-02. 
  18. ^ Sabo, Don; Sue Curry Jansen, Danny Tate, Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Susan Leggett (November 1995). "The Portrayal of Race, Ethinicity, and Nationality in Televised International Athletic Events". Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. Retrieved 2007-06-02. 
  19. ^ Grossman, Lawrence K (Jul/Aug 2001). "From bad to worse: Black images on "White" news" ( – Scholar search). Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 10-7-2007. 
  20. ^ Romer, Daniel; Jamieson, Kathleen H; de Coteau, Nicole J. (June 1998). "The treatment of persons of color in local television news: Ethnic blame discourse or realistic group conflict?". Communication Research 25 (13): 286–305. doi:10.1177/009365098025003002. 

Further reading

  • Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (Anchor Books, 1994).


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