Racism and the Production of Whiteness in Popular Culture

Warning: This page contains offensive images. They are reproduced here as part of the effort to criticize the persistence of racism in popular culture.

Every attempt to teach critically about stereotypes runs into this discouraging paradox: you have to look at or reproduce the very images you hope to condemn and eliminate. Thus analyzing stereotypes runs the risk of putting these images into circulation even more, or of unintentionally causing hurt and harm. Anti-racist teachers need to beware of this paradox, and spend considerable time on other images as well (ask students to create portfolios of positive images drawn from the dominant media, for example, an exercise whose frustrations can be enlightening).

Yet because racism so intimately targets our visual senses, colonizes our eyes, and distorts what we believe we see, learning to look critically remains an essential task. Many artists of color have engaged in this work, teaching us to see through their re-visioning of previously popular images, stereotypes, and conventions of representations.

For example, Mark Steven Greenfield, a contemporary African American artist, creates a series of works based on racist images from the blackface and minstrel traditions. He puts these back into circulation, however, with a critical difference, marking them with phrases and redesigns that interrupt and subvert their former meaning.


So Whass Up by Mark Steven GreenfieldIn this image, ("So Whass Up With This Shit"), the viewer reads the message of the eyechart and suddenly finds the photo defamiliarized. This account from the Steve Turner gallery clarifies the project:

"Since 2000, Greenfield has worked on the Blackatcha series in which old photographs of blackface entertainers are juxtaposed with text presented in the form of an eye exam chart. Greenfield continues to produce works in this series and his newest works will be featured in a one-man exhibition at Steve Turner Gallery in March, 2004. A book on this body of work, also entitled Blackatcha, was published in 2002 and can be ordered from the gallery for $25." (gallery web site)

In his statement for the gallery exhibition, entitled "Post Minstrel," Greenfield states: "At the beginning of the new millennium, I took stock of the stereotypical images that have haunted African Americans and concluded that I could not endure them any longer. I began to study the effect blackface minstrelsy had on the American psyche and drew parallels between that and contemporary appropriations of African American culture. In my work I alter the context of the stereotype in order to buffer the viewer's visceral reaction to its grotesqueness. I challenge the viewer to suspend or embrace their emotional reaction long enough to analyze what they are looking at. I acknowledge the viewer's indignation by using text which is sometimes as counter culture as are the images. Blackface minstrelsy became the dumping ground for everything the dominant culture despised about itself and as such became it's shadow. Concurrently African Americans projected every negative aspect identified with them on these images, making these their shadow as well. I believe that we African Americans can never fully exorcise that which we do not first recognize. Therefore, it is my hope that recognition of this alter ego will be the key to removing it's power."

Greenfield's series forces us to look, and not look, at these disturbing images. As the viewer leans in to try and read the sentence spelled out on the eye chart, the eye is taken away from the image towards discerning Greenfield's satiric, biting, or angry rejoinders to them. We can't look closely at the image without reading Greenfield's critique of it, which in turns creates a self-consciousness about the racial gaze on the part of the viewer.

Greenfield's work is featured on the web page of NPR's coverage of a two-part radio show on minstrelsy and contemporary American culture.

 Why do white people dress up in blackface? African American critic Manthia Diawara observes that "In the blackface myth, there is a white fantasy which posits whiteness as the norm. What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite" (source). Scholars and critics now agree that these racist caricatures have long been a way for "whiteness" to produce the illusion of its difference and supremacy through a kind of negative theater. Lacking character itself, "whiteness" appears as the negation of "blackness," as if to say "Whatever we are, we're not like them!" The enjoyment of white performers and audiences, however, also suggests the degree to which they identify and long to participate in the very excessive, sensual, or rebellious behavior they appear to satirize (so that scholar Eric Lott refers to minstrelsy as expressing both a "love" for black culture and a "theft" of its identity). The recent scandal involving a Louisiana judge who dressed up in blackface as a shackled BuckwheatLittle Rascalsconvict reminds us, once again, of the pervasive racism in American popular culture. Incredibly, the judge's brother defended him in part by pointing out that he himself was also in blackface, as "Buckwheat" from the Little Rascals T.V. series.



This man's ignorance about the evil and hurtful effects of such stereotypes unfortunately appears all-too-universal among white people who think such portrayls are innocent fun. It seems as if every month brings us yet another story of white people--kids, college students, court judges--once more putting on blackface in a continuance of a racist practice that has always reinforced white supremacy. It's no laughing matter.



 The best internet site documenting and exploring racist imagery involving African Americans is the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memoribilia, curated by Dr. David Pilgrim. Read his essay on how and why he built the collection and gathered its images. This famous drawing shows the original "Jim Crow" figure, purportedly first created by the white Irish performer T. D. Rice, and based on Rice's observation of a black man he once met. The stereotype of the happy and ignorant black man comforted whites during the era of slavery and helped justify the ideology of white supremacy. At the same time these Jim Crow shows and their later minstrelsy spinoffs allowed whites to indulge their fascination with black culture, appropriating it while keeping a distance from it.









Racist caricatures, made popular by the "Jim Crow" figure and later 19th century minstrel shows, continue to pervade popular culture's constructions of whiteness and blackness. Al Al JolsonJolson was a vaudeville singer and "minstrel" performer whose "blackface" renditions of American popular songs captivated white America in the 1920s and 1930s. Jolson's performance of "Mammy" in blackface became the centerpiece of The Jazz Singer, the first full-length "talkie" produced in Hollywood. Critics argue that cultural practices such as blackface are instrumental in the creation of the illusion of racial difference and in the reinforcement of white supremacist attitudes. Jolson was also the subject of another of Greenfield's eyechart deconstructions: the letters appear to spell out "Mammy Should Have Whupped Your Ass."





Figures such as "Amos and Andy" brought the tradition into radio and then television. "Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy—created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The characters first aired as Sam ‘n Henry on Chicago’s WGN in 1926. In 1928, the duo went to rival station WMAQ as Amos ‘n’ Andy" (source). Gosden sold the rights to CBS, which launched the television version of the show in the early 1950s using black actors. Amos 'n Andy was first broadcast on CBS television in June 1951 and lasted some two years before the program was canceled in the midst of growing protest by the black community in 1953. Thus just as motion pictures had gained their initial popularity with race movies (Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Gone With the Wind), so televison became a mass culture industry in part through once more recirculating African American stereotypes that reinforced white supremacy. (See the work of Elizabeth McLeod.) Fifty years after its short original run, the Amos n' Andy show could be bought in a deluxe DVD version from Amazon.com, testifying to the enduring popularity and ideological potency of these images.




Contemporary debates over the politics of blackface cultural images are subjected to harsh satire in Spike Lee's controversial film Bamboozled, in which Damon Wayans plays a black TV executive whose attempt to protest racist caricatures backfires when his plantation revue becomes a hit. Its stars, played by Savion Glober and Tommy Davidson, are (like the historic Bert Williams) African Americans who find themselves blacking up in order to make it in the white-dominated culture industry.

Lee's film reflects a debate among African American artists and critics about collecting or peforming these images. See the special issue of The International Review of African American Art on "STEREOTYPES SUBVERTED? OR FOR SALE?" (14:3 1997) and Kenneth Goings' book Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black American Collectibles and American Stereotyping. Manthia Diawara discusses these developments in his introduction to David Levinthal's photobook Blackface, which attempts to critique the racist imagery of the collectibles through rephotographing them. Comedian Chris Rock got into the act when he posed in blackface for the cover of Vanity Fair, recollecting the tragedy of early 20th century black comedy star Bert Williams, who had to black up for shows before white audiences.

For more information see in particular Michael Paul Rogin's book Black Face, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot; Eric Lott, Love and Theft : Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class; Nelson George, Blackface: Reflections on African Americans in the Movies, and W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. For a powerful visual history of racial caricature in popular culture, see Marlon Riggs's classic video Ethnic Notions.




More About Analyzing Stereotypes

1. The Race for Mascots?


Fightin Whites T-Shirt American Indians adopt White mascot in protest over racial imagery in sports.
Click here to read the story .








2. Making Whiteness by Making Blackness


"What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramount interest because it may be possible to discover, through a closer look at literary 'blackness,' the nature--even the cause--of literary 'whiteness.' What is it for
? What parts do the invention and development of whiteness play in the construction of what is loosely described as 'American'? . . . What I propose here is to examine the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters."

Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (pp. 9,11-12)


Is "King Kong" A Racist Film?


Fay Wray in King KongKing Kong

How did white stereotypes of black sexual assault hide the truth of white violence against black women?

This question has been asked ever since the release of the original King Kong film in 1933, and has been posed again with the release of the 2005 blockbuster directed by Peter Jackson. Peter Edelstein writes in his Slate.com review: "Jackson doesn't deal with the implicit racism of King Kong—the implication that Kong stands for the black man brought in chains from a dark island (full of murderous primitive pagans) and with a penchant for skinny white blondes. But the director has supplied a fatherly black man (Evan Parke) on the crew to look after a teenage misfit (Jamie Bell): See, blacks aren't all out of place in civilization! Some even take care of whites! " Read James Pinkerton's column on the question. Or David Rosen's essay on racial issues in the historical context of the original film. Or Kwame McKenzie's reflections on the film's depiction of "black hyper-sexuality and colonial hysteria."

  What's the difference between generalizations and stereotypes ?


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