The Importance of Positive Images of African Americans in the Media

Robyn Saleem - Abdusamad:


You sit down and like a bad habit you automatically reach for the remote to your television.  You press that big red power button and instantly you are plugged into a world of exciting programming all for your viewing pleasure. You constantly flip through 100 plus channels and there is this flickering of white going through the screen, but wait…you stop because the change of color caught your attention.  It’s an image of you being carried away in handcuffs by the police or an image of you lying on the ground dead awaiting the vultures to come and take a nibble at your melanoid skin. You are taken with the story being told—because it features your face, but also because it features such negative imagery.


African-Americans first were treated as less than human and then second class citizens since the birth of this country. Forcibly brought here as slaves, African-American’s have never been treated as equals to their white counterparts and that’s largely due to the historical stereotypes from slavery and Jim Crow.  Stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy, stupid, foolish, cowardly, submissive, irresponsible, childish, violent, sub-human, and animal-like, are still rampant in today's society. These degrading stereotypes are reinforced and enhanced by the negative portrayal of African-Americans in the media. African-American characters have appeared in American films since the beginning of the industry in 1888. But African-American weren't even hired to portray African-American in early works. Instead, white actors and actresses were hired to portray the characters while in "blackface." By refusing to hire African-American actors to portray African-American characters, demeaning stereotypes were created and circulated as truth as part of the American narrative.  African-Americans were negatively portrayed in films with the intention of reinforcing white supremacist’s justification for the need to control African-Americans. As a result of negative imagery and Jim Crow laws society’s perception of the Black experience supports many of the systemic problems with race that we see in America today. Television and motion pictures have an unparalleled impacted on the impact on the public’s mind more than any other entertainment medium in the last ninety years.


Unfortunately, the media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of in American culture,  many people in this country, some of whom have never encountered black people, believe these degrading stereotypes of African-American are factual rather than fictional creations of writers—writers who are influenced by American’s sense of race and equality. Everything they believe about African-Americans is determined by what they see on television. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague us today, and until negative images of African-American are extinguished from the media and the systemic forces of racism are dismantled, African-Americans will always be regarded as second-class citizens.


Dealing with racial stereotypes along with gender stereotypes can have a damaging influence on the mental and physical development African American men and women.  Stereotypes impact the way African Americans view themselves and are viewed by others. Stereotypes also affect their sexuality, relationships, education and employment opportunities; however, this is not an exhaustive list. According to The Opportunity Agenda study, media distortions are multi-faceted, especially relative to real-world facts. For example, there is an under-representation of African-American as ‘talking head’ experts, users of luxury items in print ads, and reliable and relatable characters with fully developed backgrounds in fiction shows and films. When it comes to youth and the negative images they see, research shows that expectation and academic performance is lowered due to the effect of negative stereotypes.


It is a commonly held belief that television viewing does more harm than good, especially in young audiences. What is viewed and how the media portrays different ethnicities becomes embedded in the minds of the masses. So, when it comes to the imagery of African-Americans in the media the long term effect plays a huge role in how they perceive themselves. In order to combat the effects of negative stereotypes in the media it is necessary to produce a counter-narrative to the American story. We can start by:

1. Getting to know people as individuals—this goes for people of all ethnic backgrounds. This can help people who use stereotypes as a foundation for judging others move past what they see in movies and television into an experience that’s grounded in one-on-on interaction.

2. Being part of the narrative by focusing positive attention on heartwarming stories of reconciliation and truth. This helps to provide a counter narrative that humanizes the experiences of people of color in American society.

3. Holding the educational system accountable for the images that they use in school curriculum and textbooks. Do this by getting involved with your children’s teachers and school and then by monitoring the textbooks that are being used.


In conclusion, the future of the African-American community depends greatly on promoting positive images of people of color. This can be achieved by making African/African-American history before and after slavery part of American history, by truthfully and fully integrating the contributions of Black Americans into the fabric of the American narrative. Once this is done we can begin to reverse the psychological chains of mental slavery and believing that the African American race is anything but good.


Resources:

- Burgess, Heidi (2003), “Stereotypes / Characterization Frames” University of Colorado Boulder.

- Horton, Y., Brown, E., & Price, R. (1999), “Poverty & Prejudice: Media & Race” Ethics of Development in a Global Environment (EDGE)


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