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Stereotypes that have been associated with African Americans
Throughout history African Americans have had certain stereotypes attached to the color of their skin. One of these stereotypes has been the uncivilized manner in which African American live and the savagery that is within them. The portrayal of the African American stereotype has evolved from of the 19th century to the 21st century and has worked its way into social and political spheres with portrayals like blackface and the mammy persona.
The stereotype is important to racial ideology because it inherently creates a hierarchy based on race. It places African Americans at the bottom of this hierarchical pyramid on a basis of skin color. There is a forced shift in power that is created by this hierarchy because race is typically imposed by those outside that are looking in not by the individual. There is no choice on the behalf of the individual when deciding on what race an individual identifies as.
As seen in the image the blackface character would require an individual to cover their face with either “a layer of burnt cork on a layer of coca butter or black grease paint and exaggerated red lips were painted around their mouths”. (“Blackface”) The shows in which the blackface character would be included in would show the character imitating black music and dance and speaking in a "plantation" dialect.
The savage stereotype makes its way into the perceived way that African Americans are seen physically. There are traits that are enhanced and exaggerated in order to fit these stereotypes of savagery into the depictions of African Americans. An example of this is the prevalence of the characterization of blackface in the 19th and 20th century. The blackface character would be depicted by both African American and whites. The characterization of blackface became very popular in the world of entertainment. This blackface character made audiences expect any one with black skin color to conform to the African American stereotypes. Blackface engraved the image of what would be seen as the typical African American into the minds of those watching.
Other characterizations of African American stereotypes included the mammy persona. The mammy persona was so popular that “by the late 19th and early 20th Century, the mammy caricature was so commonplace, that in the minds of many White persons then, this was their image of how a Black woman was supposed to be portrayed.” (“Pitlane Magazine”) The characterization of the mammy made its way into the perceived way that others would see African American women. The mammy character stemmed from African American women being hired as domestic workers. The mammy was the family cook, cleaner, laundress. The mammy was portrayed as being happy and contented in her role in life. The role of the mammy was seen as to be to serve her white until she died. This once again created an inequality when it came to comparing African Americans and others. African Americans were seen as inferior and made to serve.
Stereotypes also made their way into sciences known as racial sciences. Racial sciences would focus on physical appearance to classify human beings. Intelligence, morality, savagery, and other character traits or inner qualities of a person would be determined by these racial sciences. (Nelson) Craniology, Phrenology, and Physiognomy were some of these racial sciences. Craniology focused on the size and the shape of the skull to determine race, intelligence, and criminal tendencies. Phrenology would use bumps in the head to establish characteristics of each race. Finally, Physiognomy used features such as eyes, head, mouth, and ears to establish characteristic. African Americans were seen as savages by these sciences because of physical characteristics. Some of these characteristics were “the abnormal length of the arm, weight of brain, thick protruding lips, exceedingly thick cranium and short, black hair, eccentricity elliptical or almost flat in sections.” (Green) Some used the classification of African Americans as savages as justification to the violence and mistreatment that African Americans suffered during slavery and beyond. Racial sciences reinforced the racial hierarchy perceived by some. This racial hierarchy placed African American at the bottom and at the top were Europeans and European Americans.
As seen in the image above, African Americans are seen to be individuals that wear certain clothes and are violent in nature. You can see the individual in the left with jewelry such as a gold watch and a gold chain with two guns, one in each hand. The individual has various tattoos and gives a posture that is seen as thuggish. The individual on the right is the complete opposite. Even though an African American could be dressed as the individual on the right, they will be seen as how the individual at the left is depicted.
In the 21st century, stereotypes have created the idea that African Americans are criminals and are prone to be seen in a more biased manner. Characters that are seen as thugs and criminals are mostly portrayed by an African American actor or actress. These movies and television shows that portray African Americans as criminals make the stereotyping assigned to African Americans more believable. The portrayal of such violent and criminally inclined characters have an even larger effect on those who have had little to no interactions with African Americans. Present day depictions have a large effect on how these stereotypes are accepted but also the history of such characterizations shown in the past also fuel such tendencies to believe what is being watched on the television screens and in movie theaters. Some say that creating characters that go against such stereotypes is very difficult to do because it goes against the preexisting notions that society has about African Americans. As said in an article of the New York Times, “To people who may know few blacks personally, television or movie stereotypes reinforce widely held notions about black sexual prowess, criminality or laziness and make comedies easier to execute because there is less explaining to do.” (Wilkerson)
The portrayal of such characters make these stereotypes accepted and made part of today’s culture and society. The pursuit of education or the gain of wealth does little to no difference in some’s perceived notions of African Americans.