The Black Lives Matter movement and constructed stereotypes in the US media

Sara Amr
Sunday 21 Jun 2020

The issue of racism in the United States is not only a domestic issue, but a global issue in the era of global media

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” — Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
The current “Black Lives Matter” movement surely got our attention in one way or another, whereby the movement highlights the systematic racism African Americans have faced throughout their history in the United States, from slavery to segregation to the current focus on police brutality.
It might be surprising how constructed media stereotypes play a palpable role in reflecting and enforcing racist beliefs against African Americans. One of the major stereotypes is the “gangster” or “criminal” figure that was first introduced during the 1970’s through “Blaxploitation” films wherein crimes were being framed and portrayed as a modern play in which criminals were categorised through certain social and physical features (black skin and black community) which are the “evil forces” in the play. On the other hand, white skin colour is linked to cops, law enforcement officials and victims. Notably, racial stereotypes were not only introduced during desegregation and the 1970’s; they are indeed traced back to slavery and segregation. The “Mammy” and the “Coon” were from initial stereotypes derived from the idea that African Americans are genetically dependent and cannot be positioned in high ranked jobs because of their basic nature.
The ending of segregation marked a new beginning of African American portrayals in US media, especially with the introduction of Blaxploitation films in the 1970s. African Americans were proved to become effective movie protagonists. However, white/black relations within these movies were controversial because they all revolved around underdogs fighting between black drug dealers, criminals, pimps, gangsters and white police. This can be seen in movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Super Fly (1972), Hit Man (1972) and Black Caesar (1972). Blaxploitation films had an influence on movie production in the late 1990s and 21st century and continues to frame African Americans as criminals, pimps and gangsters in movies like Do the Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood in the late 1990s.
During the 21st century, elements of Blaxploitation movies were seen in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), Kill Bill (2003) and Inglorious Basterds (2009). The goal of empowering African Americans in the media through Blaxploitation films backfired, whereby these movies further perpetuated negative stereotypical images of African Americans.
Patricia Hill Collins an African American author, who wrote Black Feminist Thought, emphasised that racial stereotypes of black women are traced back to the times of slavery and segregation, not only during the Blaxploitation period. Stereotypes of African American women were mostly concentrated on the image of the "Mammy”. The Mammy stereotype justified the horrors of slavery, whereby her characteristics (contented cook, satisfied with domestic service) suggest that being submissive is not only one of Mammy’s characteristics towards her Caucasian masters, but it’s also engraved in her genes. Putting African American women into slavery is thereby justified.
The cult of true womanhood during slavery was generally based on the characteristics of white women (piety and purity). However, African American women were framed in totally different ways in popular culture. The Mammy stereotype had been constantly repeated through American animation. For example, it crystalised in one of the most well-known animated series: Tom and Jerry. It was represented through the "mammy two shoes” icon: an African American maid and cook who is an overweight middle aged woman. Her portrayal is a reflection of the black maid who worked in white households during the period after the Civil War. 
The stereotype was repeated in the image of "Aunt Jemima" as a brand of pancake syrup. Surprisingly this syrup is still sold to the present day. Nonetheless, boycotts by African Americans led Quaker Oats in 1968 to replace the character’s bandana with a headband and make her slimmer and younger. Hence, the cover picture changed from an overweight African American woman wearing a turban to a young, thin lady with wavy black hair.
Another stereotypical black image is the “Coon”, suggesting that African American men are like raccoons or pests. The image entails that African American men are lazy and need to be guided by their white masters. Hence, justifying the institution of slavery and segregation. The “Coon” stereotype can be seen in Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat, Bugs Bunny and Jungle Jitters. Actors such as Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best played the lazy Coon stereotype of African Americans.
It might be surprising for some people that US racism against people of colour indirectly affects Egyptian subconscious beliefs towards black people, here’s why. After the 1946-1991 Cold War, the United States became a megapower and hegemon over the globe, including Egypt. Consequently, it had the ability to enforce and spread US stereotypical beliefs, not only through hard power, but also soft power — and most importantly mass media.
It must be noted that Hollywood’s influence all over the world is extraordinary, especially after the rise of globalisation and global media. A behaviorist model called “The magic bullet” suggests that the message the media enforced is just like a bullet fired from a media gun into the viewer’s mind. The model claims that viewers are indirectly manipulated and persuaded by Hollywood’s message.
As mentioned, the “Black Lives Matter” movement highlights continuing racism in US society. This racism is not only societal, but was also demonstrated in US hegemonic media that Egyptians to this day are influenced by.
Global mass media can be seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it expands nations’ horizons regarding cultural differences and developments. On the other, it affects people’s conscious and unconscious beliefs towards certain racial groups and discriminated minorities. Hence, it either cultivates “brainwashed racists” or “tolerant individuals.”
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