For years Black people, African Americans, those on the African continent, Afro-Caribbean people have all been misrepresented in media as caricatures and stereotypes. Wide groups of African diaspora in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, the UK, Europe, Canada, Asia and Australia are often not represented at all and are rendered invisible in the world imagination. Not only do these misrepresentations or lack of representation of African diaspora promote racist stereotypes and undermine political power, these images create barriers to unity within our African diaspora.
Often the media leans heavily on stereotypes, especially in defining the place Black people hold. Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago most of the television programming was from the US. The oft-promoted stereotypes in media, glorifying segments of Black society characterized by lack of education, poverty, crime, drug use, gang activity, misogyny, promiscuity and excessive materialism was what I came to expect Black Americans must be like in general. This image is pervasive in and out of the US. Having lived in several parts of the US I realize I was sold the same untrue stereotype that feeds the white supremacist narrative of Blacks as an inferior group.
This can have several effects on how Black/African diaspora people outside of the US view Black/African Americans. They may be disgusted by the behavior shown in the media, including so called “reality” tv, and develop some pretty negative ideas of this demographic, leading to or building upon internalized racism. They may, alternatively, strive to imitate the behaviors and values which, when you look at what values are perpetuated, can be rather destructive. Often the outcomes of media portrayal of Black /African Americans may lead to divisive or destructive perceptions.
Now consider the images of Black/African diaspora outside of the US that Americans see. Every black person in a “developing”/“third world” country is uneducated, poor, and if you’re in continental Africa you’re starving and dirty as indicated by the perpetual fly in the many charity ads. If you’re in the Caribbean you are expected to smoke weed, party and be loose or idle. And like I said before, if you’re a Black/African diaspora person in the UK, Europe, Canada, Asia, Australia or a “Hispanic” or “Latino” then you essentially don’t get seen. This means often Black/African Americans have truly negative stereotypes of their skin-folk in other countries, or don’t even acknowledge their existence. This can lead to resentment or rejection by those on the receiving end of xenophobic or ignorant American stereotypes.
Naturally this, among other things, can exacerbate strained relations among the African diaspora, and we all know divide and conquer is an age old and effective strategy. When Black people are being oppressed all over the world we cannot afford to be divided. Of course the world is not made up of the 2 countries, ’Merica and not-’Merica. There are so many nations, cultures and experiences, but few places have the media reach and power to shape our images of each other, as does the US. Yet even within the various countries of the world that do have the resources to produce their own media, how much of it goes beyond a shallow representation of Black complexity? How many of those that do are seen globally?
Even for children within the US, the stereotypes and images can become self-perpetuating. A young person who sees this predominant image and is not presented with other alternatives may model herself/himself after it. Psychologist Albert Bandura found that children are more influenced by someone who is similar to them than by someone who is different in obvious and significant ways. Thus some children may identify more readily with certain prevalent images over others if the image looks like them and they are surrounded by similar conditions. Also the theory of stereotype embodiment proposes that pervasive stereotypes can be assimilated by an individual from the surrounding culture and can lead to self-definitions which in turn may affect behavior. In other words individuals who define themselves as Black may conform to a stereotype because that is what society’s definition of Blackness teaches them.
In the same vein, there are alternative images that reflect different aspects of Black society and some people adopt less stereotypical models to inform how they define themselves. Filmmakers of color are breaking the mold and obtaining skills and resources to create their own media. The internet improves (though not yet levels) the playing field and more of our stories from around the globe can be told. I want to see more of us supporting such media. We need to promote each other, promote media that empowers and uplifts us and tells our various stories. We need to tangibly help our filmmakers gather the money and resources to produce our stories. The same goes for books, music, magazines, photography, poetry, visual art, fashion, all forms of media expression. We need, when these stories are put out, to see them, hear them, share them, speak about them, even push them to do better.
There is no one Black experience, and as such, there are multitudes of stories to be told. Producing these stories goes beyond entertainment – it is communication. We need to bridge communication among the African diaspora and represent ourselves honestly, and creatively, defining ourselves in this world. This way others, the mainstream media, the modus operandum, cannot continue representing us dishonestly and defining us as inferior. This way we can develop foundations built on respect and understanding, seeing each other for who we are, hearing each other’s stories and connecting through powerful and undeniable communication. We need more varied, less stereotypical images of Black people. Media is a powerful tool for communication and the Black/African diaspora is diverse and interesting. Let’s talk to each other.
© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved