there is not one single media representation of African-Americans. Depending on the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the type of production (mainstream or independent), and the story being told, there may be a multitude or range of representations. 

At the same time, even with all these representations, there are some common stereotypes and conventions we can see if we pay close attention to the patterns in what we’re viewing. Historically African-Americans have been portrayed as…

…athletes, gangsters, mammies, entertainers, welfare mothers, servants, drug dealers, video vixens, matriarchs, divas, deadbeat dads…

…violent, lazy, animalistic, sexual, physical, angry…

These stereotypes and conventions may not reflect our reality or any reality we personally know or recognize. In fact, they simply may be common shorthand used by those working behind-the-scenes doing the writing, directing, producing, casting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup.

If we can start to see patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, their body language, their speech, where they live, what kind of work they do, how they interact with others of the same or different ethnicity, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.

dig in...do now 

Begin by making a list of specific representations of African-Americans you can think of in American media. Also, take a look at the media on this website tagged “African-American.” Then, consider:

  • What types of representations are these?
  • Are the characters stereotypical or complex?
  • If they are stereotypical, what kinds of stereotypes do you notice?
  • Are the stereotypes based on how the individuals look? What they say? How they speak? What they do?
  • Are they violent or peaceful? Are they sexualized? Are they lazy or hardworking?
  • Who are their love interests?
  • Are they protagonists or antagonists? Heroes or villains?