A middle aged white man with stubble and a fraying dirty coat was sitting on the bench in our church’s lobby. And when I saw him I thought I wonder who he’s murdered?
My next thought was, Where the hell did that thought come from? Why would I think he murdered someone? Who just thinks that? He certainly wasn’t noteworthy, and there are dozens of groups that use our church building for events.
Then I remembered I had been binge watching Elementary. Night after night I had been eye guzzling hours of this procedural crime drama. And the majority of the murderers are white business men and white drug addicts and stubble ridden homeless men in – you guessed it – fraying dirty coats.What shocked me was how quickly my brain started making assumptions about white men in dirty coats. How quickly my mind starting looking for TV murderers in real life. It’s actually embarrassing. I’m a grown man, I should have more control over my thoughts.
Now, it seems that the line was fairly clear between assuming a random white guy on a bench in a the church was murderer and Elementary. Partially because I know A LOT of white men who wear dirty jackets (FULL DISCLOSURE – I hang out with Midwestern hipsters). And Elementary is one of the few shows I watch on TV that continually features white murderers.
But then I got to thinking, if this was my perception of white men in dingy coats, just from binge watching a few episodes of Elementary, what is America’s perception of African Americans? A group who have been depicted in media as having animal-like features, strength, sexuality, and intelligence for hundreds of years? How have these representations led white America to fear and fascination over black America?
As white men were penning the damn words “All men are created equal,” white slave owners were taking out newspaper ads like this one describing their slaves like cows and chickens and run-away dogs. And even after the formal abolition of slavery African Americans, there were traveling shows like “Jumpin’ Jim Crow” where a white man in blackface would describe himself as a “creature.”And sing I drunk de Mississippy up! O! I’m de very creature. I sit upon a hornet’s nest, I dance upon my bead. I tie a viper round my neck an, den I go to bed.
In the 1950’s these same images were leveraged to justify Separate but Equal laws, where white women and children needed to be separated from dangerous and stupid black children.
But these images still populate our Netflix queues. The cackling “Jim Crow” from Dumbo – played by white actor Cliff Edwards trying to imitate a black-ccent – is only one click away.
The Louis Armstrong-esque King Louis in Jungle Book – again played by white actor Louis Prima trying to imitate a black-ccent.A generation was practically raised on Star Wars which prominently featured the modern day Huckleberry Finn of Anakin Skywalker and the dim witted Jar Jar Binks.
And you would be correct.
But the difference is, the animals chosen to represent African Americans have historically been animals chosen to degenerate and justify the oppression of Black Americans.
The first black woman to win an Oscar for a leading role was Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.” The movie literally has the word “MONSTER” in the title. Which (not so fun fact) is in reference to the final meal or “Ball” provided to death row prisoners AKA – the BLACK Lawrence Musgrove played by Sean Combs. Not to mention the fact that Halle Berry – who won the award – has an explicit sex scene with the white man who took part in the execution of her husband/”monster”.
The animal-ization of King James on the cover of Vogue in a posture reminiscent of King Kong and the captured Ann Darrow. – Which was also used in a popular army recruiting poster.Even the casual Top 40 music listener has heard thousands of references to black women’s big booties, Black men’s large penises, and a culture of violence between black men.
Since Elvis, white Americans have used black performers as a way of expressing sexual desires in ways mainstream society deems unacceptable for white people. In the 50’s white people hipshaked, now – white kids twerk.
Don’t believe me? Look at the outcry over Robin Thicke when he released the clearly rapey “Blurred Lines.” And yet the media was largely silent on the complicity of T.I. and Pharrell. This is where history matters. Because history has given us a different set of standards by which to judge African American sexuality. T.I. and Pharell were just being black men. But Robin Thicke should know better.Nicki Minaj has made millions off it.Because she knows there is a direct line between her twerking to My Andaconda don’t want none unless you got buns hun
and Jumpin’ Jim Crow clicking his heels to I tie a viper round my neck an, den I go to bed.
Nicki Minaj and a whole host of black artists have made millions – and it should be said white executives from retails stores to record labels have made billions – by selling these images. All the while, thousands of black artists are making profound and thoughtful art outside of mainstream attention.
Science has shown us that these portrayals matter. And they really matter for white Americans who don’t tend to have a lot of black friends.
The Washington Post reported in 2014 that the average white person has 91 white friends and one black friend.*
And as a white American my brain has a lot of positive relationships and experiences of white men in dirty coats in real life and in the media, so I can easily check my thoughts when I encounter the man in the lobby.
And these negative portrayals of black culture inform our interactions with black America. Making us more suspicious, more scared, and more willing to believe the worst of our black skinned brothers and sisters.
It can be hard to know what to do when our brains are being pounded with these images on all platforms.
But here is the good news: You can change this. Studies have shown that watching positive media portrayals of minorities can change attitudes.
A recent study showed that people who watched the Canadian reality TV show “Little Mosque on the Prairie” featuring positive portrayals of Canadian Muslims had a noticeable increase in positive perceptions of Muslims.As opposed to the other group that watched “Friends”***But if we are going to overcome a nearly constant barrage of negative images about black Americans – from Disney to the nightly news – we are going to need to be intentional about consuming media that portrays black Americans as amazing, loving, and inspiring humans.
We are going to have to be intentional about looking for positive representations of Black culture in a sea of negative media. Because, like it or not, the racist representations are much more popular and pervasive – and therefore commercially viable.
And let me warn you that movies where black people are the recipients of white charity don’t count.
#Oscarssowhite is not about making more movies like The Help, Blindsided or even the recent bio-pic of Jesse Owens, RACE – because these movies were developed by white people and for white people. #Oscarssowhite is about allowing artists of color to determine the narrative.
Here are a few really quality shows created by black artists – but totally view-able by people of all ethnicities – that I have started watching to train my brain to celebrate black America:
Blackish is a unique show in that it centers each episode around an issue in modern black life and explores it from multiple black and white perspectives. There is the deeply religious black grandmother, the emotionally absent grandfather, Rainbow, a hippy surgeon who doesn’t want to make everything about race, and Dre, a newly rich father who grew up in Compton and is trying to instill “blackness” into his three entitled children. The episodes in season 2 (which I recommend starting with) even begin with a quick black history lesson about the topic to get viewers up to speed.
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and an amazing team of correspondents tackles race, gender, and politics with a wit and humor that helps me get through the day.And if you are into drama and suspense I recommend watching everything Shonda Rhimes has ever made.But let me warn you that no TV show or music – no matter how positive the representation of African Americans – will replace the power of having a personal relationship. And in case you’re thinking “I have a black co-worker.” (because – let’s be honest – co-workers are different than friends) a good rule of thumb I’ve heard is, “Black co-workers and neighbors don’t count as black friends. Unless my butt has touched your toilet seat…we are not friends.”
So invite your co-worker or neighbor over for dinner and turn on some positive black media, or heck, even have a conversation, because our brain needs more than one black friend if we are going to change 200 years of these destructive images.
Thank you to Ulysses Burley III for his collaboration on this post.