Media racism writ large


Book:  Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito

Author:  Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers

Publisher:  PRAEGER, Santa Barbara

147 pages, $37.

Racial stereotypes are still prevalent in much of the media audiences consume today. Whether indulging in reality television, listening to hip hop music or simply tuning in to political views on immigration policy, negative 19th and 20th century caricatures are still being depicted. To introduce readers to some of the key players in the popularization of stereotypes, authors Brian D. Behnken, associate professor from Iowa State University and Gregory D. Smithers, associate professor from Virginia Commonwealth University, who have both authored numerous books on race and racism, compiled a comprehensive introduction to issues that deserve more in-depth coverage.

The authors explore how racial depictions of African Americans, Native Americans, Asians (Chinese & Japanese) and Latino Americans reinforce social hierarchies. These depictions were used to teach adults, and children on how minority groups were to be treated in society. The publishing business, a booming industry in the 19th and 20th centuries for those who could afford to buy the books at the time, produced overtly racial non-fiction works that “purported to analyze, categorize, and better explain the “scientific” inferiority of black people.” Analyses such as these were compiled in a study by Samuel George Morton who, after long, painstaking hours in the lab measuring skull sizes concluded, “the negro is…the lowest grade of humanity.” What Morton was releasing for his audience of wealthy white people was all the proof needed in Antebellum America to enslave, deride and rape African Americans.

Native Americans in the media were depicted as primitive savages, and some of these images are still alive today. These depictions include being one with nature, getting high on peyote, getting drunk or portrayed as untamable animals set on opposing white civilization. Native Americans were also believed to be a dying race due to the expansion of white civilization. The savage metaphor was useful for framing Native Americans in works of fiction as well as for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Latino depictions were often viewed as greasy, lazy, knife wielding thieves who adorned large sombreros. The Frito Bandito (1967) and Speedy Gonzalez (early 1950s) were two depictions that used such stereotypes for corporate gains.

Asians were not excluded from demeaning depictions as The Mysterious Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913) created an intelligent, conniving threat to the white race. Fu-Manchu was famous for mixing potions and conjuring spells to “conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” Fu-Manchu was in stark contrast to Charlie Chan (1925), who was seen as “effeminate, compliant, and even subservient to white people.” Book, advertising, film and cartoon industries stereotyped these racial groups to validate slavery, capture land and ultimately make a profit. This book thus provides a basic background into these discriminatory images. However, this is done at the detriment of not having a complete historical analysis of stereotypes, the people who carried them out and the social implications inherent in minstrelsy.

The Mammy stereotype, depicted on the book’s cover, is one that has been in countless books, shows on television, films and even in American kitchens. Aunt Jemima, Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” and Mammy Two-Shoes from Tom and Jerry are the predominant focus of African-American depictions throughout the book. Uncle Tom (the faithful servant) and Pickaninny children (or little Negro children) were also discussed on several occasions. The remaining stereotypes, the Buck (African-American male savage), the Coon (lazy African-American male) the Jezebel (hyper-sexualized African-American woman) and the Tragic Mulattoe (mixed breed male/female, normally black and white) are mentioned only in passing, leaving the reader to wonder about the importance and reasons they became popular to portray.

The act of black, brown, red, and yellow face minstrelsy have a long history in which white actors would portray different racial groups by painting their skin different colors and adopting broken English to be seen as believable to white audiences. Such minstrel depictions were often used to “instruct audiences as to how they should regard nonwhite people or to reinforce pre-existing racial prejudices.” The authors mention that actors such as Anna May Wong (Daughter of the Dragon, 1931) and Lincoln Theodore Monroe (Stepin Fetchit) would portray minstrel versions of themselves when given the opportunity. Seldom do the authors touch on why those actors were only afforded those roles.

The detail in analysis of media content gives descriptions that enable readers to visualize each scene. Speedy Gonzales (1955) depicts a group of mice waiting at a fence guarded by Sylvester the cat. The mice know they would be killed if they attempt to cross the fence so they wait for Speedy Gonzales to zip past the guard and arrive with the cheese. Upon arrival from the cheese factory Speedy tells them in broken English “Dere is plentee more where dis cheese it come from.” This scene is then broken down to represent a real-world situation in reference to immigration. The mice waiting at the gate represent Mexicans who are attempting to cross the border and Sylvester the cat is the border patrol. Examples such as these are replete and provide a societal context audiences do not often consider while consuming media.

To end their introduction into the world of institutionalized racism the authors touch on a few activist groups that have been pivotal in combating racist images in the media. Groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors (IMAGE) and the National Mexiacan-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC), were noted for counteracting the works of D. W. Griffith, and Frito Lay’s Frito Bandito. Sports teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Indians were included to bring attention to some of the stereotypical images Native Americans still face.

Racism in American Popular Media is a solid introductory text for readers interested in a brief history of racialized media portrayals from the past two centuries. The authors cover a lot in this book As a result it leaves more to be desired. With the exclusion of the foreword, introduction and notes, the book is only 125 pages in length. Within those pages readers are subject to long descriptions that can be reduced to a few key quotes. The authors were very thorough in their scene descriptions, however with such a limited space, there are plenty of other options available to fill these pages. One topic could be the limitations of actors in maligned races to play stereotyped versions of themselves, and the impact it had on the way they saw themselves. If scholars new to the topic of racialized images in the media want a quick introduction, this book may appeal to them, however scholars serious in the topic should look elsewhere.

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