April 9, 2015
Racism in advertising, cartoons, movies is focus of new book co-authored by VCU history professor
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A new book co-written by a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor examines how the media — including advertising, movies, cartoons, TV and other forms of pop culture — has used racist images and stereotypes of African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians and Asian-Americans.
The book, "Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito," was co-authored by Gregory Smithers, an associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Brian D. Behnken, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of History and the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State University.
Smithers, who researches the histories of Native-American and African-American people, intellectual and cultural history, comparative indigenous history, and the history of race and racism, recently discussed "Racism in American Popular Media" and how he hopes it leads more people to recognize racism in popular media, while also challenging Hollywood and marketing executives to avoid stereotypes.
How would you describe the book's central argument?
"Racism in Popular Media" argues that it's not possible to understand the mass media in the United States without recognizing the important role that racism has played in shaping our collective cultural consciousness. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans were exposed to different forms of media, such as novels, advertisements, movies, children's cartoons, that were so saturated with racist references and representations of Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos that racism in its many ugly forms became completely embedded in how most Americans saw the world around them.
The book examines racism in the media going back to the 19th century and all the way up to the early 21st century. How much progress do you feel has been made?
I'm not sure progress is the right word. It's true that the violent racism and legal forms of discrimination that most Americans associate with the early 20th century are largely absent today, but racial prejudices remain a systemic part of American society, in its politics and in its economic structures. That's the power of racism; it has an ability to morph and become re-entrenched in everyday life to a degree that it takes a serious and concerted effort to see how racial prejudices operated today. This is an uncomfortable notion for a lot of people to acknowledge. Unfortunately, the history of racism in our country teaches us that racism has a way of adapting, of finding new forms to oppress and disadvantage people that we only see in hindsight. Part of the reason Brian Behnken and I wrote this book was to encourage people to acknowledge that history and to think of ways we can challenge Hollywood when offensive racial images appear in movies, or call out marketing executives when the latest advertising campaign relies on racial clichés.
Were you surprised by anything you found as you researched this book?
We anticipated that what we'd find would be dark, but what particularly struck us was just how violent and racist children's cartoons were until very recently. Many people speak with great nostalgia about Disney animation and other childhood favorites. But for much of the 20th century cartoons were laden with racist and sexist imagery. Look at “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. People tend to forget that one of the key characters in that cartoon was Mammy Two Shoes. She was described as a "galumphing black domestic" and provided viewers with slapstick comedy. But Mammy Two Shoes was only funny if you understand the almost 200 years of racial stereotyping of black domestic laborers, a form of humor that made light of the working-class hardships of African-American women in ways that reassured white men of their racially privileged status in American society. In the 20th century, teaching children that message played an important role in naturalizing racism.
What grade would you give modern advertising, motion pictures, cartoons and popular fiction, when it comes to racism and stereotypes? Are there any modern examples that you consider particularly problematic?
It varies. Sometimes all of these forms of media do a good job and are capable of eight or nine out of 10. At other times, I'm reluctant to give them a passing grade. Take the various forms of animation or cinematic remakes of Pocahontas over the past generation. Whether we're talking about Disney's "Pocahontas" or Terrence Malick's "The New World," these films simplify Powhatan culture to the point of trivializing it and portray Pocahontas in an overly sexualized manner. We should remember that when Pocahontas first encountered the English she was between 10 and 12 years old; she wasn't much older when she married John Rolfe. That historical fact is rarely, if ever, dealt with in popular media.
Your book shows how the efforts of minorities — notably including civil rights activists — played a key role in challenging stereotypes in popular culture. Could you tell me more about that?
Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latino/as have objected to the offensive ways in which the media has portrayed them for as long as there have been popular forms of media. For example, Frederick Douglass and other prominent African-American leaders in the 19th century worked hard to correct stereotypes about black people. In the early 20th century, Native American leaders like Charles Eastman worked tirelessly to invert racist depictions of indigenous people. It is nonetheless true that since the Second World War, civil rights leaders from all racial and ethnic backgrounds have worked diligently to challenge filmmakers, advertisers, television producers and novelists to present audiences with richer and more complex representations of racial and ethnic diversity. One of the campaigns we detail in the book concerns the Frito Lays Company's Frito Bandito, who was a simplistic racial stereotype of the Mexican bandit character. Under the leadership of Albert Peña Jr., the involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors joined forces with the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee, and placed unrelenting pressure on the Frito Lay Company in the 1960s and 1970s to eliminate the Frito Bandito from their ad campaigns.
How did you become interested in this topic?
I'm always interested in this topic. Because racism remains a serious structural issue in the United States, I never hesitate to call out racism when I see or hear it.
What will you be working on next?
My next book, due out in September, is titled "The Cherokee Diaspora."This is a book that also deals with issue of race and racism, but does so through the lens of the Cherokee people and their many migrations and efforts to rebuild communities since the 18th century.
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