Some have argued that the LeBron James/Gisele Bundchen Vogue magazine cover reinforces certain racial narratives, especially the “black athlete” narrative. In this image, James’ animalistic, intimidating demeanor evoked a firestorm of controversy. Many argued that the image only enhances the notion that in order for a black man to be successful, he must be an athlete. My definition of a racial narrative is any idea – based on stereotype – that becomes accepted in the subconscious of society. Typically these stereotypes become accepted because they are neither overwhelmingly denied by members of the race or because members of that race act in a manner consistent with the stereotype. Two common racial narratives I have noticed are the “genius Asian” and the “black man vs. the police”.
In “The ‘Shape’ of Race”, feminist write Rebecca Hyman echoes these sentiments when referencing the concept of the ‘black athlete’. She argues that the overuse of these racial narratives causes them to become ingrained in society. Hyman mentions that in times past there was a “prohibition of black men sleeping with white women”. She says that black men were considered rough, brutal, and animalistic. While these traits do not fit the ideal suitor for a white woman, they coincide with the identities of athletes. Athletes are not usually smooth and clean-cut. They tend to be rough, animalistic, and uncontrolled, suggesting that the niche for African Americans is athletics. While Hyman’s article articulates the “black athlete” social narrative, there are many examples of these ideas in society today.
On TV, Asian characters are typically the scientists or the smart ones who solve the puzzles and problems of others. Very rarely are they portrayed as unintelligent. It has become widely accepted that Asian families emphasize the value of education more than other races. I believe that this constant portrayal of Asians as the smart ones has created the stereotype that all Asians are smart and studious. Generalizations like these, even when positive, simply aren’t accurate. While there are certainly many smart Asian people, surely they are not all geniuses. However, this generalization is so prevalent that it may even cause employers to hire Asian candidates over other candidates of equal qualifications. This idea that Asians are hard-working and goal-driven could potentially benefit them in the workplace. Comedians like Carlos Mencia reinforce these racial narratives in their comedic monologues. Mencia mimics Asian parents pressuring their kids to get perfect scores on tests. His sentiments express the common racial narrative that all Asians are smart.
Another example of a racial narrative is the idea that the police are on the patrol for the guilty black man. In movies like “Pulp Fiction”, even black policemen are discriminatory against their own race. As Jack White points out in his article “An Equal and Opposite Overreaction”, “The racial narrative, despite all the changes we’ve made, is so stubbornly embedded in our psyches that is prevents us from seeing clearly”. White, an ironically-named African American author, points out in his article that a white officer interacts with black citizens in a different frame of mind than he would when interacting with other white citizens. There is an intangible, unspoken apprehension in the air. The racial significance is clear to both parties during this interaction. In the same sense, black civilians approach interaction with white officers differently than with black officers. Instances like the Rodney King assault only reinforce the racial narrative of the black man vs. the law. White argues that there are separate white and black interpretations of these events and that these interpretations need to be taken into account when examining scenarios.
Situations like these are mocked on TV as well. In one episode of the popular 90’s TV show, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, the two young, black protagonists are pulled over while driving slowly in an expensive car in a white neighborhood. While the officer is at the door of the car, Will, one of the passengers knows what is coming, while Carlton, the passenger has had limited exposure to racial conflicts, is naïve that the officer is skeptical of his true intentions. After they are released from jail, Carlton begins to realize the racial narrative that black men must constantly defend themselves when faced by law enforcement. I think that young African Americans who view this kind of behavior probably believe that this is the way the world works – that the police truly are out to get them. Therefore, when they get questioned by a white officer, they are probably more defensive than they would be if they had never seen or heard of scenarios like the one mention in “The Fresh Prince of Belair”. I think that when white children watch this type of scene, they are likely to deny that it occurs, although in reality it probably does occur with some frequency.
Overall, I think it is important to realize that racial narratives can easily be reinforced by imagery and media. Television shows, magazine photos, internet articles, and even comedians strengthen these stereotypes for young viewers and shape the way young generations think. These racial narratives are so ingrained in society that it seems we will never be completely rid of them.
Here is the link to the Jack White article “Equal and Opposite Overreaction” article on theroot.com:
I have attached a few videos of the aforementioned “Fresh Prince of Belair” scenes.