Stereotypes of African Americans

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This reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from white to "black".

Stereotypes of African Americans in the United States are generalizations about African Americans or African-American culture. These stereotypes have evolved within American culture dating back to the colonial years of settlement, particularly after slavery became a racial institution that was heritable. The early blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century portrayed blacks as joyous, naive, superstitious, and ignorant—characteristics related to the way slaveholders in earlier years believed them to be.

Such scholars as Patricia A. Turner note "stereotyping objects in popular culture that depict blacks as servile, primitive, or simpleminded and explains how the subtle influences of such seemingly harmless images reinforce anti-black attitudes".[1] As with every other identifiable group, stereotypes continue today. Blacks are often portrayed as lazy and very religious. They also are portrayed as having a love of fried chicken, watermelon, corn bread, Kool-Aid, waffles, and grape drink.[2][3]

The idea of race in the United States is based on physical characteristics and skin color. It played an essential part in shaping American society even before the nation existed independently.[4] The perception of black people has been closely tied to their social strata in the United States.[5]

Historical archetypes[edit]


Minstrel shows portrayed and lampooned black people in stereotypical and often disparaging ways, as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical. Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to effect the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype — that of the darky or coon. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation.


This stereotype gained notoriety through the 1898 children's book The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. It told the story of a boy named Sambo who outwitted a group of hungry tigers. "Sambo" refers to black men that were considered very happy, usually laughing, lazy, irresponsible, or carefree. This depiction of black people was displayed in films of the early 20th century. The original text suggested that Sambo lived in India, but this fact may have escaped many readers. The book has often been considered to be a slur against Africans.[6]


What is known about the Mammy archetype comes from the memoirs and diaries that emerged after the Civil War with recordings and descriptions of African American household women slaves who were considered by family members as their African American mothers. Through these personal accounts, white slaveholders gave biased accounts of what a dominant female house slave role was. She was a woman completely dedicated to the white family, especially to the children of that family.[7] She was the house servant who was given complete charge of domestic management; she was a friend and advisor.[8] The image of Mammy was created to justify the economic exploitation of house slaves and sustained to explain Black women’s long-standing restriction to domestic service.[9] Employing Black women in mummified occupations supports the racial superiority of White employers, encouraging middle-class White women in particular to identify more closely with the racial and class privilege afforded their fathers, husbands, and sons.[9] Although there is no physical description or particular image that was written about Mammy’s, over the past century a stereotypical image has emerged in popular culture of what the typical Mammy appeared as. One feminist, Barbara Christian described her as " in color as well as race and fat with enormous breasts that are full enough to nourish all the children in the world; her head is perpetually covered with her trademark kerchief to hide the kinky hair that marks her as ugly. Tied to her physical characteristic are her personality traits: she is strong, for she certainly has enough girth, but this strength is used in the service to her white master and as a way of keeping her male counterparts in check; she is kind and loyal, for she is a mother; she is sexless, for she is ugly; and she is religious and superstitious, for she is black."[9] This stereotypical image of Mammy became even more profound after the success of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind, which was later produced into a movie in the 1930s. Two other images that reinforced the stereotype in popular culture was the image of Aunt Jemima on breakfast items and the Pine-Sol Lady, a dark-skinned, slightly overweight, motherly figure.[9] In the 1990s, the Quaker Oats Company removed her trademark red bandana and eliminated her slave dialect.[9]

Mandingo Negro[edit]

This stereotypical concept was invented by white slave owners who promoted the notion that male African slaves were animalistic and bestial in nature asserting, for example, that in "Negroes all the passions, emotions, and ambitions, are almost wholly subservient to the sexual instinct" and "this construction of the oversexed black male parlayed perfectly into notions of black bestiality and primitivism".[10]


During slavery, the “cult of true womanhood” was an ideology that characterized the standard of femininity; however, these standards only applied to white, middle class women, not Black women. As a stereotype, Sapphire is a domineering female who consumes men and usurps their role.[11] They were characterized as strong, masculine workhorses who labored with Black men in the fields or as aggressive women who drove their children and partners away with their overbearing natures.[12] Her assertive demeanor identifies her with Mammy, but unlike Mammy she is devoid of maternal compassion and understanding.[12] Yet, social scientists claimed that Black women’s dominance and matriarchal status within their families, rather than criminatory social policies and economic inequalities, were responsible for the unemployment and the emasculation of Black men, which ultimately resulted in poverty, single parenthood, and the production of criminally inclined, academically low-achieving Black children.[13]


In every way Jezebel was the counter image of the mid- nineteenth century ideal of the Victorian lady.[14] The idea that Black women were more sexually promiscuous and available evolved when Europeans first encountered women in Africa. Unaccustomed to the requirements of a tropical climate, Europeans mistook semi-nudity for lewdness.[14] Similarly, they misinterpreted African cultural traditions, so that polygamy was attributed to the African’s uncontrolled lust, tribal dances were reduced to the level of orgy, and African religions lost the sacredness that had sustained generations of ancestral worshipers.[14] If Black slave women could be portrayed as having sexual appetites, then increased fertility should be the expected outcome.[15] With this mindset and stereotype, Black women have been labeled as sexually promiscuous and immoral. This image also gave the impression that Black women could not be rape victims because they always desired sex.[16] Ironically, Jezebel’s excessive sexual appetite masculinizes her because she desires sex just as a man does.[17]

Modern stereotypes[edit]

Deviant, radical, righteous[edit]

The civil rights era presented some different portrayals for African Americans who were often associated with racialized issues such as busing and segregation—topics that might fuel racial prejudice by Whites. Grimm (2007) explored how the New York Times framed Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., from 1960 through 1965. Both men are icons of contemporary African-American culture and had a great influence on black Americans.

Grimm concluded that the main premise of the articles covering Malcolm X centered on his diminishment as a leader, public mistrust and skepticism of the leader and Black Muslims, a deep fear of racial violence and the stigmatization of the political icon. Media outlets often labeled Malcolm X a deviant while they embraced King as a righteous leader. The author asserts that such characterizations reinforced hegemonic power structures while also supporting ideological notions of accepted racial norms in the United States.

Drug lords, crack victims, evil[edit]

Many of these negative stereotypes spill over into news media portrayals of minorities. Scholars agree that news stereotypes of people of color are pervasive (e.g., Dates & Barlow, 1993; Martindale, 1990; Collins, 2004; Poindexter, Smith, & Heider, 2003; Rowley, 2003; West, 2001). For instance, Entman (2000) found that African Americans were more likely to appear as perpetrators in drug and violent crime stories on network news.

In the 1980s and 1990s, stereotypes of black men shifted and the primary images were of drug lords, crack victims, the underclass, the homeless, and subway muggers (Drummond, 1990). Similarly, Douglas (1995), who looked at O. J. Simpson, Louis Farrakhan, and the Million Man March, found that media placed African-American men on a spectrum of good versus evil.

Watermelon stereotype[edit]

The stereotype has it that African Americans have an unusual appetite for watermelons. This stereotype is prevalent even in 21st century society.

Welfare queen[edit]

This stereotype has longevity. Studies show that the welfare queen idea has roots in both race and gender. Franklin Gilliam, the author of a public perception experiment on welfare, concludes that:

While poor women of all races get blamed for their impoverished condition, African-American women are seen to commit the most egregious violations of American values. This story line taps into stereotypes about both women (uncontrolled sexuality) and African-Americans (laziness).

Studies show that the public dramatically overestimates the number of African Americans in poverty, with the cause of this attributed to media trends and its portrayal of poverty.[18]

Magical Negro[edit]

The magical negro (sometimes called the mystical negro, magic negro, or our magical African-American friend) is a stock character who appears in fiction of a variety of media who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white protagonist. The word "negro", now considered archaic and offensive, is used intentionally to emphasize the belief that the archetype is a racist throwback, an update of the Sambo stereotype.[19]

The term was popularized by Spike Lee, who dismissed the archetype of the "super-duper magical negro"[20] in 2001 while discussing films with students at Washington State University[21] and at Yale University.[22] The Magical Negro is a subtype of the more generic numinous Negro, a term coined by Richard Brookhiser in National Review.[23] The latter term refers to saintly, respected or heroic black protagonists or mentors, unsubtly portrayed in U.S. entertainment productions.[23]

Black women[edit]

Common stereotypes of black women in the 21st century are gold digger, independent black woman, and angry black woman. The “angry black woman” is often depicted as always upset and irate. On the other hand, the “independent black woman” is a narcissistic, overachieving, financially successful woman who emasculates black males in her life.[24]

Angry black woman[edit]

Perhaps the most popular stereotype is that of the “angry black woman,“ whom media depict as upset and irate; consequently she is often deemed a “bitch”.[25] Her character is a spinoff of Sapphire, a historical character who is an undesirable depiction in which black women berate black males in their lives with cruel words and exaggerated body language.

Journalists used the angry black woman archetype in their narratives of Michelle Obama during the 2007–08 presidential primaries. Coverage of Mrs. Obama ran the gamut from favorable to strong to angry to intimidating and unpatriotic. First Lady Michelle Obama told Gayle King on CBS This Morning that she has been caricatured as an “angry black woman”—and that she hopes America will one day learn more about her. “That’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman”, Mrs. Obama said.[citation needed]

The First Lady dismissed a book by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor entitled The Obamas. Kantor portrayed Mrs. Obama as a hard-nosed operator who sometimes clashed with staffers. Michelle insisted that portrayal is not accurate.[24]

Independent black woman[edit]

The "independent black woman” is often depicted as a narcissistic, overachieving, financially successful woman who emasculates black males in her life. Mia Moody, an assistant professor of journalism at Baylor University, described the "independent black woman" in two articles entitled "A rhetorical analysis of the meaning of the 'independent woman'"[26] and "The meaning of 'Independent Woman' in music".[27]

In her studies, Moody concluded that the lyrics and videos of male and female artists portrayed "independent women" differently. Rapper Roxanne Shanté’s 1989 rendition of “Independent Woman,” explored relationships and asked women not to dote on partners who do not reciprocate. Similarly, the definition of an “independent woman” in Urban Dictionary is: “A woman who pays her own bills, buys her own things, and does not allow a man to affect her stability or self-confidence. She supports herself entirely on her own and is proud to be able to do so”. Destiny's Child’s song “Independent Women” encourages women to be strong and independent for the sake of their dignity and not for the sake of impressing men. The group frowns upon the idea of depending on anyone: “If you’re gonna brag, make sure it’s your money you flaunt/depend on no one else to give you what you want”. The singers claim their independence through their financial stability.

However, Moody concluded female rappers often depicted sex as a tool for obtaining independence through controlling men and buying material goods. While male rappers viewed the independent woman as one who is educated, pays her own bills, and creates a good home life, never did they mention settling down and often noted that a woman should not weigh them down. Moody analyzed songs, corresponding music videos, and viewer comments of six rap songs by Yo Gotti, Webbie, Drake, Candi Redd, Trina, and Nicki Minaj. She found four main messages: wealth equals independence, beauty and independence are connected, average men deserve perfect women, and sexual prowess equals independence.


Early stereotypes[edit]

Early minstrel shows lampooned the assumed stupidity of black people. Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843

Early minstrel shows of the mid-19th century lampooned the supposed stupidity of black people. In 1844 Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, arguing for the extension of slavery, wrote.

Here (scientific confirmation) is proof of the necessity of slavery. The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death.[28]

Even after slavery ended, the intellectual capacity of black people was still frequently questioned. Movies such as Birth of a Nation (1915) questioned whether or not black people were fit to run for governmental offices or vote.

In 1916, Lewis Terman wrote in The Measurement of Intelligence:

(Black and other ethnic minority children) are uneducable beyond the nearest rudiments of training. …There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusual prolific breeding.[29]

Stephen Jay Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man (1981) demonstrated how early 20th-century biases among scientists and researchers affected their purportedly objective scientific studies, data gathering, and conclusions which they drew about the absolute and relative intelligence of different groups, and of men vs. women.

Some critics have considered Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as racist because of its depiction of the slave Jim, among other black characters. Some schools have excluded the book from their curricula or libraries.[30] The word "nigger" appears numerous times and is used to describe Jim and other black characters. While the term was contemporary for the period when Twain wrote the book, it became perceived as offensive in the 20th century. Other critics have noted that Twain's portrayal of the relationship between Finn and Jim overturned stereotypes of the time and recognized Jim's humanity and strength.[citation needed]

Film and television[edit]

Political activist and one-time presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson said in 1985 that the news media portrayed black people as "less intelligent than we are".[31] Film director Spike Lee explains that these images have negative impacts: "In my neighborhood, we looked up to athletes, guys who got the ladies, and intelligent people", said Lee. "[Now] If you're intelligent, you're called a white guy or girl".[32]

In film, black people are also shown in a stereotypical manner that promotes notions of moral inferiority. In terms of female movie characters shown by race:[33]


In Darwin's Athletes, John Hoberman writes that the prominence of African-American athletes encourages a de-emphasis on academic achievement in black communities.[34] Several other authors have said that sports coverage that highlights "natural black athleticism" has the effect of suggesting white superiority in other areas, such as intelligence.[35] Some contemporary sports commentators have questioned whether black people are intelligent enough to hold "strategic" positions or coach games such as football.[36]

In another example, a study of the portrayal of race, ethnicity, and nationality in televised sporting events by journalist Derrick Jackson in 1989 showed that black people were more likely than white people to be described in demeaning intellectual terms.[37]

Criminal stereotyping[edit]

According to Lawrence Grossman, former president of CBS News and PBS, TV newscasts "disproportionately show African-Americans under arrest, living in slums, on welfare, and in need of help from the community".[38] [39] Similarly, Hurwiz and Peffley exposed that violent acts committed by a person of color often take up more than half of local news broadcasts, often portraying the person of color in a much more sinister light than their white counterparts. They go on to further explain how African Americans are not only more likely to be seen as suspects of horrendous crimes in the press, but also interpreted as being violent or harmful individuals to the general public. These findings would not be so strange if African Americans accounted for the larger portion of the United States’ overall population, however African Americans only account for roughly 11 percent of America’s total demographic.[40]

New media stereotypes[edit]

In 2012, Moody documented Facebook fans' use of social media to target President Barack Obama and his family using stereotypes. Her study found several themes and missions of groups targeting the Obamas. Some groups focus on attacking the president's politics, and consist of Facebook members who have an interest in politics and use social media to share their ideas. Other, more malicious types focus on the president's race, religion, sexual orientation, personality, and diet.[41]

Moody, assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, analyzed more than 20 Facebook groups/pages using the keywords "hate", "Barack Obama", and "Michelle Obama". Hate groups—which once recruited members through word of mouth and distribution of pamphlets—spread the message that one race is inferior, target a historically oppressed group, and use degrading, hateful terms.[41]

She concluded although historical stereotypes focusing on diet and blackface have all but disappeared from mainstream television shows and movies, they have resurfaced in new media representations. Most portrayals fall into three categories: blackface, animalistic and evil/angry. Similarly, while media have made progress in their handling of gender-related topics, Facebook offers a new platform for sexist messages to thrive. Facebook users play up shallow, patriarchal representations of Michelle, focusing on her emotions, appearance, and personality. Conversely, they play up historical stereotypes of Obama that depict him as a flashy and animalistic. Media’s reliance on stereotypes of women and African Americans not only hinders civil rights, but also helps determine how people treat marginalized groups.[41]

Because newspapers and TV shows generally do not spread racist images anymore, people have gone online. Users rely heavily on old stereotypes of blacks as animalist, evil or shiftless—including depictions of the President as a chimp or sporting a bandana and a mouth full of gold teeth.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (Anchor Books, 1994).
  2. ^ U.S. Department of Justice "TWO ST. LOUIS MEN PLEAD GUILTY TO SPRAYING BLACKS WITH KOOL-AID", February 1995 Press Releases, February 10, 1995.
  3. ^ Nance, Justin. "Watermelin, Kool-Aid, and Fried Chicken", The Cub News, March 27, 2010.
  4. ^ Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ The Picaninny Caricature, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University.
  7. ^ White, Deborah Gray (1999). Ar'n't I a Woman. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 49. ISBN 9780393314816. 
  8. ^ White, Deborah Greay (1999). Ar'n't I a Woman. W.W. Norton & Compant. p. 49. ISBN 9780393314816. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Collins, Patricia (1990). Black Feminist Thought. Hyman. p. 80. ISBN 0415964725. 
  10. ^ J. A. Rogers, III SEX AND RACE 150 (1944).
  11. ^ White, Deborah Gray White (1999). Ar'n't I a Woman. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 176. ISBN 9780393314816. 
  12. ^ a b West, Carolyn (2008). Lectures on the Psychology of Women (4): 289 |url= missing title (help). 
  13. ^ West, Carolyn (2008). Lectures on the Psychology of Women (4): 296 |url= missing title (help). 
  14. ^ a b c White, Deborah Gray (1999). Ar'n't I a Woman. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 29. ISBN 9780393314816. 
  15. ^ Collins, Patricia (1990). Black Feminist Thought. Hyman. p. 89. ISBN 0415964725. 
  16. ^ West, Carolyn (2008). Lectures on the Psychology of Women (4): 294 |url= missing title (help). 
  17. ^ Collins, Patricia (1990). Black Feminist Thought. Hyman. p. 91. ISBN 0415964725. 
  18. ^ Gilens, Martin (2000). Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-29365-3. 
  19. ^ D. Marvin Jones (2005). Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Praeger Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 0-275-97462-6. 
  20. ^ Rita Kempley (June 7, 2003). "Too Too Divine: Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day - but at the Cost of His Soul". Washington Post. Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  21. ^ Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu (October 25, 2004). "Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes". from Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  22. ^ Susan Gonzalez (March 2, 2001). "Director Spike Lee slams 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films". YALE Bulletin & Calendar. Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  23. ^ a b Brookhiser, Richard (20 August 2001). "The Numinous Negro: His importance in our lives; why he is fading". National Review. Retrieved 5 April 2012. 
  24. ^ a b Moody, M. (2012). "Jezebel to Ho: An Analysis of Creative and Imaginative Shared Representations of Black Women", Journal of Research on Women and Gender.
  25. ^ Collins, 2004, p. 123; Childs, 2005, Springer, 2007
  26. ^ Moody, M. (2010), "A rhetorical analysis of the meaning of the 'independent woman'".
  27. ^ Moody, M. (2010), "The meaning of "Independent Woman" in Music".
  28. ^
  29. ^ Robert Williams, Racism Learned at an Early Age Through Racial Scripting, p. 28. ISBN 1-4259-2595-2
  30. ^ "Expelling Huck Finn". Retrieved January 8, 2006. 
  31. ^ Associated Press (19 September 1985). "Jackson Assails Press On Portrayal of Blacks". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-28. 
  32. ^ Spike Lee discusses racial stereotypes
  33. ^ Robert M. Entman; Andrew Rojecki (2000). The Black Image in the White Mind. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-21075-8. 
  34. ^ Hoberman, John (3 November 1997). Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. Mariner Books. ISBN 0-395-82292-0. 
  35. ^ Hall, Ronald E. (September 2001). "The Ball Curve: Calculated Racism and the Stereotype of African American Men". Journal of Black Studies 32 (1): 104–19. doi:10.1177/002193470103200106. 
  36. ^ Hill, Marc L. (22 October 2003). "America's Mishandling of the Donovan McNabb-Rush Limbaugh Controversy". PopMatters. Retrieved 2007-06-02. 
  37. ^ Sabo, Don; Sue Curry Jansen, Danny Tate, Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Susan Leggett (November 1995). "The Portrayal of Race, Ethinicity, and Nationality in Televised International Athletic Events". Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. Retrieved 2007-06-02. 
  38. ^ Grossman, Lawrence K (Jul/Aug 2001). "From bad to worse: Black images on "White" news" (– Scholar search). Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 10-7-2007.  [dead link]
  39. ^ Romer, Daniel; Jamieson, Kathleen H; de Coteau, Nicole J. (June 1998). "The treatment of persons of color in local television news: Ethnic blame discourse or realistic group conflict?". Communication Research 25 (13): 286–305. doi:10.1177/009365098025003002. 
  40. ^ Rome, Dennis (2004). Black Demons. Greenwood Publishing Inc. 
  41. ^ a b c "Moody, Mia, "New Media-Same Stereotypes: An Analysis of Social Media Depictions of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama", The Journal of New Media & Culture, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Summer 2012.

Further reading[edit]