Have you ever wondered how Racism develops within institutions, movements, and organizations? This may also be true for organizations that claim Social Justice as their mission.
I refer here specifically to white, American racism. I use this broad phrase to show the free-ranging, full-orbed Racism of modernity, no matter how it may be labeled; it encapsulates every type of Racism, whether it be Northern, Southern, Eastern, or Western variations of Racism that reflect a specific region of the country.
There are many ontological factors at play here, but I would like to invite the reader to think critically. There are examples of how Racism morphed into a form embedded in specific areas of our American social network. I’d like to present a couple of examples here. My hope is that this will be pertinent and clarify Institutional Racism to European Americans.
In Post-Civil War times, most African Americans found themselves as freed men and women. Juridical legislation and the abolition of slavery in the U.S. didn’t change social customs immediately, if at all. There were still many obstacles to surmount as former slaves trekked towards full equality as human beings, with the same Civil Rights as their white American cohorts.
One of the stereotypes white Americans ingested and assimilated was that slaves, or free African Americans, seemed to be happy with their coerced place in life. This was a rationalization for white supremacists to continue to abuse and pontificate against African Americans. This fabricated stereotype of the black slave as carefree, happy-go-lucky, and putting up with just about any mistreatment against them was, of course, just what American whites needed for their own denial. ‘After all, many of them stayed with their masters, after the war and the Emancipation Proclamation, right? They liked it there. It was their home.’
As history kept traveling, African Americans often learned how to ‘duck and cover’ by playing the passive African American, and developing strategies to keep out of trouble. This was part of the supremacists’ plan in order to maintain their power in a different, changing kind of America. This added to another stereotype in place—African Americans were dumb, inarticulate, and unintelligent—thus they were inferior to whites. It reminds me when one of my friends, an African American woman, after a dialog she facilitated on Racism, was told by one of the participants, ‘You’re so articulate for a black woman.’
Around the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the new century, a genre of art began to take root in American Entertainment. They were called Minstrel Shows, featuring whites dressed out as African Americans, including black face (see the DVD entitled Ethnic Notions).
The genre consisted of white people costumed as blacks; the audience was undoubtedly mainly white. As a reflection of their culture, these shows were both ways to laugh at blacks, and at the same time, to vicariously participate with blacks that really weren’t blacks, but ‘of their own kind.’ They sang old Negro Spirituals and Work Songs, which may have comforted whites due to their common history of slavery and stigmatization of African Americans in the Post-Civil War age. For some whites, the shows may have been a hidden way to deal with their own wounded hearts—there’s also a cost for whites in the show of Racism within a free society.
One of the costs for whites is the alleged need to play the role of leaders, to be seen as those “in the know,” and the constant pressure to perform, to measure up, and to retain the power of the dominant group. There is an unmistakable ‘unwritten rule’ that under girds this need for power, and that is often anxiety and fear about losing that power in a diverse society as we have in our culture today. It was no different then.
Feagin has written in Systematic Oppression that the white, racialized way of thinking and acting has contributed to European Americans being unskilled in the practice of empathy (and I would add compassion). Many of us are unable even to express how we feel about anything; it’s as if we’re dead from the neck down. Our strength may be intellectualization, but the major domain of emotional intelligence is often flawed for whites.
Minstrel Shows were part of the fabric of collective stereotypes—each wave inherited by the next generation and transmitted forward. Racism is still the viral weed strangling our capacity for human potentialities. When a social custom or art genre becomes so common in the popular culture it creates memes in the minds of people. The meme is some notion, belief or attitude that gets copied over and over again until it may be disguised as a fact rather than just an assumption or inference, which is what it truly is. The end result is a cultural truism—at least if you believe it. The final product is a stereotype.
How has this stereotype ended up as a part of Institutional Racism?
What comes to mind is the Disney Empire. Here, it’s easy to lose track of the countless stereotypes found in the Disney Media collection: of men, women, animals, children, and persons of color—these almost overwhelm our capacities for rational, critical thinking (after all, our kids love Disney). As critical thinkers, we need to be on guard of what stereotypes we see in all kinds of media.
Relevantly, one case example may be observed. In Disney’s movie The Lion King, the background singers who are some kind of animal, echo African American Gospel songs throughout the jungle. You know the way they do, right? What’s their role and meaning in the film?
Often African Americans, Latino Americans, Arab Americans, and Asian Americans are often characterized in film as fighters, criminals, stupid, sex-lovers, blues singers and players, not giving a damn about anything, etc. Be alert to these stereotypes you see in the Entertainment Industry; deconstruct them, and ask what they mean, and where they came from.
A Hip Hop singer may sing:
I AM THE MASTER
GOTTA FIND THAT BITCH TO CAST HER
ELSE THIS VIDEO GOING DOWN IN DISASTER,
COULD BREAK MY ARM, FIX IT WITH PLASTER
IT’S BUZZIN’ SMOOTH NOW, LIKE LADY ASTOR
SHE’S THE ONE, BIG BOOTY, OUT FOR BLING,
THAT’S WHAT I NEED TO DO MY THING
© Christopher Bear-Beam, MA December 30, 2010
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II