In a recent article written about the African-American-watermelon stereotype for Huffington Post/TEDWeekends, I wrote that its deep iconography persists years after it should have spoiled and died on the vine. A noticeable amount of feedback on the article charged me with resurrecting typecasts long overcome, finding racism where no such thing existed, or, the most entertaining of all, mindlessly attacking the fruit as racist.
One particular point, however, seemed to strike a chord. When I noted some African-Americans will not eat watermelon in public, there was amazement that any person would allow their life, behavior, or actions to be unduly influenced by stereotypes and racist imagery. The sentiment was that since this is 21st century America, every one of us should express ourselves as we see fit, and if people have an issue with that expression, it is their problem. Such a simple solution to an avoidable problem: just shake that racism stuff off -- it's a free country!
So if I have corn-rowed hair or dreadlocks on a job interview and the company thinks my hair is unprofessional, not my problem, right? If a black woman with a unique, ethnic name that conjures up images of unmarried welfare queens with multiple children is denied a home loan in an upscale neighborhood, not her problem. And when a young black boy in baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt carrying candy and iced tea is assumed to be a miscreant, it's not his problem.
I'm sure the unemployed man, the woman unable to buy a home where she chooses, and Trayvon Martin will all be pleased to know that they simply have to ignore the stereotypes other people placed on them, and they'll be just fine. Well, maybe not Trayvon -- a stereotype led a grown man to confront him, and ultimately, to the child's death; Trayvon no longer has the luxury of just shrugging off someone else's issues.
So "get over it and move on" is the most ridiculous of positions. Racism is not some tragic event to get over; it's the ongoing tragedy of cumulative experiences that shape how one sees the world. Moreover, stereotypical imagery affects all who see it, not just the lampooned race. The negative images of blacks, whether old blackface minstrel actors shucking with joy over a watermelon rind or today's portrayals as criminal, promiscuous, and foolishly materialistic, are an equal opportunity influencer -- everyone is impacted by their repeated viewing.
A recent report on the impacts images have on our brains and memories stated that people are more suscpetible to persuasion by images that add weight to their beliefs. It goes on to say that even when people are told the images are inaccurate, it doesn't detract from the impact it has on them, and in time, they'll just accept the image as fact and forget where it came from, even to the point of incorporating the image into their memory. In other words, they will remember experiencing something that they only saw in a picture or television. Since our experiences shape our behavior, stereotypical images find paths into how we treat and react to others.
Another study highlighted that those with no deep-seated convictions about race, or simply consider themselves free of prejudices, acquire negative perceptions from the characterization of blacks in the local and national news. The study notes that blacks are disproportionately shown in the news as criminals that prey on white victims, which helps explain the symphony of locking car doors as I walk through a mall parking lot and the ritualistic purse-clutching on a stroll down the sidewalk.
Harvard University's Implicit Association Test (IAT) on black-white race preferences uses images of black and white people to gauge the respondent's race-based biases. While the test does not measure prejudice, it does measure how people associate negative and positive connotations to black and white faces. After millions of tests, data show that Americans have an automatic white preference probably resulting from the "deep learning of negative associations" to blacks and attributable to "high levels of negative references to black Americans in American culture" and mass media images.
I took the IAT, and, like many other astonished and disheartened blacks, my results showed I have a moderate white preference. This is not a natural proclivity, but a learned bias resulting from the same society and imagery that shaped much of the nation. It also gives rise to that other food co-opted to demean black people: Oreos -- black on the outside and white on the inside, the food equivalent of the Uncle Tom stereotype.
How I wish those who have experienced racism had the luxury of just brushing it off their psyche as easily as dirt off our shoulders. If that were the case, I would have done so long ago in order to free myself and my talents to live a life unblemished by my skin color. But it's just not that easy.
I can recover from other's people singular, race-based reactions to my brown skin, a result of negative images they've witnessed that have nothing to do with me. What I cannot do is pretend like the thousands of small such incidents never happened to me. It changes how I live -- it must because I am human, and thus, have an intrinsic interest in security and survival. We learn to adapt to the world around us, a world where images influence others' behavior towards us, and encourage our pre-emptive avoidance of the hundreds of potential situations that may devolve into "misunderstandings."
Stereotypes are not the sovereign territory of bigots, of which the rest of us can pretend don't exist. We all know that loud car stereos, baggy clothes, ethnic names, and watermelon have never discriminated against anyone, but a black person with any of those things calls to mind stereotypical imagery that can be detrimental to our careers, well-being, dreams, and even our lives. Unless history becomes a blank slate and the social construct of race is dismantled, we can never just forget and move on.
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