ANDERSON: Nation needs to unlearn discriminatory ideologies
Opinions Column: A 'Popped' Culture
The first black woman to win a Nobel Prize, as well as a great American novelist, Toni Morrison, wrote a great essay in 1993 entitled “On the Backs of Blacks.” The essay reflects on the level to which one is only fully accepted as an American once they assimilate to a culture of hating black people. The article touches on the media’s perpetuation of a concept she calls "race talk." She defines it as “the explicit insertion into the everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than to push black people to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” Morrison makes a point to emphasize how elements of pop-culture — “film, theater, advertising, the press, television and literature” — continue to capitalize on small moments where they can build on overt and subliminal messages of racial hierarchy. We see it all the time. In one instant it will be Netflix’s degrading category titles for the movies with black actors playing stereotypical black roles (think “gritty movies”). In another moment it might look like the 11 p.m. news stealthily telling you to fear young black males by showing endless tapes of convenience store robberies night after night. It is so ubiquitous of an act that we as consumers of popular culture do not even realize we are being taught to ignore, laugh at and hate black people on a daily basis.
I want us to use the movie “Mean Girls” as a case study for Toni Morrison’s idea of race talk. Morrison says in the essay, “Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete. Whatever the lived experience of immigrants with African-Americans — pleasant, beneficial or bruising — the rhetorical experience renders black people as noncitizens, already discredited outlaws."
For all intents and purposes, we can interpret the main character, Cady, to be an immigrant. She is new to America and the audience follows her as she begins to assimilate into American girl culture (“girl” in this context is read as “white-girl”). It does not take more than 20 minutes before Morrison’s words start to ring true. First, we know that Katie is from Africa. This sets the movie up for multiple degrading allusions to African culture, those will be touched on in a moment. It should be noted that this movie is a comedy, but as with most comedies in the American realm, the subjugation and trivialization of black people is the foundation for most the jokes. In one of the first scenes, Katie walks into a cafeteria and is trying to find a place to sit. She surveys the de-facto racially segregated room as her friend narrates the categories of people. The camera zooms past each group as they are named. First, the “Asian nerds,” soon after we arrive at the “unfriendly black hotties," the camera whips past them. This sends multiple messages to the audience that are played out in many forms of pop culture. The first is that black people are not the norm, their existence alone is a subculture. The second is that when making the decision of how to properly assimilate into any American social group, choosing black people is not an option that can be considered without a laugh. Not to mention the fact that here, these obviously middle-class black students are designated as “unfriendly," no doubt stemming from “sassy black women” and “angry black men” tropes throughout pop culture. Later on, the audience receives numerous scenarios where in moments of uncontrollable chaos become analogous to Africa in some way. This movie is a satire, but not a political satire, therefore the audience is not expected to dwell on these splashes of racial and regional hierarchy as anything more than natural aspects of the “typical high-school experience.” One could continue, but even with that short examination alone, it is obvious that the objective of race talk has been signed, sealed and delivered.
Race-talk is so treacherous and deep cutting that even people of African descent absorb and internalize the messages. There is an amazing 1994 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell named “Black Like Them” that examines the social dynamics of Jamaican immigrants in Northeast America and Canada. Within his great argument about labor sources and Jamaican immigrant success, he also notes that there is a common trend of Afro-Caribbean Jamaican immigrants placing themselves on a higher pedestal in relation to native-born African-Americans. It exhibits how this national trend of black denigration has a global impact as well. This should not be surprising given the Western world's domination of most of the global media messages.
If you are alive and aware in America today, you understand that black people are the butt of a national joke that has been going on since the late 1600s. Police brutality, mass incarceration of black bodies and black lives being disproportionately subjected to inadequate education and public housing is all a product of the location black people have in the American psyche. This is a place of condescension, betrayal and scorn. This attitude towards black people is learned and normalized by our media system. It teaches not only white and black Americans to despise black lives, but also anyone across the globe who desires to become “American.” It is crucial for the nation to unlearn these ideologies along with removing this rhetorical trend from our media system.
Michael Anderson is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in Africana studies and digital communication, information and media. His column, “A ‘Popped’ Culture,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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