The Role of the Media During Decolonization of Africa and Black Representation: From a Postcolonial Perspective

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Özet:

Bu araştırma temsilin önemi ve yanlış temsilin ne kadar yıkıcı sonuçları olabileceğiyle ilgidir. Günümüzde popüler kültür ve medya insanların dünyayı asıl gördüğünü kontrol eder, büyük ekranlarda gördüklerimiz düşüncelerimizi şekillendirir. Bu araştırma yazısında siyahi temsilini ve yanlış temsilin ne kadar yıkıcı olabileceğini araştırdık. 21. Yüzyılda beyaz-üstünlüğü hala daha güçlü bir şekilde ayakta duruyor, özellikle de medya alanında. Hangi hikayeyi hangi şekilde anlatmaya karar verenler beyaz yaratıcılar. Bu durum kolonyal zamandaki Batı’nın Doğu’yu nasıl temsil ettiğine benziyor. İki durumda da beyaz, kolonyal bakışın üstte olduğu bir hiyerarşi vardı. Bu yazı, beyaz yaratıcıların kullandıkları trope’lara, karikatürlere ve klişelere odaklanmaktadır.

 Anahtar Kelimeler: medya, siyahi temsili, yanlış temsil, oryantalizm, post-kolonyalizm

Abstract:

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This research is about the importance of representation and how misrepresentation can be destructive. Today’s day and age, popular culture and media is how people view the world, this is why what we see in big screen shapes the way we think. In this paper we have researched about black representation and how destructive misrepresentation can be. In 21st century white supremacy is still standing strong, especially in media. It is white creators who decides which story to tell and how to tell it. This resembles the colonial times when West was deciding how to portray East. In both situations there is a hierarchy in which white, colonial gaze is on top. This paper focuses on the tropes, the caricatures and stereotypes they use.

Key Words: media, black representation, misrepresentation, orientalism, post- colonialism

  1. Introduction

It can be said that postcolonial theory deals with the effects of colonialism that Europe caused from the 18th to 20th century. Colonization was not just about exploiting the labor force and controlling the country’s trade system, changing people’s cultures, and forcing them to become a part of the colonizer; but it was also about manipulation. Colonizers manipulated the countries they exploited and the rest of the world. What helped them the most was the power of representation. 

Edward Said (1979) divided the world into two categories: West and East. They symbolize more than just geography: West stands for the colonizers while East stands for the colonized. Said says that Orientalism is a western-style for dominating, restricting, and having authority over the Orient. West others East. Just because the East has a different belief system, language, and customs, the West portrays them as uneducated. Instead of acknowledging and appreciating the difference, they use violence to push their religion, language, and culture to them.

 West presented East as inferior, uncivilized, violent, barbaric, exotic, mysterious… They build a hierarchy between themselves and the Orient based on their differences. West’s hegemony gives them the luxury of holding the power of changing the narrative. West can change and control the stories of the East while at the same time silencing them.

Trinh says: “A conversation of ‘us’ with ‘us’ about ‘them’ is a conversation in which ‘them’ is silenced. ‘Them’ always stands on the other side of the hill, naked and speechless, barely present in its absence” (Trinh 67).

They stereotyped the East, they misrepresented them in their writings and arts. They publicized the Orient as if they needed the West’s civilization so that the West’s colonization would look like salvation. To reinforce this false information, they use art such as paintings, novels, poems, plays… This is a great way for them to justify their unjustifiable colonization. Since they show themselves as if they are educated, cultured and noble, their colonization does not seem like exploitation and abuse (even though it is). Their colonization looks like bringing civilization and culture to a land that is savage and immoral. However, this was not just about power. It was also about West, trying to define themselves by defining the “other”. If the colonized (Orient, East, them) is uncivilized, colonizers (West, Europe, us) are civilized. If the Orient is feminine, the West is masculine. If East is morally wrong, West has to be morally right. This principle of contrasts helped them to present themselves as well, they defined themselves as the opposite of the other.

W.H. New says that colonial writers’ education trained them to Shakespeare, Milton, and the classics. Which led them to consume all the “political assumptions” of orientalism, even when these writings overlook or disrespect the colonial experiences or cultures. They read themselves through the white man’s point of view and imagination. Furthermore, the colonial people did not have any agency outside the orientalist writings. 

So, it can be said that if someone consumes any kind of colonial art where the colonized is silenced and has no power to shape the narrative, it manipulates them. It is a whole another colonization by itself. So many artists (especially Western artists) participate in this, intentionally or not, whenever they decide to include Eastern people in their art. The western world likes to believe that colonialism is over, however, the reality is more complex than that. The colonial gaze is still alive and strong. It creates false imagery and (again intentionally or not) helps the systematical abuse that Orient faces every day.

 In this day and age, popular culture dictates the way people perceive the world. Bell Hooks (2006) says “Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is”. She also talks about the connection between representation and the choices we make in our lives, Hooks gives the example of male violence: If we see this on-screen enough, we start to normalize it. This goes the same when it comes to issues about race. If the audience keeps seeing the same problematic stereotypes about black people over and over again in media, they will internalize that. The problems that this issue brings can range from complications in bilateral relations to systematical racism. 

Hooks (2006) also states that if media and representation hold this much power in their hands, it should be vital that who is behind that media. Who is writing, producing, and directing these movies, for example? This is where white male privilege comes into the picture. Their position in the industry mirrors the colonizer’s position in colonial times. Once again, they are the protagonists in the stories, which means that even the stories are focusing on black people the center of the plot stays the same, which is whiteness. 

There is a controversy around whether or not a writer can write about the things they have not experienced themselves, whether or not they should write about different subjects than who they are. Though there can be a few examples that it can be done, most of the time the output turns out to be problematic and destructive. 

Columpar (2002) says “In surveying American and European film history, it becomes quite clear that film is not a window onto the world, nor has its use historically been ideologically neutral; rather it is a signifying system with its own representational legacies, established tropes, industrial constraints, and political baggage. In particular, as that which has, more often than not, consolidated, initiated, or perpetuated various stereotypes as well as a visual economy that privileges a white, male perspective”.

There is a myriad of established harmful tropes that are created by white people. While some of these tropes are being used since colonial times, the others are more newly tropes. The YouTube channel The Take separates these tropes into three categories in its video about black stereotypes: Faithful servant caricatures, unfit for society caricatures, and animalistic caricatures. 

 Faithful servant caricatures include black servants, ‘black best friend’, ‘strong black woman’, ‘Uncle Tom’, and ‘magical negro’ characters. All of them have one thing in common, which is to love serving white people. Black servant characters are very similar to Mammy character from Gone with The Wind. This type of characters is usually very dark-skinned, overweight, and old, they tend to live in colonized times, which is historically incorrect because during colonial times servants who worked inside the houses tend to be light-skinned black people (because light-skinned black people were seen prettier, smarter, cleaner and better than dark-skinned black people). Also, they were young and more petite. It is known that many of them were sexually abused by their white masters. By creating a character that is the exact opposite of the real black slave women, they desexualize them. This is a way of them denying the sexual assaults that happened to black slaves during colonialism. Deliberately or not, they are gaslighting black women by denying how white men have been sexually abusing black women for decades. 

The character ‘black best friend’ is another one-dimensional character that is only there to support the white protagonist. They do not have their own storyline and they are usually happy to help. ‘Strong black woman’ character, on the other hand, is usually known as a selfless, brave female character who helps everyone around her. She is tough and she doesn’t let herself be vulnerable. She is expected to be strong all the time. 

‘Uncle Tom’ caricature “portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants”. He is willingly serving white people, making slavery look like a positive thing. Uncle Toms are “old, weak and psychologically dependent on whites for approval”. Even though he is an ideal slave for white masters, he is still beaten up and get tortured, but none of those stops him from serving white people willingly. It can be said that Tom is more faithful and loyal to white people than to black people. This is a big reason why the terms “Uncle Tom” or just Tom are disliked in African American community (Ferris). 

‘Magical negro’ caricature is again a passive character whose only purpose in the story is to give wisdom to the white characters and help them. About this caricature, Smith (2013) says “whiteness becomes synonymous with rational thought and ‘blackness’ with folk wisdom, that works to mask/distort the claims of Black characters in the solving of problem”. They are usually coming from a lower class and they help privileged white people with “spiritual wisdom” (tvtropes). Just like any other black caricatures, they do not have their own character arc. This caricature can be seen in movies like The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Matrix, and Driving Miss Daisy.

Another trope is “unfit for society” caricatures, this includes Coon, Sambo, and ‘angry black woman’ (sapphire). This trope is used for showing that black people do not fit into the European ‘civilized’ society because of their lack of intelligence or because they are unable to control their emotions. The name Coon comes from the raccoon, which is “dehumanizing”. Coon is mostly referred to as laziness, even though he is unhappy with his position in life as a slave, he does nothing to change this because he is too lazy to do it. “The coon caricature was born during American slavery. Slave masters and overseers often described slaves as “slow, lazy, wants pushing, an eye servant, and trifling”. However, the reason for why the slaves were slow, was not because they were lazy. It was because of the fact that they didn’t want to be slaves, and to protest (and not get punished) they pretended to be slow (Ferris). 

Sambo, on the other hand, is a caricature that enjoys serving white people, however, he is a simple-minded, childlike figure. “Sambo was portrayed as a loyal and contented servant” He is not “capable of living as an independent adult” so this is one of the reasons why he is shown as perfect for slavery (Ferris).

The Sapphire caricature (or ‘angry black woman’ trope) was created in a radio show called Amos ‘n’ Andy, which was hosted by two white men who liked to impersonate and caricature black people and their behaviors. They created the character Sapphire and made her rude, angry, emasculating, and loud. Even though her being angry might seem like a good thing (since she is justified to be angry because of the hardship she goes through) her criticizing situations are not for the intention of improving things, but just to be bitter for the sake of being bitter. “…it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen” (Ferris). This caricature stereotypes and makes black women who seek justice against systematical oppression look like a comical figure. 

The last caricature trope that The Take mentioned was animalistic caricatures, which included Jezebel and Brute caricatures. These caricatures are portraying black people as if they are hypersexual and they have a wild, untamed nature. This trope dehumanizes black people and reduces them to basic living beings with animalistic urges. Brute caricature, for example, is used for portraying a virile, hyper-masculine black man who steals white women from their man. So, they are seen as a threat and a danger for white women. This can be seen in King Kong and Othello.

Jezebel also portrays black women as hypersexual. They are written as if all black women are insatiable. This caricature was created to justify the sexual abuse that black women had to go through for decades. During slavery and colonialism, black women were being systematically raped by white men, for both breeding reasons (because more children meant more labor) and also to stress their authority and power over them. This caused black women to be hypersexualized in the colonizer’s eye. This is why black women silenced their sexuality to ‘secure a chaste image of themselves’. By silencing themselves, they also silenced any type of sexual abuse that they encounter. The misrepresentation and the sexual abuse trauma of their ancestors are affecting them deeply, even today. Black women are less likely to report their sexual assaults because they don’t want to “further stigmatize black people’s existence” (Seck, 2013). 

Sometimes the misrepresentation is not based on a caricature but is based on stigmas and cliché plot lines. For example, the white savior trope is a very strong and subtle trope that has been used for years. This trope features a non-white person (or people) that are being oppressed actively by white people. However, the movie is not usually about them or the struggles they face. The story focuses on the white character who comes along to help them or save them. The movie is usually not about racism but the heroic act of the white person doing the bare minimum. Movies like Green Book, The Blind Side, The Help are good examples of this trope.

Sometimes the issue is not misrepresentation, but the lack of it. There are so many movies, who take place in a diverse country, however, the cast is all white. Sonya Renee Taylor (2021) talks about something called “default body” in her book The Body Is Not an Apology. She says that the default body is the body that one pictures when they close their eyes and this varies from person to person. Everyone’s default body shapes around the media that they consume. She says “…the power of imagination is exactly what casting is. I think the American theatre struggles to understand this work: casting as imagination, casting as a culture-making machine”.

To solve this problem, some creators go with the colorblind casting choice. Smith (2013) defines this term as “colorblindness seeks to individualize race and ignore the inequalities that are linked to it”. This can be seen in many interracial friendship stories in movies. Usually, the black character does not have the racial problems that a regular black person goes through in day-to-day life. Even though seeing a small representation is better than no representation, this does nothing but reinforce a false idea that racism is not a current problem. Colorblind casting can also be seen in historical stories, such as the musical Hamilton. The musical focuses on one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton. One of the most controversial things about this musical was the casting. Alexander Hamilton was played by Lin Manuel Miranda, who is a Latino. Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler and Thomas Jefferson were played by Leslie Odom Jr, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Daveed Diggs, who are black actors. Many more examples can be seen in the musical. Even though it is a good thing to see non-white actors on stage, the roles they are playing are usually white supremacist, slave owner colonizers. This does not only create a sympathetic approach to white colonizer historical figures, but it also raises the question of why there aren’t more musicals, plays, movies, stories about immigrants. 

There is also a big lack of representation of dark-skinned black women in media. Most of the time on the big screen the majority of black female actors are light-skinned. Dark-skinned young black female actors usually don’t get cast for movies. This issue of colorism goes back to the slavery era when light-skinned people were more privileged than dark-skinned people. Since they are closer to whiteness, they were thought to be better than dark-skinned people. This affects the way we perceive beauty. On the big screen, beauty is always associated with whiteness, pettiness, femininity, and European structures. Since dark-skinned black women tend to be different from that, they are perceived as ugly and masculine. 2014 OkCupid research states that 82% of non-black men have a bias against black women (Eko, 2018). Another research of OkCupid says that black women receive about 25% fewer first messages than other women do (Singer, 2014).

Eko (2018) also says “I’m supposed to go to frustrating lengths to ‘prove’ I’m feminine and offset my blackness (keep my hair long, my voice soft, my clothes appropriately girly), while women who are white or lighter in appearance are given more latitude for experimentation. Diane Keaton and Cara Delevinge ‘play’ with tomboy styles. When a white movie star cuts her hair to pixie length or shorter, she’s gamine or elegant. To be sure, black women can and do don these sorts of androgynous looks and hairstyles, but they are often read differently on our bodies: Elegant transforms into militant, boyish into manly”. The colonial gaze and the lack of representation cause many problems in black women’s (especially dark-skinned black women) confidence, social lives, and romantic lives. In the black community, women tend to marry less when it is compared to other races. However, “dark-skinned black women marry men of lower social status than the lightest-skinned black women” (McClinton, 2019).

Tokawa (2013) says “The regime of white supremacy creates and proliferates the misrepresentation of its others to maintain its own identity and power”. Using racist tropes and stereotyped characters does nothing but reinforcing racism and mirroring colonial times. Misrepresenting black people, using the same toxic tropes, casting black actors only as sex workers or criminals, or making them one-dimensional, or not showing them at all, and pretending they don’t exist is very destructive for the black community. It justifies systematic police brutality, romanticizes slavery, reinforces the racial stereotypes, gaslights black people about racism, and strengthens the internalized racism. 

While consuming any kind of media, it is important to know who the creator behind it is and who is the target audience. Most of the time when an all-white creator team creates any kind of media about racism, their target audience is not black people, but other white people. They are trying to make each other feel comfortable about racism with overly used tropes and caricatures. This is why non-white creators need more space to share their ideas and tell their own stories and experiences from their perspective, only then representation can finally be done right.

Selin Duran

Uluslararası İlişkiler Teorileri Staj Programı

References:

Hooks B. (2006, October 3). Cultural Criticism & Transformation. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQUuHFKP-9s

Columpar, C. (2002). The Gaze As Theoretical Touchstone: The Intersection of Film Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Theory. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 30(1/2), 25-44. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004635

Eko, H. (2018, February 27). As A Black Woman, I’m Tired Of Having To Prove My Womanhood. BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/hannaheko/aint-i-a-woman

Khadija M. (2021, February 28). Color-blind vs. Identity-conscious casting and examining Hamilton and Malcom & Marie | Khadija Mbow [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYTN6BnK_KI&t=2039s

Magical Negro. (n.d.). TV Tropes. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNegro

McClinton, D. (2019, April 9). Why dark-skinned black girls like me aren’t getting married. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/08/dark-skinned-black-girls-dont-get-married

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Taylor, S. R., & Oluo, I. (2021). The Body Is Not an Apology, Second Edition: The Power of Radical Self-Love (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

The Coon Caricature – Anti-black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University. (n.d.). Ferris.Edu. https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/coon/

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