Stereotypes: Definition, Discussion and Functionality in Creating Racial Ideas

Stereotypes: Definition, Discussion and Functionality in Creating Racial Ideas

This paper will present how racial stereotypes can be used to ridicule a people and to lead public opinion into thinking of this people as unable to live “unruly.” According to Ethnic Notions, in the 20th century, some of the most well-known stereotypes about African-American people were the figures of the mammy, the pickaninny, the sambo, the coon (zip coon), the uncle Tom and the brute (or buck ).

The mammy consisted on a very docile, loyal, and domestic black female slave devoted to her masters and mistresses. Fat, dark-skinned, and cantankerous, she was deprived of sexual appeal. As a counterpart for the mammy, there was the Jezebel: a very sexualized black woman who was driven by her libido. Both images served to show black women as being the opposite of a white lady (fragile, pious) – which, in the case of the mammy, was a manner of avoiding the feeling of threat by the mistress.

The pickaninny was a term used to refer to black children. Those kids were very often portrayed as subhuman, savages, standing in forests, near rivers and wild animals. Such a representation encouraged and justified violence against them, for they ended up being seen as animals.

The Uncle Tom was a submissive, selfless and religious black man. This gentle figure is so loyal to his masters that he would sell himself to slavery in order to help a master in need if that was necessary.

The brute was an over-sexualized black man who could not control his desire for white flesh. Seen as violent by nature, they were considered subhuman, animalistic.

The sambo was a laughing and simple black man. His characteristics are being irresponsible, lazy, and a lover of singing and dancing. The coon (short for the animalizing raccoon) was another ludicrous black figure: a dandy, the coon tried to imitate white men by wearing similar clothes. His attempts to do so were laughable. Sambos and coons – along with the brute – were used to justify slavery as a positive thing: it made those “lazy”, “risible” – and “violent” – black people work.

The existence of those stereotypes created and spread the idea that black people needed the white people to control their savagery – thought to be inherent in them.

Stereotypes create “truths” that might leave no room for opposite ideas or for resistance. But they also can provide some information about the desires of the people who create and consume them. The loyal and comforting images of the Mammy and of Uncle Tom served to justify keeping slaves inside the Big House – they meant no threat. And so was the coon, this entertainer. And even the violent figure of the buck and the sexualized Jezebel should be tamed, for only then they would be able to be closer to being civilized. Through those images, black people’s humanity was seen – set in stone – as silly, stupid, innocent, violent, and lascivious. The more those racist images were spread, the more they “reinforce the psychology that black is ugly.”
Functioning subconsciously, as Doctor Robinson argues, stereotypes “are the first foundation of how religions are viewed.” This pre-conceived understanding of African-American people extended to how white Americans saw their religions: if they were savages, so were their beliefs.
In the case of Voodoo, for instance, priestesses (mambo) could immediately fit into the idea of mammy, because of their control of what happens in the ceremony. The complex rituals (associated with the use of blood) could be seen as a set of animalistic and “devilish” movements. And the apparent “violent” dances performed by the houngans (priests – black male) possessed by the loas (“spirits”) could be instantly seen as the performance of a brute buck. Statues of men with an exaggerated genitalia (for this organ is a symbol of fertility) would also lead to interpreting African descendant people as being over-sexualized.

In the documentary Taboo, the narrator mentions an interesting misinterpretation of African religious rituals. A group of American people went to Haiti and watched a Voodoo ceremony. Not being truly prepared for what they saw and thinking of African descendant people as being savages, they thought of the possession as being an “evil magic” that created undead people (“zombies”).

The single story, as Chimamanda Adichie would say, of the African-American people told through the aforementioned stereotypes led to a misinterpretation of the plural story of the African people and their religions. The result: “zombies” simply being “dead walking bodies”; slavery being the cure for “savagery”; religions being senseless “demoniac” rituals.

Abraham, Morris. “Voodoo”, Season 1, Episode 4, of Taboo, DVD, (Video Documentary, 2002).

Adichie, Chimamanda. “The danger of a single story,” TED Ideas Worth Spreading, Internet, available from danger_of_a_single_story. html, acessed 24 September 2012.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: an interpretative history of Blacks in American films. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2001.