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Audience Perception of the Stereotypical Black Image on Television

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Audience Perception of the Stereotypical Black Image on Television

In the introduction to the section on understanding social control in Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, Paula Rothenberg states "The most effective forms of social control are always invisible"(507). One of the most prevalent forms of invisible social control the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes. Studies have shown that stereotypes can become so ingrained in the minds of those exposed to them that the target of the stereotype might not only believe the mythological image, but also inadvertently act out the image they are expected to play (Snyder). In addition, those who subscribe to the stereotypical images of others will "notice and remember the ways in which that person seems to fit the stereotype, while resisting evidence that contradicts the stereotype"(Snyder 514). Stereotypes control by creating false images that work to maintain the status quo and keep those who hold power in their positions of power.

For stereotypes to be an effective method of social control, they must be created, dispersed and perpetuated. Though the process of using stereotypes as social control is invisible, as Rothenberg declares, the distribution of those images is anything but invisible. The average American watches between 30-31 hours of television per week (World Book). That constitutes the number of hours for a full-time job. This statistic illustrates that television is an incredibly powerful medium for dispersing information, entertainment, and misinformation: "negative images of African-Americans propagandize misinformation about African-Americans"(Cosby 137).

Misinformation about disadvantaged groups in America has historically found plenty of airtime on television: "television brings to an otherwise heterogeneous audience a single set of values and social descriptions produced to the specifications of the owners of the broadcast industry and their advertising sponsors"(Matabane 21). These images have been shown to affect the way these groups are perceived and acted towards by the white mainstream (Ford 1997). The combination of the prevalence of negative images of minorities and the scientific proof of the effect these images on the behavior of the majority group lead to an invisible form of social control perpetuated through a most visible medium. This paper will discuss the ways in which black and white audiences respond to positive and negative stereotypes of the Black image on television. It will also analyze the effects that perception of the Black image has on prejudice, discrimination and oppression in our society.

Thomas E. Ford, in a 1997 Western Michigan University study, found that "when whites are exposed to negative stereotypical television portrayals of African Americans, they are more likely to make negative judgements of an African American target person. However, exposure to negative stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans does not affect their judgements of a white target person"(Ford 271). The exposure to these negative images then only affects how the white viewer judges a member of the stereotyped group.

The Ford study based its hypothesis on the effects of priming in making judgements about particular social groups. Two groups of white students were shown comedy skits depicting either negative stereotypes or neutral behavior starring black actors. Then the subjects were asked to, based on circumstantial evidence, determine whether a young man, Todd in half of the situations or Tyrone in the other half, was guilty of assaulting his roommate. (An earlier study showed that almost all surveyed associated the name Todd with a white man and Tyrone with a black man.) The connection between the primer- the skits, and the judgement was not known by the subjects; they were told the studies were unrelated. Researchers found that subjects who were shown the negative stereotypical images were more likely to assume Tyrone, an African American, was guilty than those who had seen the neutral images. Todd's guilt rating was not affected by the priming.

Ford explains these results: "the stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans primed or activated a stereotypical representation of the African American category, making that representation more likely to be used to interpret information about the African American target person"(Ford 271). The subjects recalled the violent stereotypical image they had just seen when they tried to determine the likelihood that Tyrone committed a violent act.

The prevalence of negative stereotypical images of Black Americans on television, especially as criminals, is undeniable. From the beginnings of television, Blacks have been singled out for their "blackness". This singling out based solely on race and not individual characteristics only widens the racial gap and legitimates the division of humans based on a defining principle that some scientists doubt the very existence of- that being race. The first Black images on television were of Amos and Andy, scamming, dancing, and acting like buffoons. Buffoons whose previous radio characters had been played by white actors. From to Beulah to 21 Jump Street to Seinfeld, normative portrayals of people of color have been noticeably absent.

While historically limited to comedic roles, some Black actors have managed to include themselves in the TV drama. There has yet to be a dramatic television series with an all or mostly Black cast. When Black characters are introduced into white dramatic television settings, however, they are usually dealing with issues of race (Ross 142). The resolutions to these problems of racism are almost always reduced to the prejudices of an individual and rarely do they discuss the significance of racism on the institutional level. These programs depict the need for change at the individual level, and if each person could only change their own prejudices, everything would be all right (Gray 85). The empathy and cajoling to acceptance by the "liberal" character is generally presented in repressed language like "come on, they're not that bad" (Malik 95). To avoid the tension that comes with seriously discussing issues of racism, even when they will be neatly resolved in a thirty minute time slot, television producers and audiences generally prefer humorous venues for discussion (Ford 272).

Herman Gray performs an extensive analysis of the 1990's hit FOX comedy show In Living Color in his book Watching Race. Tamara Rawitt, the show's producer, comments on the role of humor in portraying racial issues: "The humor can work on a very subliminal level, and it's saying a lot of unsayable things...However prevalent racism

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