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Teaching Diversity With Multimedia

Common Excuses Used to Justify Stereotyping
(or, How Some People Try To Distance Themselves From These Images
When viewing the artifacts in The Authentic History Center's collection, some of you will try to distance yourselves from the harm in these images by giving excuses for them. For that reason, consider reading this section before continuing on into the collection. Common excuses used to justify stereotyping include:
1. It's okay to stereotype one group because other people/groups are stereotyped as well.
This is flawed logic. Humans should operate on the premise that it's never acceptable to intentionally stereotype races of people, regardless of how many races are caricatured. Consider the old saying, "two wrongs don't make a right." With this in mind, it should be noted anyway that since Caucasians have long been in control of the country's imagery, they have had a free ride from being caricatured for hundreds of years now, at the expense of every other race. Some of you will say, "What about all of those 'redneck' jokes? Isn't that stereotyping of Whites?" While much of this humor is stereotypical and distasteful, it is based on regional and economic differences, not on skin color; and since it originated by Whites, it's a self-parody, which is not the same as when one race caricatures another. Ask yourself, did the government discriminate against "rednecks" based on their...redneckness? Were they enslaved for two hundred fifty years and then legally segregated for another hundred years?
2. If it's funny, then it's not offensive.
Some stereotyping is intended to be funny. If your first reaction is to laugh at a racist joke or image, you're not alone, and it doesn't necessarily mean you are a racist. However, you should then stop and consider why it is that you're laughing. Maybe you're just enjoying the sense of security you get by being part of the "in group" that gets to laugh, rather than a part of the "out group" whose differences are being laughed at. We all want to be insiders. Chances are that the person being stereotyped does not share your opinion about the humor and feels offended. Something can be funny and offensive. If you're hurting other people, you're hurting yourself too, because you're limiting your development as a human being. Next time, try to think about and feel for that other person before laughing. Develop empathy.
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3. These stereotypes are so old that they're not offensive anymore.
While these stereotypes are often very old, they're not "history." Most caricatures never completely die. Some are still around virtually unchanged, while others have evolved and become a little less obvious. New caricatures appear all the time. Some old images from the early 1900s are being slapped on mouse pads and watch faces and sold as new, "nostalgic" items; there is a huge Internet and antique store market for reproductions of old racist artifacts; and new items with new images frequently enter the marketplace. The bottom line is that racist artifacts are still being made and sold today on the Internet and in retail stores, and the stereotyping they promote is still being used to justify prejudice and discrimination. Ghettopoly
4. These images are understandable because it was just a normal part of life back then.
It's true that inhumane treatment of humans by other humans has a long, long history, and that we really didn't get around to thinking much about basic human rights until The Enlightenment in the 18th century. It is a good idea to use "historical perspective" when studying history, which means you have to try to judge people and their behaviors based on the ethical and moral standards of the time period in which they lived. In doing so, remember that there were voices during the Colonial and antebellum days of slavery who were saying it was wrong. There were people in the US who were against the dispossession of the Indian peoples, and later, the efforts to force Indians to abandon their culture and assimilate into the general populace. There were people who protested the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Racism certainly was extremely common and obvious throughout American history, but that doesn't mean it was right. Racism was sometimes public policy, and that's part of the country's heritage. Americans have made efforts to correct some of these past mistakes, which is extremely important to remember. We study these images to understand the past, to celebrate the progress made, and to be more aware of the work still to be done. If we pretend these things didn't happen, we diminish ourselves, and we set the stage for history to repeat.
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5. If the image is "cute" or part of a child's toy, it's not offensive.
When viewing these items, you must teach yourself to view an item in context with the history of all of these items. One "cute" item by itself probably wouldn't be problematic. But individual items don't exist in a vacuum. You can't pretend that they do. Even if the item is a cherished toy from your childhood, you must think about the item's relationship to all of the other items in the collection, and the history of the caricature it represents. See the explanation of the continuum below for more details.
6. If the image didn't intend to be racist or offensive, then it isn't.
Some of the items you'll see in the collection were obviously intended to be hurtful. Most of these fall into the category of novelty items, and we can more easily categorize these items as being racist and highly offensive. However, many of the images you'll see didn't intend to be racist at all. Many corporate icons and name brand products featured racist images, especially from the 1870s to the 1960s. These images still caused harm, and they helped to legitimize and perpetuate the caricatures, thereby justifying continued discrimination. Many Whites with little or no contact with non-Whites based their mental image of these "others" on these images.
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7. If it doesn't include the word "nigger", then it's not racist
Most people can agree that when used with an obvious intent to harm, the word nigger is racist (for a good history of the word, go here). Unfortunately, many people conversely believe that only that word (and its ethnic counterparts) is racist, and that everything else is okay. That's simply not true. All of these items exist on what is called a continuum. Think of it as a scale, from most racist down to least racist. While items with the word "nigger" are blatantly offensive, they are only one end of a continuum. They still exist because they're connected to all of the lesser caricatured items that too many people accept. Consider the blatantly offensive"Nigger Head Oysters" product. This a modern item, a reproduction of a real product that was produced in the early 1900s. It exists because it's part of a continuum of lesser caricatured items, heading toward the right. The last item, produced in 2003, is a trash-talking pimp doll. It too is a racist item, it just falls on the farther end of the continuum. Many people today find it humorous. Because so many people do, it contributes to acceptance of the more offensive images.

Some people new to these images don't find anything wrong with the mammy caricature at all, especially the softly caricatured examples of her. Once again, it's important to put the item in context with all of the other items. A continuum of just mammy items might look like this:
The very last image is the recently updated Aunt Jemima corporate character, one of the most famous mammies of all time. Compare her with the other example of Aunt Jemima, further up the continuum. Should Aunt Jemima have simply been "retired" rather than updated? Maybe. Those kinds of questions are debatable. One can't have an informed opinion, however, without considering the long history of where Aunt Jemima sits on the mammy continuum.
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8. Blacks call each other "nigger" so I should be able to.
Recently, "shock jock" Don Imus received national attention when he referred to the women's NCAA runner-ups as "nappy-headed hoes." Public outrage by prominent African American leaders soon pressured NBC to fire him. Some saw this as appropriate, while others saw evidence of a double standard. Why was it unacceptable for Caucasian Don Imus to say this, while Black comedians and rap artists can get away with the same language, and with calling each other nigger? Public use of that language, regardless of who speaks it, is harmful and offensive. That many young African Americans have appropriated such language in public discourse is a source of concern and frustration for African Americans of the Civil Rights Era. Many of them have publicly criticized certain rap artists for perpetuating stereotypes. Young Black Americans are not born with a complete knowledge of Black history any more than is anyone else. Their ignorance has, in some cases, helped keep old stereotypes alive and has allowed too many other young Americans to claim license to use the same kind of language in public. For a more thorough discussion on this topic you can listen to the June 18 episode of Day To Day on National Public Radio: [Simply Slang, or a Culture of Disrespect?]
9. This is a positive stereotype--what's wrong with that?
Some stereotypes could be qualified as "positive" ones, like some of the team mascots that are so common in the US. These are commonly justified as being okay because they "honor" their subjects. The team mascot debate will be covered in detail in the Native American section, but it's important to remember that even so-called positive stereotypes do harm because they depict real human beings as being unreal. Additionally, when the subject involves Native Americans, these "positive" images consistently characterize Indians as a people of the past, not of the present (or future), further confirming their "other" status and drawing attention away from contemporary Native American issues.
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10. If I don't find it offensive, then it isn't offensive.
What each person finds offensive is going to vary based on that person's values, past experiences, and education. The more a person has been stereotyped and discriminated against, or the more a person is exposed to materials such as those collected here, the more sensitive that person is going to be about such issues. Just because you don't find something offensive doesn't mean it isn't harmful to someone else.
11. We should all just relax and not worry about this stuff. It's really no big deal.
It would be nice if this were true. Unfortunately, we will never stop talking about race. Because of this, we must learn to talk about race better than we do now. Ignoring racism, pretending it doesn't exist is not the way to talk better about it.
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Last modified July 20, 2012