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Teaching Diversity With Multimedia

Imagery & Stereotyping Explained

“He who controls the past commands the future. He who commands the future conquers the past.” -George Orwell
"History is written by the winners." -George Orwell

It's commonly understood that history is written by the winners. Less understood is that the winners also get to define imagery.

Imagery is a cognitive process that allows us to "see" mental images. What we see is based on our own experiences, especially if the subject is a person, place or thing we're familiar with. Imagery of less familiar subjects might be based on sources from outside our personal experience, especially from popular culture. When we are thinking about large groups of people categorized by such characteristics as race, gender, age, or class, imagery is very problematic. All too often imagery of peoples is imbued with exaggerated physical, behavioral, or cultural characteristics called stereotypes. These oversimplified ideas are assigned to people simply by their identification as belonging to that group. In other words, we tend to lump large groups of very diverse peoples together and then assign the entire group individual characteristics. Stereotypes can be both positive and negative, and can lead to a form of bias called prejudice (an attitude), and even used to justify discrimination (an action).

Although there can sometimes be small amounts of truth in stereotypes, they are not accurate representations. Beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, popular culture produced by the wealthy White society fabricated non-Whites by using such things as literature, theater, engravings, prints, paintings, cartoons, Victorian trade cards, dime novels, household products, advertising, movies, radio and television shows, comic books, postcards, souvenirs, and children's books, toys, and games. Sometimes their stereotyping is so common that they can be recognized as caricatures and given names. The creation of these caricatures was both intentional and unintentional, and most people didn't even notice it was happening. This latter point explains why these caricatures are still very much with us today. They evolve over time, maybe becoming a little less obvious, but they rarely die off completely, and new ones are constantly being created. Unfortunately, we all base our behaviors towards others on some level of stereotyping, often with hurtful and destructive results. Sometimes even the peoples being caricatured believe the stereotypes because they too have been influenced with them. Sometimes we even do it to ourselves.

This section of the Authentic History Center will attempt to educate you about the ongoing history of racial stereotyping. Some of the items you'll see are disturbing. When viewing others, you'll probably puzzle over what's inappropriate about them. Still others you'll see as not being problematic at all. Items with varying degrees of stereotyping are included to encourage thought and discussion. Some of you will try to distance yourselves from the harm in these images by giving excuses for them. For that reason, consider reading Common Excuses Used to Justify Stereotyping before continuing into the collection.

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Last modified July 20, 2012