December 11, 2015
Ignorance may be the most blissfully awful thing for somebody to have. It requires assumptions made off of images and ideas in pop culture. Sometimes accurate and well portrayed, but more often than not images centered on a subject that represents a small percentage of a community. Especially when minorities are concerned. Contemporarily these images are often not meant to be malicious; humans innately fear what we do not understand. The unknown poses a terrifying threat of “what if”. We take comfort in expectations. Starbucks will always have coffee and Wi-Fi, chocolate will always taste relatively the same, and finals will always be hard. “We are quick to judge, fear and even hate the unknown. We may not admit it, but we are plagued with xenophobic tendencies” (Winter). This unfortunately innate mental action likes to favor categories, and stereotypes are the most prominent of those categories.
My siblings and I grew up in majority white schools all of our lives. We were stereotyped but always on the hush, and often put in the “good” stereotype buckets. Considered athletic without much reason, my English teacher in high school who was also the varsity basketball coach asked me why I did not play. Every single season. On top of being black, my mother is Nigerian, as in moved to America with my dad after medical school. The first time I ever went Lagos, our state, I was 6 months old. So now not only were we one of few black families, but we were told how “ethnic” it is to go to Nigeria, and asked if we stayed in mud huts. I do not lie. Oh and one other thing, our dad is white.
National Geographic documentaries of dirt roads, save the children commercials of bloated malnourished babies, the guy up the block with his pants low, and Flava’ Flav shaped our identities in both white and black minds without us asking. Besides the one time in 8th grade a black classmate told me I was not black, stereotypes never really affected us to an extreme. That is until a few months ago.
My father got a job in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E, near Dubai for geographical reference. As I went off to college my brothers moved across the world to join my dad. They were enrolled in the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. Zachary is 16 and a junior, Connor is 14 and eighth grade. Upon multiple conversations I could easily tell school was not going well, my dad was oblivious, and I thought it might just be a hard adjustment, but my mom knew something I did not. Zachary had revealed to her in a long and upsetting ph9one call that he was being called the N-word in school. Repeated attempts and explanations to make this stop had been done in vain. A lot of the non-American children in his school were so consumed with American media culture, particularly the music, and told him that the rap songs said so it was okay. Genuinely believing that because they knew other African kids who said it (remember this is in Abu Dhabi) that it was okay. In their own defense at least they were not saying it while being white.
Even if it is this progressive era of 2015 and everyone and their mother is now accepted, stereotypes originating in the 20th century have imprinted themselves into pop culture. Zachary and Connor became subject to two specifically, the Sambo, and the Black Brute. Zachary bore the grunt of the stereotyping. An incredible soccer player of a stalky and solid build became, as you could imagine, the brute. Black men have always been feared but it was not expressed in a way that was able to reach the entire nation in a seemingly single instant. Until 1915 when Birth of a Nation, one of America’s first and most celebrated feature films. Placing number 44 in America’s top 100 films (Filmsite), Birth of a Nation expressed in pictures sentiments of the majority of whites in America. In the end of the film, the KKK essentially rides into save the South of black rule. “Immediately after the film’s release, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a surge in membership, and it continued to use the film as a recruiting tool for decades after that” (National Public Radio). In other words the film was the catalyst to pop culture perpetuating in exaggeration black stereotyping, creating conscious and subconscious merit of popular negative opinions of blacks.
Contemporarily the majority agree that the notions and ideas presented in Birth of a Nation are absurd and beyond repulsive. But the image of the black brute evolved with the times, instead of savage rapists, we have immoral and blood thirsty gang members. Further than that, we have American rap and hip-hop music, which often perpetuates street life and its brutish way bringing us full circle to the lasting effects experienced by Zachary. Drake and the Weeknd (I know, not the “hardest” of America’s music stars) dominate the Arabian markets. Lyrics from the artists include “I come around, she leave that n***a like he ain’t matter” from the Weeknd’s song “Often” (Genius), and “can’t see ‘em cause the money in the way, real n***a, what’s up?” from Drake’s “The Motto” (Genius). The Weeknd is black and Drake is half white and half black, causing the classmates Zachary interacted with to believe it was acceptable to idealize Zachary in the same way they idealized these rap stars.
Not only did Zachary’s classmates pull the brutish stereotype from celebrities but they also, consciously, made not of the fact that hip-hop is seen as a “black thing”. Research indicates the creation of Blues at the turn of the 20th century gave birth to a large amount of music genres we hear today including hip-hop (Pittman 2015), most likely adding to the notion that hip-hop on top of the first rap groups being made up of black men. Groups such as the Sugar Hill Gang and NWA defining the sounds of rap music. Also finding prosperity in inadvertently filling the Sambo stereotype. As Zachary became more social and began to attend social gathering more often he started to notice something very frustrating that he expressed to me over a lengthy phone call. All of his “friends” expected him to freestyle and dance like Chris Brown. People would gather around him upon a proclamation of “Zach, I’ll drop a beat!” then stare in disbelief when he told them for the thousandth time he did not rap. Over the 3 months Zachary lived there, he said this never changed, in fact it got worse, to the point that he refrained from going to as many social gatherings to avoid the humiliating stares and comments.
It is hard to point fingers because 50-60% of his classmates probably could not understand why he was offended. An image of who Zachary was dictated by media was so deeply ingrained in these children’s minds that it had shifted from opinion to fact. Yet are there people we can hold accountable? D.W. Griffith Director of Birth of a Nation believed that he was reporting a history of the Civil War and reconstruction and “at the time, much of the storyline was accept as historically accurate” (National Public Radio). In the early 20th century it can be said with certainty some media outlets were definitely attempting to further tarnish the image of blacks, but how certainly can we say that today. These international children were subject to the lasting effects of American racism, and its national reach that my younger brothers, Zachary in particular became victim too.
“The Birth of a Nation (1915).” The Birth of a Nation (1915). American Movie Classics Company, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
“Drake (Ft. Lil Wayne) – The Motto.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnda (2015). How They Got Over Lecture [Prezi Presentation]. Retrieve from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/folder/Course%2520Lectures?preview=33658917
“The Weeknd – Often.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Winters, Jeffrey. “Why We Fear the Unknown.” Psychology Today. Susses Publishers, 1 May 2002. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
“100 Years Later, What’s The Legacy Of ‘Birth Of A Nation’?” NPR. NPR, 1 May 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.