Thinking about What We See: Using Media Literacy to Examine Images of African Americans on Television

By Tosi, Paula | Black History Bulletin, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Thinking about What We See: Using Media Literacy to Examine Images of African Americans on Television


Tosi, Paula, Black History Bulletin


Gainer noted that in 1986, Marcus and Fischer presented the idea of "crisis of representation," which looks at how societal paradigms dictate the representation of reality in the social sciences? The representation of cultures in television and film has created over the years a reality in which stereotypes thrive. In the late 1960s, as more televisions found their way into the American home, Marshall McLuhan argued that "television constituted much more than mere entertainment.'' (22) Educators who are aware of how media influences the lives of their students have the opportunity to teach students the language of media, and how to become literate consumers of the mediarich environment in which we live.

This article examines how African American stereotypes have been represented in television media historically and how those representations have been recirculated, promoting generations of consumers who have become desensitized to the negative messages these stereotypes convey. The social studies classroom is an excellent arena for discussing the cultural effects stereotypical representations have had on how individuals perceive African Americans globally, nationally, locally, and in the classroom.

Historical Perspective

Children have been watching television for over 60 years, and have been considered consumers of this medium since 1950. The creators of children's media have been able to mold and shape entire generations simply by portraying people of color in ways that fit into societal stereotypes. Over the last 60 years, this stereotyped portrayal of diverse cultures has become far subtler, which has had a far more detrimental effect on the child consumer.

Bruner (3) indicated in his study looking at veridical perception that individuals will learn, through the repetition of an occurrence, how to perceive an object or worldview. Ford (4) expands on this idea in his study, which looks at how televised stereotypes affect an individual's perception of a particular racial group. The outcome of this study showed that when individuals (regardless of race) were shown African Americans in stereotyped roles, they were more likely to make a negative judgment of an African American "target" person. Ford concludes that as a culture, we have been so inundated with viewing races in stereotypical roles that we have developed a laissez-faire attitude toward how race is portrayed in television. (5) Seldom do individuals challenge how race or gender is portrayed in televised programs because it has become normalized.

Li-Vollmer (6) looks at how children are targeted by television advertisers and notes the findings of Gray, (7) who stated, "Race representations in the media frequently legitimate and maintain the terms of the dominant cultural and social order that situates Whites at the top of privilege and power hierarchies." Li-Vollmer goes on to stress the 1987 work of Calvert and Huston and the 1976 work of Katz, who stated, "Not only are children still developing their schemas about groups of people, but they also have not yet developed the cognitive ability to critically evaluate the validity and acceptability of stereotypes. (8) Li-Vollmer's study theorizes that children will develop many of their perceptions of race based on how they categorize the portrayal of race in created media, which some children may have more exposure to than actual real-world situations in which they can create a more authentic schema. The outcome of this study also showed that individuals inundated with media messages that portray races in positions considered subservient (or lower than the status quo) will also develop schemas that nurture ambivalence, which creates a culture of viewers that only see the explicit message and do not see the need to critically analyze the often implicit message being portrayed in both commercial and regular television programs.

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At the beginning of each year, I have students participate in a "getting to know me" activity in which they bring artifacts from home into the classroom and give a brief speech about why the things they have chosen are important to them. …

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