The Wannabe, the Man, and Whitebread: Portrayals of Whiteness in Black Films

By Banjo, Omotayo; Fraley, Todd | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Wannabe, the Man, and Whitebread: Portrayals of Whiteness in Black Films


Banjo, Omotayo, Fraley, Todd, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Racial ideology has always been a predominant theme in American film and therefore the subject of media criticism. Historically, research on race and the media has focused on the marginalization of non-Whites, with a significant amount examining portrayals of distinctive ethnic groups, including Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and most notably, African Americans. From these studies scholars have deduced that racial minorities are consistently subject to stereotypical depictions and/or negative portrayals in light of a dominant White cast (Harris, 1999; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). An implication of this research is that negative portrayals of racial groups stigmatize minority groups and foster negative social attitudes primarily among the White majority. Studies have shown that exposure to stereotypical portrayals have been associated with Whites' stereotyping (Oliver, 1999), attitudes towards affirmative action policies (Tan, Fujioka & Tan, 2000), and political attitudes toward marginalized groups in general (Ramasubramanian, 2010).

Such investigations are warranted given the history of racial and institutional discrimination in the United States. A goal of these studies is to illustrate the influence of mass media on social perceptions, social attitudes, and social behavior towards marginalized groups. Another goal is to hold the media accountable for its role in creating these perceptions, fostering attitudes, and inadvertently legitimizing inappropriate social behaviors. However, while attending to the misrepresentations of historically disenfranchised groups, scholars have not given enough attention to portrayals of the White majority which also has implications for social constructions of race. Perhaps representations of dominant groups are generally ignored because it is presumed that members of this group are inherently the problem of inequity and are unharmed by their power and privilege. However, as Wise (2008) points out the invisibility of privilege perpetuates the problem of racial construction and racial injustice, and therefore must be made conspicuous. This study intends to respond to this challenge.

Racial identities are "highly charged frameworks through which contemporary life is actively negotiated" (Downing and Husband, 2005, p. 1), and therefore, pivotal to the "anti essentialist position emphasizing the socially constructed status of all identities ..." (Bennet, Grossberg, and Morris, 2005, p. 173). In particular, racial identities support a "... process of giving things meaning by assigning them to different positions within a classificatory system that is the basis for that symbolic order we call culture" (Hall, 1997, p. 236). Further, the uneasy relationship between Blacks and Whites in America influences the construction of one's self and racial identity (Kivel, 1996). If these identities are cultural they are open to modification and change, but if they appear essentialized or natural they support the strategy of fixed difference that becomes easier to secure (Hall, 1997, p. 245). Scholars must interrogate media's role in this discussion as it provides ideas about race and presents a site "where these ideas are articulated, transformed, and elaborated" (Hall, 1995, p. 20). Such interrogation gives insight into the production of culture and the maintenance of dominant ideologies about racial identity that influence social relations in America.

There have been a number of studies on the portrayals of whiteness in mainstream media--that is from a White dominated perspective (Dyer, 2003), however research considering representations of whiteness in texts where ethnic/othered groups are the majority is scarce (Foster, 2003). This lack of insight remains years after Nakayama and Krizek (1995) argued for research interrogating whiteness as a rhetorical construction used to justify a dominant racial order. Lewis (2004) contends that newer scholarship should explore how people of color interpret whiteness. …

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