Aug 03 2011

The negative side of ‘positive’ stereotypes

There are a wide variety of stereotypes about different racial groups (a controversial statement, I know). Stereotypes represent our brain’s tendency to try and classify things as simply as possible, since individual processing of every individual object in the universe would be incredibly tiresome, and we’ve got shit to do. Racial groupings are no less (and probably more) prone to that kind of process, and as a result we have a plethora of stereotypical ideas that fall along racial lines. Many of these are obviously negative: Mexicans are lazy, Jews are cheap, black people are violent and prone to crime, white people can’t dance. We tend to abhor those stereotypes in polite company, even if we might happen to believe them in private (except maybe the one about white people not being able to dance – that one still seems okay to laugh about).

However, there are some stereotypes that we often think of as ‘positive’ in racial groups too. Black guys have big cocks and are naturally athletic; East-Asians are good at math; First Nations people have wisdom stemming from being ‘in tune with nature’. These are surely not intended as insults, but rather as complimentary facets of being a member of a given racial group. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a large penis, right? Or being good at math? Or being well-attuned to the natural world? If anything, these are positive traits that we envy and wish we could have for ourselves.

My problem with these ‘positive’ stereotypes comes from two different sources. First, when one takes the time to examine the implications and history behind some of these stereotypes, it becomes abundantly clear that they are not a net positive for the stereotyped group. Second, they are still products of the same racism as the negative stereotypes, and as it says in the book of Matthew, “…a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (I draw a brief distinction here for humour derived from racism that is specifically intended to mock the absurdity of racist beliefs – jokes do not necessarily have to be completely clean.)

So let’s take a look at on of the myths I highlighted above: well-endowed black men. My position is that, despite the fact that this aspect is not obviously negative (I am sure you’ve all heard far more negative things said about black men), it is not complimentary and does damage.

Black men and sexual reduction

During the era of American slavery, black men were inspected like livestock before purchase. Soon-to-be slaves were evaluated not only by their physical statue and health – a proxy for how valuable they were for labour – but also for reproductive characteristics. Unlike purchasing other farm equipment (and once again like livestock), African slaves could do something incredibly lucrative for their owners: create more slaves. In theory, with only a handful of male and female specimens, a single slave-owner could breed generation after generation of new slaves, each saleable at a profit much larger than the cost of feeding. Africans with obvious sexual advantages were highly prized, since they would produce offspring more prodigiously.

After emancipation (well, actually well before emancipation, but let’s not quibble) there was a great hysteria within the white community about black men raping white women. In fact, every time a white woman was caught having sex with a black man, she claimed it was rape – a most unusual coincidence I’m sure you’ll agree. The image of the savage black rapist – his over-sized member swinging in the breeze and becoming engorged at even the thought of sexual violence against tender, innocent, white flesh – became ingrained in the cultural psyche as the essence of black masculinity.

In our modern, post-racial era, we see the same fetishizing of black sexuality in media. Because of the metamorphosis of this myth into a positive aspect (somehow), we are bombarded with jokes about black sexual prowess, particularly the impressive size of the penis. Rap music has added more than its fair share to this meme. I’m not sure how many of you watch porn, but if you do, I challenge you to find a black actor in porn that doesn’t have a comically large penis. Black men are still reduced to a caricature – mindless animalistic creatures whose sole purpose is sex. While it’s never stated so explicitly as that, it nevertheless crops up repeatedly when the meme is examined with a broader view.

I should, and in fact must take a moment to point out that the sexualization of Africans is not relegated solely to men. Black women are slandered and derogated in equal measure (perhaps more, due to the intersection of being black and female), and much of it happens at the hands of black men. The recent obsession we have had with big butts and lips is not an accident – it’s an outcropping of this same reduction of African women to sexual objects, as well as a reaction to the ultra-Aryan standards of beauty seen in the 80s and early 90s. While black men can accept much of the blame for the propogation of this attitude, its genesis can be found in the same cultural conception of Africans as sexual creatures rather than people.

It’s also important to recognize the harmful effects that our historically-based North American perspective on those of African descent has on our modern-day perspective on Africans. While severe poverty, lack of opportunity, poor education, lack of domestic social infrastructure, and international apathy are causing a major AIDS epidemic across many parts of the continent, the narrative from popular culture is that Africans are fucking themselves to death. If only those rutting animals could keep it in their pants for 5 minutes, their problems would be solved, right?

I recognize that I am asking a lot of you, dear reader. I’m seemingly extrapolating a lot of historical context from something as innocuous as ‘black guys have big dicks’, and am asking you to see something that seems fairly neutral as being actively negative and harmful. Maybe you’re not ready to come along with me on that point just yet (you will, just give it some time and thought). For those holdouts, I will take this opportunity to point out that whether neutral or actively negative, racism is not something to be encouraged. When we propagate racial stereotypes, however ‘positive’ we may find them, we are engaging in the same kind of nonsensical heuristic use of the same time as those who commit racist acts that we oppose. Individuals should not be judged based on their ethnic background – not because it isn’t nice, but because it’s very rarely the case that any useful predictions can be made from those classifications. Reducing someone to a societally-defined label is a recipe for disaster, even if you associate that label with positive things.

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  1. 1

    I actually *do* remember seeing a few stills from a porn shoot where the man had a smaller-than-average penis. The only reason I recall it so clearly is because it broke the stereotype I had of black men at the time, which led me to reassess my thoughts on the matter. Which is to say that I am completely on-board with you on this issue; such reductionism, even in current popular culture, can only harm all of us (especially the subjects of that reduction).

    And what does this ‘positive’ stereotype do to the probable majority of African-(North)American men who *don’t* fit in with it? What sort of crises of confidence are we breeding among black men who don’t ‘measure up’? And what effects does that have when they are also encouraged to show their prowess physically with weapons and several sexual partners?

    I’m reminded of my alternative school science teacher, who hypothesized that African Americans were stupider than white people because of the very selective pressures you briefly outline above. I had a visceral reaction against the suggestion (I still think it’s stupid; if anything, the kinds of pressures of a slave’s life in the South would have selected for *greater* intelligence, not less), but I am dubious about the timeframes involved. Yes, slaves were bred and sold over several centuries in the American south. But that’s nothing compared to the timeframes involved in natural (or sexual) selection. I’m not a biologist, but I doubt that the number of generations of Africans bred specifically for slavery is large enough for meaningful adaptations to have entered into the population.

    Which isn’t an attempt to excuse the practice in any way, or to detract from the ubiquity and damaging nature of the stereotypes you outline.

  2. 2

    I’d be shocked if human intelligence were so mutable a concept that 400 years of partial selective breeding would make for a noticeable shift in the population. If it were, we’d see populations of staggering intelligence and populations of staggering stupidity due to different selective pressures. Even a species as mutable as canis familiaris took a few hundred thousand years to breed. As it is, we see a more or less uniform distribution of intelligence (as best we can measure it) in all human populations. There’s also the fact that many slave owners didn’t see their slaves as being at all intelligent, so it’s unlikely they would have looked for the stupider ones – they’d think all of them were the stupid ones.

    I think we’re seeing some of the problems of black men not measuring up to the general machismo within their (our) culture, which is in itself an abstraction of the crisis of being a “real man” generally. It’s an important point that goes beyond simple sex and violence – having “baby mamas” is a thing now. Is that really a badge of honour that is sustainable? Won’t we see problems getting worse and not better over time if we continue to glorify irresponsibility? Then again, is it truly “we” that are doing the glorification, or does it transcend racial groupings? I know it was a major issue when I worked for a very short time in Central America – men abandoning their pregnant girlfriends. It became a cultural norm that had disastrous consequences for generations of boys and girls born after.

    I’m never going to run out of things to write about :P

  3. 3

    About twenty years ago, I had a Chinese-American lab partner in an electronics class. He used to complain that everyone expected him to be brilliant at math and science while he knew that he was a C+ student at best. It was the first time I’d seen that “model minority” stereotype turned on its head. He said his teachers always thought he wasn’t applying himself. It was funny but I could understand his frustration.

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