Since the early colonial days, African Americans have been subjected to racial stereotypes and discrimination, which have shaped how they have been perceived and treated in the United States. Through literature, films, and social media, these stereotypes have had a lasting impact on attitudes toward and beliefs about African Americans in the U.S. In particular, the treatment and representation of People of Color in Hollywood’s fledgling years (1980-1930) influenced how American society dealt with race relations, especially with regard to African Americans. Whether excluded or inaccurately portrayed by Hollywood, such prejudicial treatment of Black Americans has had a lasting impact on the social/ethnic relations in America and deserves further attention to fully understand the various factors that made Hollywood—and concomitantly social media—a racist institution over its early years. By analyzing how People of Color were misrepresented during these years, one can holistically grasp the lasting impact that Hollywood has had on American society. Furthermore, understanding the effect of these early-Hollywood–era stereotypes on African American experiences can illustrate the need to correct the industry’s prejudicial mindset and create a more inclusive and respectful society.
Early Hollywood Years: Reinforcing Racist Stereotypes
The Silent Era of Hollywood comprises the period between the invention of motion pictures (late 1800s) and the introduction of synchronized sound (late 1920s). Racism was prevalent in Hollywood films of this era, with African Americans often represented in stereotypical and demeaning fashion therein. According to Laura Green (2018), a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, many of the films of this era were produced by White filmmakers who perpetuated White supremacist attitudes, with African Americans were often depicted as lazy, criminal, or unintelligent, which contributed to their marginalization and oppression in U.S. society. Supporting Green’s research, Richard Waterman (2019), a Political Science professor at the University of Kentucky, claims that during the early days of cinema, African American characters were
often portrayed by White actors in “blackface” makeup. Depicted as slow-witted and dangerous, these characters were mainly used for comic effects. Such depiction of African Americans was offensive and demeaning, and it reinforced harmful stereotypes (e.g., African Americans eating watermelons, which was often used as a racist trope to stereotype them as lazy and gluttonous) (Waterman, 2019). Discussing the detrimental effect of these racist stereotypes on U.S. society, Waterman further contends, “Film therefore reflected and propagated racist images, not merely in the early years of the twentieth century, but for many decades afterwards” (Waterman, 2019). Overall, these depictions were not only offensive but also engendered significant harm by reinforcing harmful stereotypes and contributing to the culture of discrimination in America. Thus, the early years of U.S. cinema amounted to a virulently racist period, and films in this era did much to disseminate racism and discrimination throughout the U.S., imagining a lower social status for African Americans and People of Color that has continued till date.
Hollywood’s Exclusionary Practices
In addition to the racist representations of African Americans, early Hollywood also largely excluded Black filmmakers and actors from the industry; thus, the harmful filmic representations of African Americans remained unchallenged. According to Thakore (2020) from the University of Central Florida, Hollywood operated as a “White space,” with gatekeeping practices to exclude diversity and preserve racialized ideologies of White privilege and supremacy. Beyond the already limited opportunities available to African Americans in early Hollywood, the major production companies also excluded any films that offered a more racially inclusive message. Hence, Thakore argues that the leaders of Hollywood’s major production companies acted as a “species” who “survived” by limiting the production of films that do not reflect their interests/ideologies; in turn, these films reinforced a homogenizing and exclusionary industry dominated by White individuals, groups, and ideas. Moreover, in discussing White spaces and their function as institutions perpetuating dominant ideologies, Eithne Quinn, a professor of American Studies at the University of Manchester,
claims that only 2.1% of the employees of the major production companies in 1967—Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, Twentieth Century–Fox, Col Disney, Paramount, and Metro-Gol—were African American (Quinn, 2012). Quinn further describes Hollywood’s business practice as a bastion of Whiteness behind “closed doors,” concurring with Thakore. Overall, Thakore (2020) and Quinn (2012)’s analyses shed light on Hollywood’s structural and representational barriers that have disabled African Americans from countering the not-so-hidden racism of its renowned production companies and offering U.S. a more realistic and less offensive view of People of Color.
Early Hollywood is not the only industry that has been blamed for misrepresenting People of Color in the U.S. Even today, general social media (Instagram, YouTube, Twitter) perpetuate racial discrimination toward People of Color through various methods, hate speech being one of the most common among them (Matamoros-Fernández & Farkas, 2021). For instance, user interfaces, algorithms, and user options “play a crucial role in determining the frequency of hate speech” (Miškolci et al., 2018) by suggesting racist content (Awan, 2014; Gin et al., 2017). Therefore, one must remember that Hollywood offers only one system to understand the pervasiveness of Whiteness and its impact on African Americans’ social existence, for popular media has also influenced the U.S. public by rampantly maintaining negative stereotypes about People of Color.
A Merrimack College research conducted by Wilder (2020) explains how media influence individuals regarding certain stereotypes. It found that most U.S. citizens are exposed to racist or discriminatory media daily and that this exposure can be harmful to their beliefs regarding and views of society (Wilder, 2020). Referring to cultivation theory, Wilder suggests that exposure to media, particularly television, can shape an individual’s beliefs, attitudes, and values over time: the more time someone spends watching television, for instance, the more likely they are to adopt the values and beliefs presented by the programs they watch (Wilder, 2020). Furthermore, Adams-Bass et al. state that “higher rates of TV exposure are associated with internalizing the stories (images) as representative of reality” (Adams-Bass et al., 2014); those who are repeatedly exposed to such messages may have a “mean world view” (a view of the world that is worse than it actually is) (Gerbner, 1998; Gerbner & Gross, 1976). This process is referred to as “cultivation” as it is thought to “cultivate” certain attitudes and beliefs in viewers. This theory direct supports Thakore (2020)’s argument regarding “White spaces” (inasmuch as they influence and perpetuate White supremacist ideologies). Although there are countless negative consequences in social media and its effect on People of Colour, social media platforms have also played a significant role in political activism and engagement, if used correctly, for Black Americans particularly in the wake of recent events like the killing of George Floyd (Auxier, 2020). According to Brooke Auxier, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, Black social media users are more likely to find these platforms important for their political activism and for finding like-minded individuals. It is due to these online communities, known as Black Twitter, that allowed like- minded underrepresented groups to express their voice collectively into the society (as seen in #BlackLiveMatter), offering support and increase visibility for African Americans by holding people in power accountable for their actions and alike.
Since the early colonial days, African Americans in U.S. have been subjected to negative stereotypes and discrimination that have shaped the way they are perceived and treated in their own nation. Such stereotypes have been perpetuated through the various forms of media, effecting a lasting impact on popular attitudes toward and beliefs about African Americans. It is therefore essential to recognize the ways in which U.S. media have shaped and perpetuated negative racial stereotypes and simultaneously work toward creating a more inclusive and respectful societal culture. By understanding the history of relations between and media involving White and African American people, one can develop a more racially inclusive and just America for all.