To celebrate Black History Month and the contributions of black people in the U.S., Stony Brook University (SBU)’s Center for Civic Justice hosted an interactive discussion called “Thinking Inside the Box: The Truth Behind the Stereotypes,” on Feb. 17. The event discussed stereotypes and how they affect the way we view ourselves as well as others.
Tamera Smith, a junior economics major and an Undergraduate Coordinator for the Center for Civic Justice, hosted the program. It began with a presentation during which Smith defined stereotypes and gave examples of some that many might recognize today.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, stereotypes can be defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgement.”
To emphasize the fact that the black community is extremely diverse and multifaceted, Smith made it her mission to reveal and disprove some negative stereotypes associated with the group.
Smith first introduced the event’s attendees to Nancy Green, a former slave born in Kentucky in 1834. Green was hired to portray a mammy caricature to promote pancake flour for the R.T. Davis Milling Company in 1890. As the company used this caricature to advertise their product, the R.T. Davis Milling Company grew more and more popular. Green’s image became what we all recognize as the famous Aunt Jemima, who Green impersonated until her death. Now an American icon, Aunt Jemima has been made over to look more like a maid than the original mammy stereotype.
The original mammy caricature was created and used by white Americans to push the idea that black women were content with their lives as slaves. Mammies were desexualized by being portrayed as overweight women with very dark skin. These “undesirable” traits made it more acceptable for white slave owners to rape black women working in their homes with no consequences. Mammies were characterized as maternal figures devoted to serving white families, and their representation in media rationalized the slavery of black women in the nineteeth century and economic discrimination during the Jim Crow period.
Popular stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans like mammy, Sambo and Jim Crow were used as tools to dehumanize African Americans and portray them as mindless and lazy people. Though more subtle today, we can see how these stereotypes have evolved and still depict black people in a similar light through popular media.
While there is much progress to be made, representation of black people in the media has come a long way. Smith gives credit to former First Lady Michelle Obama for being a positive role model in the black community. She says, “She made the best out of her experience [as First Lady] and never let anyone talk down on her.” Smith has also found that she could relate to Penny Proud, the main character in a 2000s Disney cartoon called “The Proud Family.” She explained that Penny “tries hard at everything she does. Whether it came to school projects or her cheer competitions, she was always competitive and she was always outgoing. She never let anyone shut her down.”
The rest of the presentation, put together by Smith and other students involved in the Center for Civic Justice, acknowledged other black women such as Henrietta Lacks, actress Hattie McDaniel and the “real-life Betty Boop,” Esther Lee Jones, who were all overlooked and taken advantage of at a time when Jim Crow laws shaped society.
Afterward, the attendees participated in a craft that required them to create a paper box. They labeled the boxes with negative stereotypes they have heard about themselves. They were encouraged to consider questions like, “what are some stereotypes associated with my identity?” and, “what do people assume when they first meet me?” to guide their creative process.
One participant, freshman biology major Tenzin Tsetan, shared her experiences with stereotypes and how they affected her. She said that as an East Asian woman, “people just see [her] as someone like ‘a nerd.’ Like only focused on academics, no social life, no outside activities … also as [the depiction] most common in American media, someone submissive and docile.” Tsetan says she is inspired by her twin sister, an advocate for social justice and more positive Asian representation in the media, to challenge these stereotypes and “acknowledge that [she] has the power to change things” and make an impact.
Once they were finished writing on their boxes, the attendees were invited to write personal affirmations on pieces on paper that could be stored inside the box, and read later for a source of motivation.
Ending a refreshing night with music, learning and new relationships, Smith successfully highlighted the theme for this year’s Black History Month celebration: Sankofa. Sankofa is a word from the Twi language of Ghana which means “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” SBU’s Black History Month Committee has used “sankofa” to inspire the community to “own their own narrative” and embrace the things that make them different, rather than conform to societal expectations.
Smith felt that by “redefining stereotypes” that she had been labeled with, she was doing her part to own her narrative and hosted the event in efforts to bring people together and “bring a new sense of who we are, and remind ourselves that who we are is who we are, and not what anyone else says.”