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Khaya Sibeko

Football.Bookworm.Cinematic Music. "The greatest contribution from Africans will be to give the world a more human face" Bantu S. Biko,

Stereotypes And The Politics Of (Mis) Representation

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“Sony or Aiwa, black or white, I fit into all stereotypes”. Those are vintage rhymes that cascaded from the lyrical genius and critically acclaimed American rapper Wordsworth. Upon hearing those lines started asking myself questions regarding the extent to which stereotypes go in shaping our perceptions and behaviours towards a lot of things and more importantly towards other people. Where does stereotypical conduct and thinking emanate from and what makes people act in a manner that may be categorized as stereotypical? These are among the points one will attempt to unpack.

Stereotypes can express themselves in good and morally ‘acceptable’ fashions, but it can also be made manifest in ways that are deliberately demeaning and grossly violating to a particular subject matter as far as the politics of representation are concerned. Stereotypes like everything have a source of origin and it’s through the source from which they sprout and publicizes themselves. The question that comes to mind then is, whether the source of a certain stereotype is a result of imagination that has been subliminally saturated into the subject matter? Or are stereotypes a reflection of the manner in which the subject matter truly is and how it carries itself, which then leads to the conclusion that it’s the way the subject matter is and it will remain like that throughout. An example of this would be the so called ‘African time’, the stereotypical belief that Africans has no regard for punctuality. The origins of this thinking are unknown. Perhaps some African was late in honouring an important appointment or an occasion and some how it became a routine for that person, but does the fault of one person mean that an entire people who resemble such a person have to be measured by the inadequacies of that person and it is a fair assessment and representation of those who, in their majority, keep time? Unfortunately there are Africans have accepted this vicious mode of thinking as true and justify their laziness through ‘African time’.

Amongst the many reasons people act in stereotypical fashions, one that seems to stand out is that in stereotyped conduct there is comfort, resemblance and certain the prized idea of belonging. Those who dare to challenge and go against the grain of routine and become pathfinder of a better representation are usually castigated as trying to be something they are not and being rabble rousers in an otherwise ‘normal’ functioning society. When black children whose parents could afford to take them to model c schools in the mid 1990s, those children where branded as coconuts and ‘oreos’ when they would act in ways that are and weren’t ‘black’. Chief amongst the most sensitive stereotypes has to be the once related to race. This is because for most of the 20th century, race was used as a yard stick for those who shall be given the status of humans and those who shall forfeit such. The following are a few racial misrepresentations of certain races because of stereotypes:

Are all white people racists?
Since the voyages of the 1400s by Europeans to the ‘new worlds’ (the Americas), ‘dark continent’ (Africa) and ‘worlds end’ (the Asia and Oceania), they, Europeans, had carried with themselves the idea that they were children of a better God so to speak. And unfortunately it is an idea that had been passed down to succeeding generations. Race relations in places like Australia, Brazil, USA, Spain and indeed South Africa are far from harmonious given the past experience of white racism. But do our experiences necessarily mean all white people are racist and should be
viewed in the same light? No, because that kind of thinking or lack of thinking would further entrench ignorance we are trying rid ourselves of. Since one is the magic number, to paraphrase Jill Scott, we must learn to accept that people are individuals and should be given a benefit of doubt in such circumstances.

The coloured situation
It is generally accepted that coloured people are a result of white settlers and Khio San historical meeting. And usually the dilemma that has followed an interaction of this kind has been one that has asked, to which ‘side’ do coloured belong? It’s at this juncture that the stereotype about coloured people has found a fertile ground to replicate itself for a large scale misrepresentation of this minority people in this country. The malicious portrayal of coloured people as a cultureless people stranded at the cross roads of history, has made it easy for them to be depicted as drunkards and embracers of gangsters. Coloureds have their annual minstrel dances performed on January 2nd. That is part of their culture even though the minstrel have demeaning connotation in America. What does depictions like the ones we are prone to seeing about coloured do their self esteem, one thing is for sure it does not assist in any of attempting to indicate that there is more to coloured folk than what’s stereotypical being shown.

Does black equal savage?
In 2007Forest Whittaker became only the fourth black man to win an

Award for best actor, for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland. But it wasn’t without controversy as Whittaker’s face was darkened in order for him to ‘look more’ African. Needless to say that Hollywood still views Africans as a different breed for the black people in the US. And so the stereotype continues in the process. The advent of democratic rule in 1994 ushered a new dispensation in South African society, which had been hard pressed by the apartheid machinery that black people are criminals who amount to less than nothings. Mfundi Vundla, the brain behind South Africa’s religiously followed soap opera, Generations, once said that Generations was created because they saw a need for a programme which would speak to and reflect the inspirations of a middle classed black people which was slowly coming into its own. Many critics chastised Generations as a superfluous soapie that didn’t reflect blacks’ lives in South Africa. Some of the criticism levelled at Vundla and company lacked substance at the very least. What the soapie did was that it broke ranks with the conventional ghetto worshiping tales of black people experience in South Africa and gave them an idea of life in a different class. Black people are probably the most denigrated as far as prejudice depiction is concerned. The stereotype that people of African descant are savages was painstakingly engraved into the psyche of the world. Black men were and are portrayed as sexual predators lusting for white women and black women’s bodies were forever brought in public scrutiny since the days of Saatjie Batman or the Hottentot Venus as she was known to Europe and the world. In his critically acclaimed work Bamboozled, Spike Lee examines the history of false and prejudice representation of black people in American cinema over the years. The film blasts open the perception of people of ‘colour’ from cartoons with think pink to red lips and extra large noses of black people. It also has clips
of a time when white people were painted black in charcoal in order to play blacks in films. When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won their Academy Awards for best actor and actress respectively, they were paraded as Hollywood final acknowledgment of people of ‘colour’s’ talents. But others asked why Washington, who played a corrupt cop in Training Day, had been given an Oscar now but had been previously been overlooked in other great roles he played especially his role in Malcolm X, a Spike Lee production. Berry recognition was snubbed by some cultural ‘experts’ because they felt that she got the nod because of her convincing sex scene in Monster’s Ball. Films like Shaka Zulu have also contributed through their propaganda to the insane belief that Africans and particularly Zulu people are bomb waiting to explode and are innately violate folk, and unfortunately some Zulu speaking people have come to subscribe to the notion ala taxi drivers.

Are Muslim terrorists?
Ever since The Crusades, there has always been a war of religions between Christianity and Islam and more recently 1967 when Israel began its merciless on slaughter of Arabs in Gaza and the subsequent retaliation by the same Arabs, they have been branded as terrorists who are on a quest to reak havoc on humanity. Fast forward to post 9/11 and the relations between the west and Islamic countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Afganistan and Iran have not lost their rancour. The stereotype just grew to be more grim and sullen as Jewish sympathetic television  and newspapers continued to synonymise Islam with terror. It has become a mission impossible for Muslim people to have an unhampered passage through airports across the world, because airports employees see 9/11 when they see a Muslim person. This treatment will not subside as long as ignorance reigns supreme in our world.

Advertisements and the stereotype:
In the early 1900s in the US, when marketers wanted to sell domestic products such as washing powders, baking necessities and so forth, they would cast fat black women to be on the faces and be the face of those kind of campaigns and those type of black women were known as Aunt Jemimas. Maq, which is a washing powder brand recently introduced in the market as used the same ‘Aunt Jemima’ method to appeal to its target market. Perhaps one is making a fuss over nothing, but ads have a very influential hand in shaping public opinion and we should deeply scrutinize the implications of ads in the main. Mtn in its ‘du melang’ ad and C Cell in its ‘you can talk for free on weekend’ ad  depict black people as insane and loud fools who get excited over simple thing like airtime discounts, it is a fair representation? What about the Ricoffee ad of black females horribly sipping coffee and Coke’s ‘brrrr’ ad, where a diplomat/president of an African state just gets up in the middle of what seems to be a meeting of a United Nations and just shout ‘brrrr’. Is that how Africans are seen by Coca Cola? It’s probably all innocent fun and marketing of a globally loved brand but at whose expense? One is not trying to advocate that all stereotypes are thumb sucked and then unleashed on an unsuspecting public. That would be naive to say the least, but when stereotypes based on isolated incidences and experiences are used to define, as absolute, the behaviours and interactions with a subject matter, it then becomes very detrimental to, not only the subject matter, but also the general populous with which they mingle. There was, at some point, a stereotypical belief that that HIV and AIDS was a disease only contracted by homosexual males and people didn’t take precautionary measure for sexual intercourse. Look at us now, some three decades later, we are faced with an illness that has been contracted by more heterosexuals than homosexuals. In a country as proud as America it’s quite amazing that many people there still think that citizens of the ‘third world’ are grazing peacefully with zebra, elephants and we hunt with lions. One would think that with the Super Information Highway at their disposal people would at least google something. Stereotyped thinking will in all probability not be defeated, but it can be diluted and that begins, when substitute ignorance with the curiosity to learn more than what we deem enough. It is at that point where we will appreciate extensively that different does not mean less human or alien. “You think the only people who are people are the people who think, talk
and act like you\ but if you walk the footsteps of a stranger\you will learn thing you never knew you never knew”, so said Pocahontas when she was conversing with the supposedly ‘civilized’ John Smith.

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