Monday, November 26, 2007

The Power of Suggestion

In my previous posts I've brought attention to Hollywood's perpetuation of colorism along gender lines. If one takes note of representations of men and women in big budget Hollywood movies and major network television shows this trend is quite obvious. I think very few would disagree.

But while it might seem that I am beating a dead horse, I think it is beneficial not only to see what the trends and stereotypes are, but also to see exactly to what extent these stereotypes affects us. There are many people who are aware of the stereotypes, but do not quite understand the extent to which we all are affected by them. This does not apply to one group, but ALL groups of people.

In order to assure that we do not under-estimate the power of stereotypes it might help to look at some sociological studies. The following excerpt is from the book "Sociology - A Down To Earth Approach" written by James M. Henslin:

"You are familiar with the way first impressions "Set the tone" for interaction. When you first meet someone, you cannot help but notice certain highly visible and distinctive features, especially the person's sex, race, age, and physical appearance. Despite your best intentions, your assumptions about these characteristics shape your first impressions. You probably also know that your assumptions affect how you will act toward that person.

Mark Snyder, a psychologist, wondered if stereotypes --our assumptions of what people are like--might be self-fulfilling. That is, since our assumptions shape our actions, could our reactions produce behaviors that match our stereotype? Snyder came up with an ingenious way to test this idea. He gave college men a Polaroid snapshot of a woman (supposedly taken just moments before) and told them that they would be introduced to her after they talked with her on the telephone. Actually, photographs showing either a pretty or homely woman had been prepared before the experiment began. The photo had been chosen at random; it was not of the woman the men would talk to.

The men's stereotypes came into play immediately. As Snyder gave each man the photograph, he asked him what he thought the woman would be like. The men who saw the photograph of the attractive woman said they expected to meet a poised, humorous, outgoing woman. The men who had been given a photo of the unattractive woman described her as awkward, serious, and unsociable. These stereotypes influenced the way the men spoke to the women on the telephone, which, in turn, affected the women's responses. The men who had seen the photograph of a homely woman were cold, reserved, and humorless on the phone, and the women they spoke to became cool, reserved, and humorless. Keep in mind that the women did not know that their looks had been evaluated and that the photographs were not of them. In short, stereotypes tend to produce behaviors that match the stereotype."

That study shows the profound impact that stereotypes have on people, how they see us, how they approach us and how that approach in turn affects our own behavior. While some might choose to downplay the power of stereotypes, those who are negatively affected by them know all too well how damaging they can be.

But the damage done by stereotypes is not just caused by affecting how others see us. They can also affect how we see ourselves as in the following study published in the same book:

"Stereotypes also have an impact on what we accomplish. In one experiment, the welding instructor in a vocational training center was told that five men in his training program had an unusually high aptitude for welding. Although the five had been chosen at random and knew nothing about the experiment, the effects were dramatic. These men were absent less often than other trainees, learned the basics of welding in about half the usual time, and scored ten points higher than the other men on their final welding test. The difference was noted even by the other trainees, who singled these five out as their preferred co-workers. "

It seems if we ourselves believe we are capable at achieving something, we are more likely to achieve it. Negative stereotypes undermine this confidence and can actually hurt our efforts, no matter what they might be.

In addition to the devastating affects that stereotypes can have on us, peer-pressure is another social influence on our lives. Most people tend to think that peer-pressure is merely the problem of young people, but the fact is it affects all of us (or at least most of us).

Most people like to think of themselves as freethinkers, or leaders. But the unfortunate truth is that most people put more weight in the actions and opinions of others than they do themselves. This study (from the same book) illustrates this quite well:

"Imagine that you are taking a course in social psychology with Dr. Solomon Asch and you have agreed to participate in an experiment. As you enter his laboratory, you see seven chairs, five of them already filled by other students. You are given the sixth. Soon the seventh person arrives. Dr. Asch stands at the front of the room next to a covered easel. He explains that he will first show a large card with a vertical line on it, then another card with three vertical lines. Each of you is to tell him which of the three lines matches the line on the first card.

Dr. Asch then uncovers the first card with the single line and the comparison card with the three lines. The correct answer is easy, for two of the lines are obviously wrong, and one exactly right. Each person, in order, states his or her answer aloud. You all answer correctly. The second trial is just as easy, and you begin to wonder why you are there.

Then on the third trial something unexpected happens. Just as before, it is easy to tell which lines match. The first student, however, gives a wrong answer. The second gives the same incorrect answer. So do the third and fourth. By now you are wondering what is wrong. How will the person next to you answer? You can hardly believe it when he, too, gives the same wrong answer. Then it is your turn, and you give what you know is the right answer. The seventh person also gives the same wrong answer.

On the next trial, the same thing happens. You know the choice of the other six is wrong. They are giving what to you are obviously wrong answers. You don't know what to think. Why aren't they seeing things the same way you are? Sometimes they do, but in twelve trials they don't. Something is seriously wrong, and you are no longer sure what to do.

When the eighteenth card is finished, you heave a sigh of relief. The experiment is finally over, and you are ready to bolt for the door. Dr. Asch walks over to you with a big smile on his face, and thanks you for participating in the experiment. He explains that you were the only real subject in the experiment. 'The other six ere stooges. I paid them to give those answers,' he says."

So what were the results of the study? Only 25% of the subjects remained uninfluenced by the others and stated the correct answer each time! Yes, approximately 75% of the population can be expected to follow what others say and do even when our own senses tell us otherwise!

The good news is that we each have the power to buck the trends and negate the stereotypes. Unfortunately, approximately 75% of the people who get this message will have a difficult time making use of it or be completely unable to do so due to an inability to exercise personal observation over external social influences. This obviously creates a problem for those of us who can and do negate stereotypes as it marginalizes if not completely negates our efforts.

So the problem then becomes how to get through to the other 75%. Since these people are seemingly so prone to social programming, the obvious answer is to re-program them by changing the stereotypes in the media that they are so susceptible to.

In the case of the negative stereotypes of black women, this problem can be divided into two separate approaches. One is for black women to become more open to "beauty" careers such as modeling, cheerleading, beauty pageant contestants and leading actresses. The other approach is to attack the very REAL discrimination that black women face in ALL of these areas.

The first approach is self-explanatory. The second approach can be handled in different ways. I've heard suggestions that black women should pursue careers in directing or producing. I've heard other suggestions that black women should create their own alternate media outlets so they can have complete control over how they are portrayed. I think both of these ideas are good ones. The second idea though has the problem of not reaching many people and in effect "preaching to the choir".

There is another approach to this that might even be more effective. The approach I'm referring to is spreading awareness of the discrimination that black women face in these career fields throughout the black community and ultimately having a formal organization put pressure on existing media corporations. This tactic has been proven to work in the past.

The good news is that organizations already exist for this purpose. The NAACP is one example. The important thing is to make sure that this issue is widely discussed throughout the black community and better yet, made public through some high profile black women such as Tyra Banks or Oprah Winfrey. Once a certain level of awareness of the issue is achieved, then it could be taken to the NAACP (or some other organization) and proposed that black women are a part of the black community and have consistently supported it in the past, and now is the time for the NAACP to support black WOMEN and attack the discrimination that black women face.

One of two things can happen. One is that the NAACP will agree to help black women. This would obviously be a HUGE victory for black women as the NAACP has an excellent track record in this area.

The other possibility is that the NAACP can deny the assistance. This of course would be a huge PUBLIC slap in the face to black women. While on the surface, this might seem to be a bad thing, this slap in the face might be the very slap that is needed to wake black women up and realize who has their best interests in mind.

As you can see, it is a win-win situation for black women. If the discrimination that black women face in the above mentioned careers becomes publicly discussed and brought to the NAACP, the future for black women will be changed for the better regardless of what the NAACP decides to do.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

PART 2 - Inter-racial dating and black women

Dating inter-racially has it's hurdles. In fact, there seem to be so many hurdles, that some people make the decision to avoid them completely. One such hurdle that is discussed often is the belief that dating inter-racially is an expression of self-hate. This belief produces feelings of guilt and the idea that one is somehow betraying others.

But is dating out self hate? The word hate is a pretty strong word and is universally understood. But the term - SELF - seems to divide some people. Some people identify very strongly with their race, and consider there -RACE- to be their -SELF-. And while our race is certainly a part of who each and every one of us are, our race is not our self, our race is merely our genes which determine skin tone, hair color and texture, and facial features. One's self does not reside in the genes. One's self resides in the soul. Our "selves" refer to each individual, and each individual alone. While we feel closeness to our parents, our children, perhaps other members of our nationality, or race, or - SELVES- are ours and ours alone.

Hatred of course comes in many forms. Some hatred is directed towards individuals, while other forms are directed towards groups. The only form of individual based hatred that could be considered self-hatred is if you hate, well, yourself, and yourself alone. There are some group forms of hatred that can also be considered self hatred. For example, if you express hatred towards a group of people that you happen to be a member of, that could be considered self-hatred. If I as a man express hatred for humanity, that is a form of self-hatred. But if I is a man express hatred towards women, while being an expression of hatred, it is not actually SELF-hatred.

I've heard it commonly expressed that dating inter-racially is an expression of self hatred based on a couple different ideas. Black men who date inter-racially are often said to express self-hatred when their perceived reason for doing so is because they "hate" black women. Granted, in cases such as these, or when black men date inter-racially while making denigrating remarks towards black women, it IS a form of hatred. But like the above example of a man who expresses hatred for women, a black man that expresses hatred for black women is NOT expressing SELF-hatred, for the group that they are expressing hatred for is not a group in which they belong to. Now, that doesn't make it any better, or more acceptable, it is just making a justification, that black men who express animosity towards black women are not acting out of SELF-hatred, but are acting on common everyday HATRED.

Another reason that is sometimes used to rationalize that black men who date inter-racially are acting on self-hatred is the belief that the black men in question have adopted the ideology of white supremacy. However, one cannot conclude that just because a man sees white WOMEN as ideal, that the man is adopting the ideology of white supremacy. White supremacy is the belief that white PEOPLE are superior to all others. If a black man truly believed in such an ideology, he would not just put white women on a pedestal, but white MEN as well. If this were happening, the black man in question would most likely have white male role-models, listen to white male musicians, be fans of white athletes, idolize white actors, and pursue friendships with white males. In cases such as this, there very well MIGHT be a belief in white supremacy. However, in instances in which the black man in question does NOT put white men on a pedastal (which from my own personal experience includes just about ALL of them), the claim of white supremacy just doesn't add up. What about when black men date white women, yet listen to hip hop? If there is an industry that puts the black male more front and center than hip hop, I have yet to hear of it. What about black men who date white women but only have black male role-models? Many black males who date white women seem to somewhat look DOWN on white men.

The idea that these men are following the ideology of white supremacy does not add up. A more accurate ideology would be the idea that black=male and white=female; or put in another way the belief that the black race is a "masculine" race and the white race is a "feminine" race. This ideology would explain why black men who chase after white women think highly of themselves, but not black women. This would also explain why these men put all things white and "feminine" on a pedestal while looking down on white males. While this notion, that black = male and white = female would most likely be seen as offensive to white males and black females (for obvious reasons), it is not hard to see why some black men might find this mindset appealing. With this mindset, the black man becomes the alpha male and the the envy of all men. As the alpha male, he naturally deserves the alpha female (white woman). In this mindset, it is only NATURAL to the black man in question that he end up with a white female. The fact that black women suffer as a result of this mindset is of course no concern to those who embrace it.

And many black women seem to mistake this philosophy that black= masculine with black=bad. They don't recognize that it with this ideology that it is only black FEMALES that = bad, not black males. As a result of this misinterpretation, some black women vow to date ONLY black men with hopes of re-affirming black beauty, when in reality they are only re-affirming that black= masculine.

While we've covered the topic of hatred, let's touch on the subject of love. It is human nature to look out for and protect the best interest of those whom we love. Keep this in mind when addressing the issue of black men dating out and disrespecting black women. Whose best interest are they looking out for? I think the answer goes without saying. And with this in mind it seems quite obvious to me the one thing that black men and black women have most in common. Black men and black women both love black men.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Inter-racial dating and black women (part one)

The 70% single rate among black american women is probably not news to most of you. I've heard countless discussions regarding this phenomenon and what might be causing it. While the startling number of black males who date inter-racially is acknowledged by most as a primary contributing factor, there are other consequences of black male interracial dating that I have not heard being discussed. What I'm referring to is the relative social value of black men and women and how they are affected by the interracial dating disparity.

By social value I'm referring to how much of a "catch" a person is considered to be, and as a result how many options that person has socially, and how much leverage this person has in relationships with the opposite sex.. Normally, an ideal relationship would consist of a man and a woman with relatively equal social values. In these relationships the couples seem to be the most content, as neither person takes the other for granted and both are happy with their respective partner. Problems tend to occur when one person has much more social value than the other. For example, and attractive man who is a doctor (who would be considered a catch by many women) usually doesn't end up with an unatractive women (who is usually not considered a catch). Likewise, an attractive woman usually doesn't end up with an overweight burger-flipper. In relationships such as these, feelings of inadequacy from the person with lower social value are often the result. Often times the person with lower social value feels "lucky" to be with his or her partner even in situations in which the partner is abusive, neglectful, or has been unfaithful.

You're probably wondering what relative social value has to do with the black community and the 70% single rate among black women. Simply stated, it seems that black men in the U.S are systematically being over-valued while black women are being under-valued. As a result, the average black man is no longer on the same level socially as the average black woman. The average black man is now considered "more of a catch" and thus has higher social value than the black woman. As a result, black men have much more relative power and influence in relationships with black women. Black men can afford to be pickier and choosier, and often feel that they are too good to be tied down to just one woman. Black women as a result have to set their sites lower, and even feel "lucky" when they catch a man who would otherwise be beneath them.

So what has caused this over-valuation of black men and undervaluation of black women? The inter-racial dating disparity between black men and black women is one of the primary reasons for this warped dynamic.

But in order to understand how this is happening, one must first understand the fundamentals of supply and demand. Generally speaking, the demand for something has a direct impact on that something's value, while the supply of something has an inverse impact on that something's value. For example, if the demand for oranges goes up, the value of oranges goes up. If the supply of oranges goes up, the value of oranges goes down.

As applied to the situation of inter-racial dating in the black community, it is easy to see that when black men date inter-racially they are in effect reducing the supply of available black men from the pool of single men, thus increasing their own social value. Furthermore, by dating inter-racially they are perpetuating the already popular belief that black men are "masculine" and African features on men are attractive to women of all races, thus increasing the demand for themselves which also increases their own social value.

On the flip side, when black women refuse to date anyone but a black man, they are increasing their own supply in the pool of single women, thus decreasing their own social value. In addition to this effect of increased supply, they are also perpetuating the belief that black women are not available or attractive to men of other races which decreases the demand for black women which further decreases their own social value.

The results of this warped valuation of black men and women are quite obvious. Black men have everything to gain by maintaining the status quo while black women have everything to lose.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why Aren't There More Black Cheerleaders?

Over the years I've heard many discussions about race and sports. A common observation is the fact that black males are extremely over-represented in many popular sports such as football and basketball. Of all of the observations I've heard voiced and questions asked, there is one aspect of this that I have never heard voiced. Why is there not more black cheerleaders?

If it is commonly accepted that black males excel at sports, then why wouldn't it be safe to assume that black females would excel in cheerleading considering that cheerleading requires some athletic ability and coordination. Why then are there not more black females in cheerleading? Is it because black females are not interested in cheerleading? I find this hard to believe.

In our society, athletes and cheerleaders are often presented as being the cream of the crop. It seems increasingly that at a young age, children are exposed to idea of a "social ladder" and in high schools the top of that ladder is athletes for males and cheerleaders for females. Considering this, it seems far-fetched to assume that black females would not want to be at the top of the ladder.

So why then is this happening? I've been aware of this situation for quite some time and it always seemed to me that there must be some form of discrimination going on. I've never been able to put my finger on exactly how it is occurring though.

Recently I had a conversation with someone that exposed what I always suspected. Apparently it is common practice in schools to allow male students to join the football or basketball team for free, but female students are charged $500-600 to become a cheerleader! Of course the obvious outcome is that for the most part, only white females can afford to join.

I wonder if the black community is aware of this and if so why hasn't anything been done, or at the very least this topic been discussed? Considering that the argument has been made that there are "too many white officials" in sports even though white males are under-represented in the sports themselves would seem to give the impression that the black community is VERY aware of racial representaion in sports if it is dealing with black MEN, but could not be bothered if it is dealing with black WOMEN.

This is unfortunate, because not only are many disadvantaged black females barred from ever even attempting their dreams, the continued under-representation of black females in cheerleading sends the message that black women are not "cream of the crop" material. This trend of black male over-representation in sports and white female over-representation in cheerleading further reinforces the race/gender ideals promoted in Hollywood and further reinforces the stereotype that black= masculine and white = feminine.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Colorism in Hollywood

Colorism is as pervasive in Hollywood today as it ever has been. In fact, it seems to have gotten even worse. Notice I said "colorism" and not racism. While the term colorism is not strictly synonymous with racism per se, race does obviously play a large part in colorism.

When using the term colorism, I am specifically referring to the "ideal" skin color as well as hair color of men and women as depicted in Hollywood.

In the past, this was not always the case, but in the last 10-15 years, Hollywood seems hell bent on portraying leading men as darker than leading women. A perfect example is the portrayal of black couples in hollywood. In the past , a typical "black" couple would consist of a man and woman, both whom appear to be black. Now, when a "black" couple is shown, the man still looks black, but the woman almost always looks mixed. The woman is usually considerably lighter; so much so that at first glance it appears to be an inter-racial couple, and not a black couple. This marked gap in portrayal of black men and women's skin color, and often hair color is not an exception to the rule, it is the rule. The rule does not only apply to couples, but to nearly any major role. Black male characters are played by black actors while black female characters are played by actresses that are more often than not mixed. It seems that Hollywood is trying to send the message that dark African features are acceptable or even desired in men, but not in women. Another way of looking at it is that Hollywood is perpetuating a stereotype that dark features are masculine, whereas light features are feminine.

This not-so-subtle approach of colorism is not limited to black portrayals in the media. Though not quite as obvious as the portrayal of black men and women, white men and women are also subject to the same colorism. In the case of white portrayals, hair color is much more noticable than skin color.

At a casual glance, one might not notice a particular trend in the portrayal of white couples in Hollywood. But upon closer inspection, one can see that a vast majority of couples as depicted by Hollywood as consisting of a somewhat dark-complected dark or black-haired male with a light complected blond or red haired woman. Once again, this is not true 100% of the time but is the rule rather than the exception. And once again, this does apply to not just portrayals of couples, but most major roles. When pale, blond men are portrayed in the media, it is most often in the role of a serial killer, homosexual, arrogant and/or cowardly and is usually in a position opposite the leading male.

On top of this the way in which hollywood handles celebrities who are in inter-racial relationships solidifies the stereotype. Couples such as Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren or Seal and Heidi Klum are often featured and treated like royalty on celebrity shows and tabloids while couples such as Rosario Dawson and Gerard Butler or Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry are practically ignored. I've heard mention in the media several times that Halle Berry was pregnant but none of the stories even showed the father or mentioned who he is.

While the stereotypes created by Hollywood depictions may seem harmless to whose who "fit the image", the damage done to those who do not (very dark complected women, and very light complected men) can be socially devastating. Not only are self-esteem levels lower for dark-complected women, and light-complected men, black women are more likely than any other group of women to remain single, and white men are more likely than any other group of men or women to commit suicide.

So what can be done to put an end to these harmful stereotypes, and why hasn't Hollywood done something about it? It seems hypocritical that in a country that "embraces" diversity and shuns stereotypes that our media should shun diversity while embracing sterotypes.