Time and Space

Constructing Racial Stereotypes

The character of Cousin Chin-Kee is an amalgamation of some of the worst stereotypes of Chinese-American people. This image is by cartoonist Gene Luen Yang.

Racial stereotyping is the act of classifying individuals or putting them into imaginary boxes based on their nationality, ethnicity or skin colour. It is the oversimplification of a person of a particular race. The problem of racial stereotyping occurs when one person’s behaviour is ascribed to a group’s tendencies instead of the causes of an immediate situation. While complicated, there are a few processes that you can look out for to help you determine whether the act of reducing individuals to racial stereotypes is occurring. These include: the ‘us and them’ dichotomy, caricature, metonymy and others. Read one or two of the articles below to find out how racial stereotypes are constructed:

Indigenous Americans

Portrayals of Native American people tend to fall into two categories: a negative portrayal in which indigenous people receive benefits, operate casinos, are untrustworthy, and are suggested to be “fake”. Meanwhile, more positive portrayals suggest native peoples are poor, live on reservations, are honest, in touch with nature, traditional in behaviour, and have supernatural sensitivities. For the purpose of our study it is important to realise that any portrayal – whether positive or negative – involves stereotyping Indigenous people as ‘outsiders’. In this section you’ll investigate texts that portray Native American people in a certain way.

Class Activity: Heap Big Stereotypes

Examine the following texts, all presenting images of or describing native American people. Work in small groups or pairs to note down what the stereotypes of these people are, and how they were created by various media techniques:

Representing Africa

Travel halfway around the world and you’ll find that things don’t much change when it comes to stereotyping. Before you read these articles and texts you might want to conduct a survey and compile the first ten things that come to mind when you think about Africa or African people. Be critical about what comes to mind. You might also like to see how many African capital cities you can name compared to, say, European capital cities or even see how many countries you can identify on this outline map of the continent. Depending on the results of these activities, you might agree that it is more important than ever to study the way Africa has been – and continues to be – represented in texts.

Class Activity: Preconceptions

Before you read the text Christmas in the Kalahari, ask yourself and each other the following questions. Then ask, how does the text throw light on the ethnocentrism and preconceptions of others?

  • What is a ‘preconception’?
  • Where do preconceptions come from?
  • How easy or difficult is it to change your preconceptions?

Learner Portfolio 1

Think about the way people from your country are stereotyped. Write a piece, using the satirical essay How To Write About Africa from the reading list above as a model, substituting your home country for Africa. Discuss with your teacher how the writer used language creatively for effect and try to mimic those techniques in your own writing.

Learner Portfolio 2

In November 2018, Dolce and Gabanna released a series of three adverts depicting Chinese people struggling to eat Western food. These adverts were supposed to promote a fashion show in Shanghai, but instead caused a social media furore which became a PR disaster. Look at the adverts in question and judge for yourself whether the ad campaign perpetuates racial stereotypes. Write up your findings in a one-two page Learner Portfolio entry.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: InformationTexts

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are examples of informative texts such as infographics, recipe books, and encyclopaedia entries. Use the examples of different Information Texts here to familiarise yourself with the genre tropes of this kind of writing; add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the sample responses then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

key features of information texts
  • Purpose: it goes without saying that the purpose of informative texts is to communicate information! However, you should distinguish between general information and specific details.
  • Neutral language: aiming to inform above all else, the register should be formal or semi-formal, the language accessible and the tone neutral.
  • Diction: some informational texts are aimed at particular readers and employ technical terms or specialist language – watch out for jargon, which may not communicate clearly.
  • Layout: these kinds of texts normally have a clear, easy to understand layout. They might use box-outs, lists, bullet points, page dividers and other organisational features to help guide you step-by-step through the text. Some informational texts are non-linear.
  • Facts and Statistics: presented in all kinds of ways: percentages; graphs; charts or numbers. Look for credible sources that are cited.
  • Typography: look for fonts, capitalisations, bold or italicised words, underlined words, or other features that help emphasise key points.
  • Images: often in the form of diagrams, images should reinforce the written text or be broken into step-by-step guides. They may be simplified.

Body of Work: The Simpsons

Homer and Apu (Season 5, Episode 13)

The Simpsons is a long-running (the first episode aired in 1989 and it’s still going strong) and extremely popular animated sitcom about the lives and mis-adventures of an unorthodox family living in Springfield, Maine. Homer, the lovable-but-limited dad; Marge, the responsible mother; and their children ( Lisa, Bart and the oft-forgotten Maggie) have become global household names and the cast of characters who inhabit Springfield are colourful and varied.

For the purposes of this study, it’s one of these peripheral characters we want to investigate. Apu is the manager of the town Kwik-E Mart and he happens to be an immigrant from West Bengal. Voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, he’s the subject of a 2017 documentary by Hari Kondabalu, The Problem with Apu. Kondabulu argues the character is an offensive racial stereotype who needs to be retired.

As you can see from this article, Kondabulu’s position is not universally accepted. Some respond that, although representation of South Asian actors and characters has increased and improved on television and in movies in recent years, it’s still relatively minuscule; so Apu is an important figure representing diversity in a mainstream TV show.

Join the debate by watching one or two of the episodes in which Apu features more prominently. Apply the criteria for constructing racial stereotypes you’ve learned in this section, and decide for yourself whether you think Apu’s detractors are right or wrong.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Moments from a Simpsons episode featuring Apu would be an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Matt Groening’ and you could investigate the Field of Inquiry of: Beliefs, Values and Education. Your focused Global Issue would probably be ‘Stereotypes and Prejudice’. Fiction and non-fiction works reflect the world in which they are created, and as such they may contain popular stereotypes that are exposed to a wide audience. (This is certainly the case with The Simpsons, and you can consider many non-literary Body of Works in the same light: adverts from the past and present often resort to crude stereotypes about men and women, for example.) In terms of The Simpsons, you could successfully pair an extract from Homer and Apu with any literary text that presents stereotypes or prejudices. Speak to your teacher or use the following suggestions as a starting point: 

  • J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – consider the portrayal of the Japanese sergeant in part 2, or the depiction of the Chinese as seen through the eyes of western characters in part 1.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – so many parts of this text could be used to explore the issue of race, but in particular, Act 4 Scene 1 (the courtroom scene) features some particularly ugly characterisations of Shylock by the Christian ‘gang’ – or Shylock’s famous speech in Act 3 Scene 1 would be an effective counterpoint to any stereotypical depictions of race.
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga – many aspects of Dangarembga’s novel depict native Zimbabweans in a variety of ways. You could look at the representation of people in a more diverse or less stereotyped way. Alternatively, you could explore a passage from chapter 4 in which Tambu finds it hard to relate to her cousin Nyasha because she has been away for so long studying in Britain.
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – you could use the ideas put forward in this section to examine the presentation of those who live on the high plateau in this novel (chapters 1 and 2 contain plenty of descriptions of Albanian people). Alternatively, you could select an extract from chapters 3 or 4 that reveal the plurality of identities in Kadare’s work.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – although race is not an issue in Shaw’s play, there are plenty of other stereotypes for you to explore, including those around members of different classes and the role of women and men in society.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay or Extended Essay

If you enjoyed this section of work, and find the topic of racial stereotyping in texts interesting, you might consider following up this investigation when it comes to writing your Higher Level Essay or even choosing your Extended Essay.

The scope of an academic essay is wider than that presented by this Body of Work. If you want to base your essay writing on Apu, you should begin by researching the history of minstrelsy and blackface alluded to in the documentary The Problem with Apu. There are several books and documentaries about this issue available for you to watch or read.

The episode studied here is a good starting point, but you would need to investigate a considerably wider sample of episodes in order to come to a complete conclusion about the stereotyping of Apu’s character over the course of the show. You might also like to consider recent developments in this ongoing story, including the decision by the producers of the Simpsons to retire Apu from the show.

If you are writing your Extended Essay, an even better idea would be to apply the concepts you have learned in this unit to a different media text: television shows, film series, advert campaigns or music videos would all lend themselves well to this type of investigation. Alternatively, you could investigate a literary work to discover the presentation and roles of characters of particular ethnicities. Speak to your teacher about your ideas if you would like to take your studies in this direction.


Wider Reading and Research

If you are interested in the topics and articles on this page, you might like to conduct some wider reading and research. Here are some recommendations to get you started:

Categories:Time and Space

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