Time and Space

Constructing Racial Stereotypes

“Stereotypes, when reinforced often enough, have been shown to affect how we view others, how we view ourselves, and what we think we know about other cultures.”

Virginia Mclaurin, Phd in Cultural Anthropology
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:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging piece of reading, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Part 1: 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, and discover the methods used to create an ‘us-and-them’ barrier between people of different races and ethnicities.

Class Activity: Heap Big Stereotypes

What Makes the Red Man Red? is a song from Walt Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan.

Examine this collection of texts, which breaks down some common ways in which racial stereotypes of Indigenous American people are created. Then, study a scene from Disney’s Peter Pan (1953, embedded above), in which Peter and Wendy visit a Native American tribe. How many ways of creating racial stereotypes can you identify in this scene?

Part 2: 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: How to write about…

Think about the way people from your country are stereotyped. For example, being British, I am often stereotyped as ‘stiff-upper-lipped’, over-polite, good at queueing. I enjoy drinking tea and eating fish and chips. I have a particular fondness for the royal family, go to the pub on a Friday night, watch football at the weekend, and definitely can’t speak a foreign language.

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 of How To Write About Africa used language creatively for effect and try to mimic those techniques in your own writing.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Does the categorisation of people into certain groups (Black, White, Swedish, Asian, female, school students, and so on) always rob people of individuality? Can people gain something from being categorised? Can people be categorised in a positive way – does positive categorisation also result in prejudice?
  2. Is it preferable, in certain situations, to be ‘colourblind’ about people’s race and ethnicity? Do the goals of colourblindness and multiculturalism support each other or conflict? How can we celebrate multiculturalism without calling attention to the differences between people?

Learner Portfolio

In November 2018, Dolce and Gabanna released this 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 Homer and Apu would be an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. As this is a television show you should select a scene of around 30 seconds – 1 minute as your ‘extract’. Make sure to provide a transcript and bring two or three screenshots into your oral exam. Here are two suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
  • Global Issue: Racial Stereotypes
  • Rationale:

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 argue that the creators of this show have resorted to stereotypes about Bengali people in America in creating the character of Apu.

Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
Global Issue: Suspicion of Outsiders

The members of a community consists of ‘insiders’. When they encounter other people from ‘outside’ this community, how are they treated? Are outsiders welcomed and included, or treated with hostility and suspicion?

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair Homer and Apu with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.

  • 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.
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – you can find all kinds of stereotypical and anti-stereotypical representations in this collection of poetry, especially in poems such as Queen Herod, Queen Kong and The Devil’s Wife.
  • 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.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – a perfect pairing in that Coetzee reveals how minority peoples are ‘othered’ by those in power in his allegorical story of a fort settlement at the edge of an unnamed empire.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – it’s class, not race, that is the subject of Shaw’s critique in this play. But you can examine how Liza is treated throughout Acts one and two, before she’s made-over, as a way of showing how those who are different are treated with prejudice and suspicion.
  • Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – towards the end of this non-fiction work, Demick interviews six North Korean defectors in Seoul, who all speak about their difficulties integrating into their new home. While some admit they suffer from the ghosts of the past, others face prejudice, even from those who might be kind and well-meaning. An extract from the last couple of chapters would make a perfect companion-piece to Homer and Apu for this talk.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie- it doesn’t take Luo and his friend long to overcome the villagers’ suspicions when they are sent to learn from the peasants under Mao’s ‘Down to the Countryside’ policy. But that doesn’t mean suspicion wasn’t there upon their arrival in The Phoenix Under the Sky village.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 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.

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 the essay that all Higher Level students must write. The episode studied here would make a good focal point, although you might like to investigate a 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. You could use one of these questions as a starting point, or formulate your own line of inquiry:

  • Is Apu from The Simpsons a character or a caricature?
  • How, and why, might two different audiences respond to the character of Apu from The Simpsons in different ways?
  • Examine the use of metonymy in ‘Homer and Apu’ from television series The Simpsons.
  • In what ways does Apu from The Simpsons episode ‘Homer and Apu’ represent ‘the other’?

Wider Reading and Research

Categories:Time and Space

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