How are stereotypes perpetuated, especially among children? This question came to me while I was watching “American Promise” on PBS’s POV . The documentary follows two middle-class, African-American boys from New York City whose parents enroll them at The Dalton School, a prestigious private (and mostly white) school. It turns out that African-American males have difficulty at Dalton, so a group of black parents gather to discuss the problem. A father notes that both white and black parents have the same issues—kids forgetting homework and losing things—but he says that blacks have an extra burden in this country. Speaking about the boys, he says, “The struggle they’re going to have to face in reality is the way that people look at them and fear them when they see them because everyday you’re inundated with this marketing that a dark black face is dangerous, so watch out.”
This quotation confuses me. First, what constitutes “this marketing” that inundates you every day? Is it photos in the news of black people who’ve been arrested? I’ve heard the complaint that more photos are published of black suspects than white suspects, but since I watch only the PBS NewsHour and refuse to read yellow journalism, I haven’t seen “this marketing.” Can anyone explain it to me?
Second, what is the stereotype? That a dark black face is dangerous? Or that people will look at a dark black face and fear it? To me, the distinction is serious. I can imagine black parents warning their sons that people may be afraid of them. Such a warning is not something I’d recommend since it perpetuates the stereotype, but I can understand parents wanting to prepare and protect their children. And eventually the children are likely to see evidence. In “American Promise” two taxi cabs pull away when the drivers realize that a group of four black teenagers—not just the one who’d flagged the cab—want a ride.
But I cannot imagine either black parents or white parents (except the most overtly racist) telling a child that a dark black face is dangerous. So how is this fear perpetuated? How does it arise?
I am not denying that the fear exists. The fate of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and stories I hear from black friends are evidence. And I believe I watched the fear acknowledged by the producers of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” when Cedric the Entertainer replaced Meredith Vieira as host. The first contestants were, in order, black males, white males, a black female, and finally a white female – and she seemed hand-picked, an ebullient actress. I’m almost positive that more than a month passed before an average white female contestant appeared.
What can we do to change “the way that people look at them and fear them”?