Aunt Jemima is very good case in point and so is Uncle
white household—a sort of goofy positive image. Fast-forward
Ben’s rice. These two characters come out of the slave tradi-
to present day when Asians are frequently stereotyped as
tion and they were made into friendly trade characters,
technology experts. It’s a stereotype with a positive message.
so they were born of a very dubious parentage. But they’ve
Is this offensive or harmful in the same way as negative
been changed considerably just as other trade characters
stereotypes? Why would that be?
have been changed. You know, you can say that they’re rac-
It’s actually a really good question. It’s a thesis in and
ist, but you have to define what racism is. There’s violent racism, exclusionary racism, and then there’s a comic racism. Sometimes those things overlap, and sometimes they’re very separate. One of the problems I had because I had been writing this book for many years called Victims of the Image: Ethnic and Racial Stereotypes in American Popular Art. It’s one of the few books I’ve never finished, and it’s because a lot of the material was just so funny that, you know, I would sit around laughing and thinking, “Oh boy, I must be a terrible person for looking at this material in such a careless manner.” And it was meant to be funny, and it was meant to be funny just as minstrel shows were meant to be entertainment. And then it gets complicated and wrapped up in this social and political baggage. Which is more than baggage. It’s a problem. But you know, you have to look at some of these things and cut a little slack. And I think ultimately Aunt Jemima, sure you could—just as Sambos became Denny’s and the Coon Chicken Inn stopped existing—you could says it’s time to retire this particular brand. But the brand is popular and doesn’t seem to offend that many people. So you let the market crowd source. I’m sure if there were a lot of protests, they would have taken it off the market a long time ago. You’ve mentioned that stereotypical images of the “other” were meant to be a friendly means of introducing the “other” to the
of itself. A stereotype is a printing term, and it just means multiple, making a mold that allows for multiples. A stereotype in and of itself is not inherently bad. It’s a multiple. A stereotype when it’s combined with a caricature, then it can be dubious. Then it could be used for bad or good purposes. A positive stereotype is a generalization. And the generalization is, “Okay, all Asians are really good at math.” Well, it doesn’t seem to hurt anybody except those who are not very good at math. Any overgeneralization is going to be a hard role to live up to. So you just have to look at it from that standpoint. If you’re going to hire somebody based on their race because presumably they dance better or they cook better or they do macramé better, you’re in trouble. I don’t think any HR person is going to work according to that stereotype. You said in an interview with Susan Choi that while advertising techniques and media have changed, the formulas haven’t, that advertising is still intent on creating memorable stereotypical characters that exude the essence of some product, that while we know that using stereotypes is just a means of perpetuating negative images, we’re still doing it. How can we as designers keep this from happening? Do we have ethical obligation to do so? Starting with the last part of the question, yes we have an ethical obligation to make sure we don’t hurt anybody. I
Published on Jun 14, 2012