Racism and Popular Culture

Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society. Editor: Richard T Schaefer. Volume 2. Sage Publications. 2008.

Race has taken on significant meaning in recent history. Beginning particularly during the eras of European colonialism and imperialism, an ideology of White superiority was spread to rationalize Western conquest, exploitation, and domination over supposedly inferior-raced peoples. Since that time, popular culture has been one of the most important tools that Whites have used to communicate racist representations of “blackness” and “otherness,” particularly in the United States. In this sense, and as research has documented, popular culture is more than entertainment; it is pedagogical. Through film, television, mass media, literature, and advertising, popular culture distorts, shapes, and socially constructs a racialized “reality.” Although racial stereotypes are constructed, and thus not intrinsically “real,” scholars demonstrate that they exact very real consequences, not only in terms of personal attitudes toward other races but also in the material structural inequalities they support and reproduce. From hyperviolent Black thugs and Asian Indian convenience store owners to amorous “Latin lovers” and Arab terrorists, society is replete with examples—both past and present—as this entry indicates.

Black Americans

Due to the centuries-old legacy of Black enslavement and segregation in the United States, anti-Black representations in popular culture are among the most numerous and deep-rooted. Indeed, as much research documents, popular culture was critical in spreading and reinforcing the racial ideology of White superiority and Black inferiority that undergirded both oppressive systems; some of this continues to circulate today.

Minstrel shows, often credited as the earliest form of U.S. popular culture, were wildly popular during the 19th century. The typical performance was put on by a troupe of White men in burnt cork blackface makeup acting out song, dance, and comedy claiming to be authentically “Negro.” Such minstrels created extreme caricatures through heavy mocking dialect, bulging eyes, and gaping lips, easily reinforcing and popularizing beliefs among their almost exclusively White audiences that Blacks were inherently lazy, happy-go-lucky, dim-witted, and subhuman.

Aside from minstrel portrayals, blackfaced caricatures such as the “mammy,” “coon,” and “pickaninny” were mass produced on consumer goods, including postcards, lawn ornaments, kitchen items, and children’s toys (e.g., noisemakers, dolls, costumes). Similarly, manufacturers plastered the insidious iconography on virtually every type of household product available, from coffee to detergents. Indeed, the wealth of research on the topic demonstrates that such images were truly ubiquitous and have not entirely left the U.S. consciousness even today. Consider the best-known “mammy” image, Aunt Jemima, who—although “updated”—continues to happily oversee pancakes and waffles today.

Birth of a Nation (1915) was a popular anti-Black, pro-Ku Klux Klan film that received unprecedented acclaim. Through the end of the 20th century, old racial stereotypes have occasionally resurfaced among contemporary characters in film and television, even in the face of seeming progress. Black women continue to be portrayed as “welfare queens,” matriarchs, or jezebels in popular culture. In mass media, Black men are often portrayed as criminals or the “gangsta” figures in popular culture and music, only slightly updated from the older image of the “buck”—the supposed big, violent, and oversexed stereotype of Black men from the past. Overall, studies document that the recycling of anti-Black images has reached new heights of global commodification, circulating problematic ideas about race, class, gender, and sexuality not just domestically but also to a global audience.

American Indians

Popular images and film have reflected and fueled the fascination of White Americans with American Indians. Historical images of American Indians include essentializing portrayals that are often contradictory—the “noble savage” versus the bloodthirsty savage. As scholars note, mythical symbols, such as feathered headdresses, tepees, and tomahawks, have homogenized American Indian groups in the White mind, erasing nuances of individuality and group-specific cultures.

During U.S. western “expansion,” images of American Indian men reflected White hysteria and racial fear as Whites attempted to obtain greater parcels of Indian land. During this time, the noble savage image found in newspapers was transformed into one of a brute red man who would sexually violate White women captives. In early films, common themes included Indian duplicity, the perils of miscegenation, and the impossibility of assimilation. Formulaic “Indian revenge” plots portrayed American Indians as dog-eating savages ready to attack “pioneers” unprovoked at any given time. Similar to blackface minstrelsy, for decades Indian roles were often played by Whites donning war paint.

Contemporary struggles have centered on the use of American Indian imagery for athletic team mascots such as football’s Washington Redskins and baseball’s Cleveland Indians. Some scholars have argued that Whites’ stubborn refusal to give up such mythologized images reflects an “imperialist nostalgia”—a sense of entitlement to define and profit from their continued use. In addition, such images deny contemporary American Indians a meaningful sociopolitical identity, relegating them instead to the “mascot slot.” Struggles against the mascots have been some of the most visible and successful examples of American Indian activism, suggesting the political importance of controlling popular cultural imagery.

Asians and Asian Americans

Anti-Asian sentiment abounded during the 19th century with the mass immigration of Chinese men hired to build the transcontinental railroad. “Yellow peril” stereotypes of cunning “Orientals” and “heathen Chinee,” stealing jobs and White women, flourished in radio, theater, film, and books. One sinister fictional character introduced in 1913, Dr. Fu Manchu (“the yellow peril incarnate in one man”), excited readers for half a century with diabolical plots of world domination.

Asian men’s portrayals began to shift during the later 19th century, from sexually violent, often “militarized” villains toward the weak, emasculated, more comedic characters that persist today. This has stood in particular contrast to the “dragon lady/lotus blossom dichotomy” film roles reserved for Asian women who are exotically portrayed and “fetishized” as submissive, childlike, and eager for sex.

Today, researchers have directed their attention toward the “model minority” myth, which is supported by roles for both Asian women and men as overachieving students (often “nerds”) who excel in technical fields in film and television. Also common are stereotypical images of dim-witted South Asian food mart or gas station owners.

Latino and Hispanic Americans

Despite being the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, Latinos are vastly underrepresented in film and television. When cast, their roles are quite similar to the stereotypical portrayals found in early Hollywood. Similar to Asian and Asian American representations, which emphasize supposed “alien” characteristics, research documents that Latino and Hispanic Americans also have been targeted in popular culture representations as threatening to Anglo-American culture and society. Gendered stereotypes of el bandido (the clichéd Mexican bandit in countless westerns) and harlots (“hot mamas” lusty for Anglo men) continue today in a variety of forms—in both fictional portrayals and reality shows such as Cops as drug-related criminals.

One common reformulation, which took hold during the 1970s and continues today, is that of los bandidos transformed into modern-day criminal gang thugs and drug lords. The ever-popular movie Scarface, featuring (ironically) the White actor, Al Pacino, as a Cuban refugee-turned-cocaine lord, is one prominent example of this phenomenon. Other contemporary Latino caricatures include the stereotypical “Latin Lover”—seductive and sensuous, he adds a touch of danger to love—and the ”doméstica,“ a Latina or Chicana housekeeper or caregiver, as portrayed most recently and famously in the television comedy Will & Grace via the character of Karen’s maid, Rosario.

White Americans

It is significant in an analysis of popular culture and racism not only to underscore the racial themes common to portrayals of people of color but also to position the roles of Whites, particularly when they relate to people of color in popular culture. Research documents the many ways in which White-produced products of popular culture, particularly those of film and television, often selectively represent or even rewrite oppressive racial history as a way of both reifying White goodness and misrepresenting or minimizing the racial divide. Indeed, even contemporary portrayals that attempt to expose ugly racial history (e.g., Glory, Mississippi Burning) typically feature White messianic protagonists. Here, the pedagogical lesson is that protagonists represent White goodness, with which White audience members identify, and create a contrasting distance from the accompanying portrayals of racist Whites, represented as anomalies and individual “bad apples.”

Also prevalent in contemporary popular culture created by Whites are interracial “buddy” portrayals. Films such as Men in Black and the Lethal Weapon series feature idealized partnerships between Blacks and Whites where racism never intrudes. Such formulations reinforce the idea that the United States has appropriately achieved the color-blind ideal during the post–civil rights era—what some scholars have termed “virtual integration”—while simultaneously masking the reality of persistent systemic racism.


Through increasing globalization, Western popular culture, complete with its racist iconography and ideology, has helped to shape beliefs about different racial groups throughout much of the world. As argued elsewhere, although popular media cannot necessarily be implicated as the “cause” of racism, neither is it “value free”; rather, it influences the real life chances of individuals and groups. Segregation, domestically and globally, has limited real interpersonal experiences between racial groups, allowing popular culture to step in and dictate the way the populace “knows” people of color—as essentialized stereotypical “characters.” And although most people can recognize the overt racism of past images, many are blind to the subtle yet equally egregious forms today. Indeed, contemporary images are often simply reformations of deeply rooted racist ideologies, making a historically contextual understanding of popular culture and racism crucial.