Media Representations of African American Men and their Consequences for US American Society

Stereotyped, stigmatized, and sexualized. How the media shape how we see, and who we are

Master's Thesis, 2017

82 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1.1 Procedure
1.2 Main Research Questions And Hypothesis

2.1 Triangular Approach: Intoxicated Intersectionality For Black Men
2.2 Prime Time: When Media Priming Turns Into Media Framing


4.1 Blackface: Coloring Crime
4.2 Blackbox: Hyper-Sexualization of Black Men

5.1 From Categorization To Individuation
5.2 De-Corporality Process




Table 1: “The Epidemic of Invisibility Across 6 Groups”

Table 2: “Films Focusing on Black, Latino, and Asian Characters: 2015”

Table 3: Prison Population Trend in the United States of America

Table 4: “Total Population and Prison Percentages by Race for Males, 2007”


When asking around one's social surroundings one might get the impression that almost everyone has encountered racial discrimination at some point in his or her life — either by being personally involved or as a witness. In regard to this question, most people might recall incidents or situations of individual racism. However, a vast majority of people also face great extents of collective racism. Collective racism is aimed at a whole group of people, often people of color, and is enforced via strong, subliminal forces such as cultural beliefs, historical residues, and ideology, all of which shape people’s preconceptions and expectations towards the targeted group. All of these forces can be shaped and transmitted via media portrayals. That is why concepts like‘from rags to riches’and the so-called American Dream have historically been both a powerful tool for identity-formation, self-perception, and general societal understanding for a major part of US American residents, and a crucial driving force for immigrants to move to the US. Especially in terms of ideals, it is essential to understand that the belief of every individual being responsible for one’s own personal fate is deeply embedded within US American society. Holding on to a tailored form of neoliberal individualism, — also known as American Exceptionalism — it is generally believed that one’s fate is neither the collective’s gain nor fault, but rather a result of individual actions. Elaborating on the idea of social and economic autonomy, writer bell hooks says:“For so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a class-free society — that anyone who works hard enough can make it to the top” (2000: 5). This statement implies the assumption that every member of society has the same, innate opportunities. By doing so, however, the idea of structural constraints and systematic discrimination against certain social or ethnic groups must be dismissed. This is particularly relevant in issues of race relations in the United States.

[W]hile fewer and fewer White Americans agree with‘old-fashioned’racist beliefs, such as‘Blacks are mentally inferior to Whites’, a significant percentage of Whites still endorse the idea that Black Americans do not value‘American’characteristics like hard work and sacrifice. Likewise, a majority of White Americans dispute that racism is a significant problem in America. (Squires 2009: 4)

The denial of racism can be explained by the widely spread belief that racism towards blacks is only comprised of old-fashioned, historic racism, i.e. slavery or racial segregation. This assumption justifies that people“are more likely to believe that the economic plight of the black masses is caused by a lack of skills, will, and know-how and not by systemic exploitation and oppression” (hooks 2000: 97f.). Patricia Hill Collins refers to this development by coining the term“New Racism” (2004: 54). She defines the concept as a mixture of traditional, persistent ways of racism combined with new patterns of racial discrimination, which all aid to keep African Americans at the bottom of social and economic hierarchy (2004: 54). In addition to that, she claims that the media help uphold traditional, negative ways of depicting African Americans, purposely manipulating their portrayal (2004: 54). Without acknowledging these negative framework conditions it is easy to readily believe such condescending ideas about black people as presented by most mainstream media. In regard to African American men — a term that will be used interchangeably with black men and black males in the present thesis — The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab, supports this belief by saying that“according to the world as it is presented by the media, […] the average person is left to assume that black males are innately or culturally inclined towards low achievement, criminality, and broken families” (2011: 26). It is worth noting that African Americans are lumped together and seen as a collective, all inclined to the same negative destiny, despite the above-mentioned neoliberal, individualist characterization of US American citizens. Under these aspects one needs to critically scrutinize whether the highly praised American Dream is applicable to everybody or if in a dominantly white world there are black boundaries, which need to be acknowledged. In order to fully grasp this thought, it is essential to shift the focus from a macro to a micro level and consider African Americans individually instead of categorizing them as a racial collective.

It has long been noted that individualism is the binding that holds social identity together in U.S. culture, and therefore, it becomes difficult to see the centrality of systemic forces at work […] held together by White supremacist capitalistic heterosexist patriarchal structures of corrective violence. (Flint & Hawley 2016: 211)

Racist patterns and practices can easily be hidden under the guise of institutional discrimination. It is difficult to convince the greater public, for both cultural and cognitive reasons, that some social outcomes are influenced by more systematic powers (The Opportunity Agenda 2011: 17). In order to investigate whether social outcomes and preconceptions of African American men need to be seen in connection to contemporary media images, in the following it will be outlined in which ways black males are primarily represented by the media in the US.

1.1 Procedure

As mentioned before, the work at hand explores the depiction of African American men in the media and the consequences these specific ways of representation can have on their lives in US American society. Without narrowing the topic down to one particular media type, the present work will focus on both fictional and non-fictional forms of representation, including depictions in movies and TV series as well as displays in the news. By doing so, it shall untangle the tightly interwoven web of both fictional and non-fictional depictions that ensnares African American men in an opposing, yet overlapping way. A review of traditional mass media (e.g. newspaper articles, magazine covers, etc.) as well as video games and TV commercials would go beyond the scope of this thesis, and thus will be left aside.

As previously hinted at, African American men’s position in contemporary US American society cannot be investigated under the assumption that their current situation results from a monocausal incident. Without confining the frame of investigation to one specific time period, the present work is oriented towards the most current research results, figures and developments available. As data availability depends on the topic of each subchapter individually, the general time frame cannot be narrowed down specifically. Also, as current events are triggered by various chains of causation, they can never be interpreted without being historized, culturalized and politicized. Therefore, they will be set in context, which might create the impression of partially exceeding the idea of topicality. However, the center of attention will stay on topical events that influence on-going developments in the US.

Given the complexity of the topic, it would be insufficient to concentrate on one theoretical framework only, which is why two different streams of theories will be employed. First, the concept of intersectionality will be illustrated. By using intersectionality as the defining basis for cultural and social identity, its importance for African American men will be outlined, focusing on dimensions of gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic class. Second, the perspective will be shifted from a cultural studies-inspired to a media studies-inspired approach. Here, the concept of media priming will be introduced, which highlights the relevance of media impact, and illustrates how audiences internalize media images through subtle forms of cultivation. By merging the aforementioned theories, a close connection will be illustrated, proving that intersectionality (centering real-life problematics), and media priming (focusing on mediated world views) highly influence each other. Thus, in their unification, an insightful exploration of the interconnectedness of the two fields of study can be provided.

In the main corpus, both quantitative and qualitative representations of African American men in the media will be examined. Initially, the chapter Blackout: The Politics of Visibility, will concentrate on the frequency of African American men’s representation and the way they are numerically spread throughout the media landscape. After that, qualitative ways of representation will be investigated, subdividing them into two sections. The first section, Blackface: Coloring Crime, explores the extent to which African American men are being criminalized by the media. Historical insight into the origins of systematic criminalization patterns, and their modernized, on-going prevalence in contemporary US American society will be outlined. The second section, Blackbox: Hyper-Sexualization of Black Men, examines stereotypical body images African American men are subjected to by investigating the roots of such sexualized ways of depiction. Making a small digression to the times of slavery, the circulation of animal references and its relevance for today’s depiction of African American men will be analyzed. Incontestably, these are just two stereotypical ways of portrayals of black men. Nevertheless, throughout the development process of the present work it has clearly emerged that the aforementioned categories of criminalization and hyper-sexualization are the most relevant ones, and the ones of the most appropriate use for the purpose of this thesis.

To finalize the thesis, in the chapter B(l)acklash: Reshaping Media Representations of Black Men new approaches and concepts will be presented, which help transform the public image of black males in the future. Therefore, current art projects, revolutionary media portrayals, and political movements will be outlined, proving that change and action towards media representation forms of African American men are already underway. Due to a lack of academic differentiation and in order to approach these developments consistently, they will be categorized, showing that they all contribute to reshaping sustainably the prevalent image of African American men in US American society in the future.

1.2 Main Research Questions And Hypothesis

By answering the following three research questions throughout the present work, the structure of the thesis shall be more comprehensible and transparent to the reader. Despite a possible overlap of the answers throughout various chapters, and by taking the risk of not formulating one specific response to each question posed, they shall rather be considered as process-accompanied questions that form an invisible guideline leading through the text and eventually help find a conclusion to the overall subject.

1. Is the media constructing images of African American men, which they then embrace and confirm in real life, or does it need to be seen the other way around: Do African American men act in certain ways, which in turn are depicted by the media and therefore shape and dominate the media landscape?

By posing this question it shall be examined whether the problem stems from African American men themselves, or if it derives from media representations, which African American men mimic, and which have an impact on their social, economic and living conditions. It will be investigated whether media worlds are distanced from personal, lived experiences of African American men or whether they truly reflect real-life situations.

2. Seeing is Believing: Do existing media images lead to stereotypical perceptions of African American men? If so, in which way do television programs influence perceptions of African American men and is there a risk of unconsciously putting the constructed realities shown in the media in relation to one’s own reality?

Here, it will be examined what kind of impact those allegedly overemphasized portrayals of black men in the media have on the audience. In order to do so, the concept of media priming and the so-called cultivation theory will be applied, investigating the media’s influences on one’s social understanding of reality.

3. Assuming that the representations of African American men are indeed exaggerated and misleading — which tools can be used to overcome existing mass-mediated imageries and help reshape the public reputation of African American men?

By posing this last research question, a recommendation for the future handling of the display of African American men shall be suggested. With the help of presenting developments that have already taken place, ideas will be proposed that aim to reinvent the image of African American men in the media.

With these research questions in mind, the following hypothesis is proposed: It is generally assumed that persistent and reinforced stereotypical representations of African American men in the media landscape have negative impacts on the lives of African American men. Through subtle, yet powerful ways of devaluation and marginalization of black males and their social construction embedded in the media, it is presumed that they are hardly able to escape their minority position in contemporary society, which leads to measurable political and social prejudice, disadvantages, and injustice in the social system of the United States of America. The aim of the present thesis is to prove whether this hypothesis can be verified or disproven.


2.1 Triangular Approach: Intoxicated Intersectionality For Black Men

It is key to understand that a complex number of inextricably linked characteristics shapes our identity. As Hill Collins and Bilge state:“[T]he self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways” (2016: 2). By formulating the aforementioned sentence, Hill Collins and Bilge introduce their understanding of intersectionality and elaborate that the concept of intersectionality is an important approach in order to understand the construction of one’s individual identity:“intersectionality — a multifaceted perspective acknowledging the richness of the multiple socially-constructed identities that combine to create each of us as a unique individual” (Lind qtd. in Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 115). Although intersectionality can include multiple components, such as mental and/or physical dis/ability, citizenship, religious confession, or sexual orientation (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 2), in the course of the present work the intersectional approach will be made along the most commonly used dimensions of gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic class, combining scholarly fields of gender studies, studies on race and ethnicity, and social studies. Conflating these three dimensions and applying them in further process to the field of media studies shall make the role of media in conjunction with diversity clear.

By unraveling the intersecting dimensions of gender, race, and class in reference to African American men in the United States the importance of each layer becomes more apparent and proves that apart from the positively formulated definition of intersectionality (“unique individual”) by Hill Collins and Bilge, the concept entails a number of negative implications as well. In order to fully understand the challenges and entirety of discrimination African American men face in contemporary US American society, at first one needs to consider all factors apart from their triadic power relation. Solely focusing on race and gender, for instance, it can be observed that“[f]or African Americans, the relationship between gender and race is intensified, producing a Black gender ideology that shapes ideas about Black masculinity” (Hill Collins 2004: 6). Naturally, African American men are black and male. While the idea of male privilege in combination with being white persists in US American society and is argued to be mostly beneficial (McIntosh 1988: 1), the concept of male privilege does not apply to African American men, but rather results in a negative form of intersectionality. Being male in combination with being white puts people in an advantageous social position. Being male and black seems to result in a toxic mixture, as it evokes two discriminatory markings at one time. Hill Collins agrees by arguing that“racism and sexism are deeply intertwined, [and that] racism can never be solved without seeing and challenging sexism. African American men and women both are affected by racism, but in gender-specific ways” (2004: 5). These gender-specific, intensified ideas about African American men are anchored in the public’s idea of black masculinity. Traditionally, African American men have strongly suffered from an insufficiently reflected set of ideas, associated with their gender and sexuality. Most ideas were taken from a“universe of animal imagery” (Hill Collins 2004: 42), emphasizing a primitive, untamable behavior. At the same time, they were sexually objectified:“men of African descent were also perceived to have excess sexual appetite, yet with a disturbing additional feature, a predilection for violence” (Hill Collins 2004: 32). Especially the feature of violence is troubling, as this general stigmatization justifies drastic methods against African American men as soon as being suspected to act violently. On this basis it can be argued that in the case of black men, the interrelation between race and gender is of disadvantage, as they face extreme forms of both racism and sexism, both on account of the other. Once again, this proves that single-focus lenses are insufficient, as they fail to capture the complexity of relevant, interrelated characteristic traits. This proves that intersectionality does not shape one’s biography by binary relations, but by underlining the necessity of togetherness:“Relational thinking rejects either/or thinking […]. Instead, relationality embraces a both/and frame” (Hill Collins & Binge 2016: 27).

Picking up on the term of relationality, it is crucial to point out that African American men’s agency goes beyond a discourse of race and gender, but includes class issues as well. Shoving away the racial and gendered curtain, it becomes clear that there is another negative light being shed on African American men: classism. In her book“Class Matters: Where We Stand”, bell hooks describes her personal experiences of becoming more aware of class affiliation in relation to race, presenting an analysis of class privileges and class discrimination within US American society. Making use of her own personal journey, she concludes:“Class is still often kept separate from race. And while race is often linked with gender, we still lack an ongoing collective public discourse that puts the three together” (2000: 8). By making this statement it can be presumed that class is often hidden under the guise of race and gender.“The evils of racism and […] sexism [are] easier to identify and challenge than the evils of classism” (hooks 2000: 5), she says. Once marked to belong to the lower class of society, there is a lack of education, poverty, and a tendency to criminality implied. In combination with being black, it is very hard to overcome this denouncement:“everyone believes the face of poverty is black. The white poor blend in, the black poor stand out” (hooks 2000: 4). One of the reasons why this belief is so relevant, bell hooks argues, is the fact that“the black poor have always been told that class can never matter as much as race” (2000: 5). It can be derived that the elements of race, gender, and class are indeed intersectional and result in an exponential form of discrimination. At the same time, however, they are subject to a hierarchical order, making one element more relevant than the other. That is why hooks argues:“It has been difficult for black folks to talk about class. Acknowledging class difference destabilizes the notion that racism affects us all in equal ways” (2000: 8). Singling out one part of the intersectional factors negate the synergy between them — the very idea of intersectionality. Especially the combination of race and class seems to prevent economically poor black men from a social uplift. Again, this makes clear that African American men are hypersensitive to every single dimension. By intersecting those sensitivities it becomes apparent that they are vulnerable on multiple levels. Unlike Hill Collins and Bilge, Johnson and Rivera utilize a more pessimistic definition of intersectionality from the very beginning and argue:“Intersectionality entails the complex layering of and negative synergy among multiple streams of biased categorization (i.e., miscategorization) of individuals as perceived members of socio-demographic groups” (2015: 511). They expand the very individual-focused idea of intersectionality by Hill Collins and Bilge to a more overarching understanding of intersectionality, encompassing ethnic groups as a whole. They interpret the complexity of identity-forming traits as being socially biased instead of being unique. Moreover, they see that by condemning ethnic groups wholesale, an individual who pertains to this group has no chance escaping those biased categorization mechanisms, as they are automatically applied to every individual belonging to that group. They continue to argue:“Intersectionality is […] the stereotyped ascription of compounded […] group traits onto an individual perceived to be a member of a forbidding and alien“other” (e.g., threatening Black men)” (Johnson & Rivera 2015: 511). By“othering” African American men, they are being alienated, objectified, and generalized, which makes it hard to identify with them — for both members of other ethnic groups and African American men themselves.

Summarizing the above mentioned findings and determining intersectionality tailored to African American men, the following definition is being presumed: Intersectionality intends to merge various categories, illustrating the multidimensionality that lies behind the concept. In the specific case at hand, intersectionality primarily serves to define one’s own identity by acknowledging the triad of the dimensions race, gender, and class. Due to these interdependent elements, African American men face intersecting forms of oppression, as these dimensions are turned from race, gender, and class into racism, sexism, and classism. While on the one hand intersectionality can be seen from a positive vantage point, highlighting unique individuality and being“a key theoretical referent […] to address diversity, social equity, and inclusion” (Johnson & Rivera 2015: 511), it can on the other hand also be considered as a permission for oppressive and discriminatory behaviors. Thus, it is useful to move from a very theoretical approach of intersectionality towards a more practical one, looking at“what intersectionality does rather than what intersectionality is” (Cho et al. qtd. in Hill Collins & Binge 2016: 5). That is why Hill Collins and Bilge propose to use intersectionality as an analytical tool.

Intersectionality as an analytical tool examines how power relations are intertwined and mutually constructing. Race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, ethnicity, nation, religion, and age are categories of analysis, terms that reference important social divisions. (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 7)

According to this proposal of use, intersectionality can metaphorically be considered as a navigation system leading through the landscape of social hierarchies and inequalities in US American society. Used as an analytical tool, intersectionality helps pointing out how to overcome discriminatory barriers and“encourages us to move beyond seeing social inequality through race-only or class-only lenses” (Hill Collins & Binge 2016: 26). Hill Collins and Bilge intend to provide a more specific definition of intersectionality as a tool when they state:“Many people typically use intersectionality as a heuristic, a problem-solving […] tool” (2016: 4). This practical method of approaching intersectionality, which is being based on personal experiences and/or common sense, shows that intersectionality as a tool aligned on a heuristic concept needs to be treated with caution. It cannot be considered as being objective, as it is personalized and flexible. Undisputedly,“[i]ntersectionality as an analytical tool gives people better access to the complete of the world and of themselves” (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 2). For academic research, however, it is not entirely fitting. They themselves argue:“Ordinary people can draw upon intersectionality as an analytical tool when they recognize that they need better frameworks to grapple with the complex discriminations that they face” (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 3). This statement implies the assumption that intersectionality serves to make more sense of the prejudice individuals see themselves confronted with. Self-critically, Hill Collins and Bilge state:

Theory is needed but cannot be the end point, for there are political needs and struggles. The experiences that emerge from political struggles can catalyze an enriched conceptual vocabulary for understanding intersecting oppressions, yet unexamined experience is also not enough. The synergy of ideas and actions is important. (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 70f.)

Especially this call for action is relevant. While in the past African American men’s needs might have fallen through the cracks, subordinated to the needs of other groups (e.g. African American women), social and political awareness for African American men is now rising (Hill Collins & Bilge 2016: 3). Emerging from social grievances, such as increasing police violence towards black men, the social and political movements supporting African American men’s rights are accelerating (Flint & Hawley 2016: 211). In the course of the present work it will be argued that the theoretical construct of intersectionality — combining race, gender, and class — is systematically reinforced by the media, deliberately shedding a negative light on African American men. Therefore, social contentiousness towards black males is triggered, which, considering the big picture, endangers the overall societal harmony. Due to those social consequences, the perspective needs to be broadened. Thus, apart from making use of intersectionality, an interdisciplinary approach is suggested as well. Uniting two different streams of theories by merging cultural theories (i.e. intersectionality, combining gender studies, race/ethnicity studies, and social studies) with media-related issues (i.e. media priming) shall help to understand the wide-ranging subject and its various fields of study. As televised experiences serve as a decisive source in our social understanding, it becomes clear that a negative depiction of certain social and ethnic groups can be highly influential. This proves that in order to interpret African American men’s media representations and their consequences for US American society, the tightly interwoven web consisting of different streams and influences needs to be untangled.

2.2 Prime Time: When Media Priming Turns Into Media Framing

Artists know that the frame placed around a painting can affect how viewers interpret and react to the painting itself. As a result, some artists take great care in how they present their work, choosing a frame that they hope will help audiences see the image in just the right way. (Scheufele & Tewksbury 2009: 17)

There are numerous ways how individuals learn about other people. When direct human interaction with other social or ethnic groups is not being provided, media can serve as an alternative source of information, and shape our attitudes and beliefs towards said groups (Oliver et al. 2007: 273). Particularly heavy media viewers tend to internalize cultural beliefs transmitted through television (Punyanunt-Carter 2008: 245). Those beliefs can enforce certain preconceptions viewers already have. By referring to Dong and Murrillo, The Opportunity Agenda supports the previous argument, stating that“[t]he more individuals interacted with other people who have different cultural backgrounds, the more likely these individuals could see the positive traits and characteristics of the other people” (2011: 28). That is why direct contact is of high importance in order to expand one’s personal horizon towards other, unfamiliar social and/or ethnic groups, and to see whether media representations match one’s personal experiences. Nevertheless, as mentioned before, media play a decisive role in the way we perceive and understand cultural values and social structures, as it acts as a peephole to parts of society we do not have direct access to. Media must therefore be considered as a crucial reference point in the construction of both personal and national identity. Consequently, it establishes a feeling of belonging and/or exclusion, differentiating between categories such as us and/versus them (Lünenborg & Fürsich 2014: 959). Of course, one cannot assume that media consumption is just a passive absorption of the content being shown, but depends on one’s personal experiences, and the critical engagement and reflection of it, too.

Ours is not a hypodermic model of media exposure. In other words, human beings do not react like automatons to the content they view, but bring with them experiences, emotions and beliefs that shape their perceptions, understanding, and responses to mediated stories. In fact, fictional narratives evoke strong emotions and can be a forum for working out personal social issues. (Dill-Shackleford 2016: 8)

As the media serve as an easily accessible channel to acquire social information, and as they are the primary source to attain ideas of other social and ethnic groups (Sanders & Ramasubramanian 2012: 21), its content needs to be absorbed with caution.“Representations of individuals in both the news and entertainment media can create viewer perceptions and dictate attitudes toward the social/ethnic groups to which they belong and can even encourage the use of and belief in stereotypes” (Sanders & Ramasubramanian 2012: 18f.). Culturally prominent ideas are consistently articulated through mainstream media, which can lead to conscious and unconscious bias especially towards those social and ethnic groups that already have a history of being unprivileged. The idea is that certain types of media representations subtly, but consistently influence and educate the viewers’perceptions of reality. Elaborating on this point, Morgan et al. confirm:“[T]elevision has become the primary common source of socialization and everyday information (usually cloaked in the form of entertainment) of otherwise heterogeneous populations” (2009: 35). That is why an immense body of literature has highlighted that through the consumption of certain media representations our perception of reality is cultivated (Punyanunt-Carter 2008: 245). The linguistic hint to“cultivation” opens the path to the so-called cultivation theory, which was founded by George Gerber in the 1970s, and builds a crucial influencing factor for media priming.

Television viewing cultivates ways of seeing the world — those who spend more time“living” in the world of television are more likely to see the“real world” in terms of the images, values, portrayals, and ideologies that emerge through the lens of television. (Morgan et al. 2009: 35)

This summary of the idea of cultivation theory leads to the assumption of television acting as a socializing entity, presenting perceptions of a largely accepted social order, including the determination and legitimization of minority statuses of certain groups. It can be surmised that through those patterns of subordination articulated via certain media portrayals, the mass media has the power to reinforce negative attitudes or even discriminatory behavior towards particular social and ethnic groups, for instance by drawing an inaccurate or incomplete picture of said groups. By doing so, an affective and cognitive response to the conceived media representations is triggered, opening the path to ideological messages transmitted through television. They continue to argue:“The repetitive‘lessons’we learn from television […] can become the basis for a broader world view, making television a significant source of general values, ideologies, and perspectives as well as specific beliefs” (Morgan et al. 2009: 39). Especially for heavy viewers, it is easy to take facts presented in television for granted about the world, as“those who spend more time watching television are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most common and recurrent messages of the television world” (Morgan et al. 2009: 34). The border between the perceived, televised world and the social, real world becomes blurry. Even within the world of television the line between‘real’and‘unreal’representations is not always clear:“The labels of‘factual’, which may be highly selective, and‘fictional’, which may be highly realistic, are more questions of style than function” (Morgan et al. 2009: 36). This statement stresses the increasing transgression between fact and fiction and enables the media to construct a symbolic world, in which social typing of minorities becomes more and more natural, as it takes over a narrative of storytelling rather than informing (Morgan et al. 2009: 35).

As mentioned before, the cultivation theory is tightly interwoven with the theory of media priming. Due to our televised experiences, when thinking about the term prime in combination with television, one might immediately think about prime time, and shows that are aired at a time during which the greatest number of spectators can be reached. However, looking at the term from a psychological perspective, the so-called media priming effect is the first thing that comes to mind. Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. define the term as follows:“At a very general level, media priming refers to the […] impact of exposure to the media of subsequent judgments or behaviors […] related to the content that was processed” (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. 2009: 74f.). In other words, the term describes an unconscious mechanism triggered by media images, as the audience internalizes the content produced by the media and projects those images to reality, as these images have the power to influence both their thoughts and actions. Consequently, media priming takes the idea of cultivation theory one step further by arguing that media-activated thoughts can be so powerful that they are being transformed into actual behavior.

Furthermore, this overarching definition of media priming needs to be untangled by dividing it up into different subcategories. In literature findings it is referred to various phenomena of media priming, such as priming violence, political priming effects, and media priming of stereotypes, including gender and racial stereotypes (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. 2009: 74); The latter type being the newest area of research (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. 2009: 77), and the one it will be focused on in the present work. Although it is openly debated whether there should be a differentiation between all priming types mentioned above, and whether summarizing them under one big umbrella term is correct (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. 2009: 88), it is argued here that there are still some characteristics all types have in common. Supporting this thesis, McCombs and Reynolds, for instance, state that“[e]stablishing this salience among the public so that an issue becomes the focus of public attention, thought, and perhaps even action is the initial stage in the formation of public opinion” (McCombs & Reynolds 2009: 1). By making a topic, or a certain ethnic group the focal point of public interest, the public opinion can be influenced immensely — a statement that can be applied to all different types of priming (e.g. focus on higher crime rates, president campaigns, ethnic groups, etc.). According to an extensive body of literature in the past,“research in the stereotype domain indicated that the media can prime stereotypes and that these primed stereotypes influence how people are received” (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. 2009: 78). Applied to African American men, media priming of racial stereotypes automatically triggers racial associations among viewers. Reminded of the phrase‘Seeing is Believing’, which was introduced in one of the main research questions, it can be argued that the visually primed audience connects allegedly negative media images of African American men to reality, showing that the audiences’perception of African American men is indeed colored and is trained to associate race and masculinity with negative traits. The Guardian journalist Leigh Donaldson supports the thesis by using a more accessible wording:“These portrayals, constantly reinforced in [the] media, […] shape public views of and attitudes toward men of color. They not only help create barriers to advancement within our society, but also‘make these positions seem natural and inevitable’” (2015: n. pag.). This quote confirms that the repetitive exposure to certain media images has the power to sustainably influence the audience’s minds, eventually considering certain types of depictions as normal. This supports the claim that stereotype priming has an impact on people’s perceptions. It also leads to the assumption that a credible representation of media characters can influence real life perceptions. Therefore, it can be concluded that certain ways of character depiction need to be understood as strongly opinion-forming.

Dill-Shackleford picks up on the initially presented metaphor of framing, and emphasizes: At this particular juncture in U.S. history, the fictional entertainment and news media stories we tell about Black men are vitally important to our individual and collective development as a society. Mainstream media frequently reproduce White racial frames by presenting White characters as normal and superior to characters of color in narratives and entertainment. (Dill-Shackleford 2016: 2)

Looking at the idea of‘white frames’one might even go as far as to say that there is an existence of media racism by providing a very simplified, yet exaggerated narrative of African American men, empowering traditional, outdated ways of depiction. Due to this subtle media-induced evaluation, it is argued here that priming prejudice towards African American men exists. There is no doubt that priming has a great impact on one’s thoughts and perceptions, especially towards unknown ethnic groups. Or, as Mastro describes it:“Priming […] refers to the process through which information that has been recently activated by media consumption is used to guide judgements regarding target outgroup members” (Mastro 2009: 333). The mental framework of in-group and out-group membership underlines the idea of us versus them. Due to a lack of identification with characters and a missing realistic value, certain media depictions cannot be read objectively due their ambiguous way of depiction — for both in-group and out-group members. Catalyzing more favorable affect towards African American men is not only of advantage for them but for the rest of the society too, as“unfavorable portrayals of Blacks not only influenced Whites’perceptions, but African Americans’perceptions as well” (Punyanunt-Carter 2008: 244). Donaldson confirms by saying:“The mass media is certainly aware of its vast power to shape popular ideas, opinions and attitudes. They should become equally cognizant of their role as a mechanism of social change for the better of all” (2015: n. pag.). This kind of depiction does not only widen the gap between discriminated social/ethnic groups and the rest of society, but promotes an intergroup connectedness that prevents an approach between members of different groups, too.

Moreover, “research […] has found that members of marginalized groups can internalize negative characteristics presented of their social/ethnic group by the media” (Sanders & Ramasubramanian 2012: 20). Naturally, one is looking for media characters one can identify with. That is also why “clear evidence shows that Blacks […] are very likely to watch shows with Blacks and that this viewing is accompanied by a strong sense of identification” (Greenberg & Brand 1994: 306). By repeatedly being subjected to negatively framed portrayals, some might eventually embrace those televised characteristics. That is why Dill-Shackleford brings into consideration:

While some media experiences are undoubtedly light and fun, others have much more depth and consequence. In the case of the stories we tell about Black, […] the stories we entertain in the culture influence not only how Black males see themselves, but how others see Black males. (Dill-Shackleford 2016: 8)

Especially in times of rising awareness towards mediated minority issues due to public calls for diversity, such as Hollywood So White and Oscars So White, it is crucial to overthink the way we depict ethnic minority groups in general, and African American men in particular.“Given that intergroup contact in the media conveys messages to consumers regarding the extent to which Black Americans, or any group, is isolated/integrated into the general media landscape should not be ignored” (Mastro 2009: 326).


Excerpt out of 82 pages


Media Representations of African American Men and their Consequences for US American Society
Stereotyped, stigmatized, and sexualized. How the media shape how we see, and who we are
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Department of English)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
African American, Media Framing, Media Representations, People of Color
Quote paper
Anne Jeck (Author), 2017, Media Representations of African American Men and their Consequences for US American Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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