Racialism and the Media

Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President

by Venise T. Berry (Author)
Textbook X, 160 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Racialism and the Media
  • Chapter One Contemporary Zip Coons: The Problem with Funny
  • Chapter Two Ghettofabulous: How Low Can You Go?
  • Chapter Three Advertising and Black Folks: Whassup!
  • Chapter Four Black-ish and the Changing Nature of Black Identity
  • Chapter Five Balancing Stereotypes: Black Male and Female Roles on Prime-Time Television
  • Chapter Six A Satirical Parody: Black Jesus in the Hood
  • Chapter Seven Deconstructing Intersectionality in Crash
  • Chapter Eight Black Twitter, Interpretive Communities, and Cultural Capital
  • Chapter Nine President Barack Obama: Biased Frames and Microaggressions
  • Chapter Ten Science Fiction and Fantasy: Going Where Few Blacks Have Gone Before
  • About the Author
  • Index
  • Series index


This book is the result of twenty-five years of experiencing, teaching, and researching black images and messages in the media as a black woman in America. I want to thank my students who have been essential to my research and teaching inside and outside of the classroom. I want to thank my family and friends who understand my obsession with the media and love me anyway. They have tolerated and motivated me throughout my career. I want to thank the black actors, writers, directors, producers, and others who have brought to life the stories and characters I love and hate. I want to thank the University of Iowa, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the African American Studies program for continued encouragement and support. Finally, I want to thank my God and savior Jesus Christ who keeps me lifted up.

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Introduction: Racialism and the Media

Look at the poster of King Kong. Now imagine replacing King Kong with Los Angeles Lakers’s basketball champion Lebron James. Draped across James’ left arm is model, Gisele Bundchen in a similar teal dress. His mouth hangs wide open as if he is growling just like King Kong, and in his right hand rather than holding a club he bounces a basketball.

This was the April 2008 cover of Vogue Magazine. It perpetuated a number of issues concerning normalized stereotypes, biased racial framing, and problematic historical myths concerning African American culture. For example: the comparison of black men to apes, the notion that black men are obsessed with white women, and the historical myth that black people coming out of Africa are like apes and have an animalistic or violent nature. This cover fueled a significant amount of controversy concerning racists and racism (Hill, 2008; Lebron, 2008; Morris, 2008; Stewart, 2008). The design of the cover is too close to the King Kong poster to argue that it was not the inspiration. So, why would photographer Annie Leibovitz create it? Is she a racist? Why would Lebron James agree to pose like King Kong? Is he okay with racism? Why would Vogue Magazine use this image on their cover? Are they comfortable perpetuating racism?

In another example, the recent blockbuster movie Black Panther (2018) featured the Jabari Tribe of Wakanda where the leader M’Baku is called Man-Ape. The tribe is known as the White Gorilla Cult and they use the loud, repeated ←1 | 2→grunt of the gorilla during conflict. The Jabari Tribe also lives in the mountains where it is colder, so they wear fur to cover up. In the movie this tribe displayed an aggressive image that could be connected to the historical myth of black men as apes or black people as animalistic. This was apparently part of the original comic book, written by a white man, but why would a black director and writer Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole keep this stereotypical idea of an ape cult in the movie version? Are they racists? Why would actor Winston Duke play a character where the black man is called a man-ape? Is he okay promoting racism?

The purpose of this book is to explore the notion of racialism. Some people suggest that the first Black American president brought with him a post-racial society. It is obvious that that is not the reality. However, the nature of racial ideology has changed in our society. Yes, there are still ugly racists who push uglier racism, but there are also popular constructions of race routinely woven into mediated images and messages.

Racialism is the normalization of racial images and messages that impact cultural representation. Sometimes it is racist and sometimes it is not. Many media ←2 | 3→constructions are based on racial images and messages that have become common and accepted in our society today. It is not a good thing, but it also may not be a racist thing.

The Vogue cover is similar to the King Kong poster, yet is it possible that photographer Annie Leibovitz is not a racist? With what I know about Lebron James, especially beyond his basketball talent, I don’t believe he is okay with racism. And I think Vogue Magazine would probably prefer not to perpetuate racism on their cover. I doubt that Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole would be okay with propagating the Jabari tribe as apes if they saw it as a racist image. And I’m sure Winston Duke didn’t want to promote racism in the dynamic role he played. So, the question is, how do we explain these racial images and messages outside of the extreme notion of racism? My answer is racialism.

In the twenty-first century, we need a more nuanced understanding of racial constructions. Denouncing anything and everything problematic as racist or racism simply does not work, especially if we want to move toward a real solution to America’s race problem. Under the umbrella of racialism, racism is alive and well. Particularly, it encompasses the more historical actions and ideas tied to hate and violence. For example, a white person calling a black person the n-word, hanging a noose in the D. C. National Museum of African American History and Culture, wearing blackface or a KKK robe, and an Alt-Right rally that ends with one person dead and nineteen people injured. These are obvious racist acts. Racism is included under the umbrella of racialism, but my goal is to focus on something else. My focus is on the racial images and messages constructed by the media that do not or should not fall into the loaded category of racism.


We live in a society filled with racial situations, messages, practices, and images. In this book, racial constructions are examined using a more nuanced approach. Racialism is a concept that includes, but moves beyond traditional racism. It involves images, ideas, and issues that are produced, distributed, and consumed repetitively and intertextually based on stereotypes, biased framing, and historical myths about African American culture. These representations are normalized through the media, ultimately shaping and influencing societal ideology and behavior.

Specifically, there are four significant areas under the umbrella of racialism. First, the common use of stereotypical images and messages as repetitive ideas about black culture. Second, biased racial framing which involves the shaping ←3 | 4→and creation of black cultural issues in adverse ways. Third, historical myths such as the derogatory use of knowledge and understanding linked to Africa and African traditions. Fourth, traditional racism involving purposeful hatred and malicious acts.

Sawrikar and Katz (2010) argue against the notion of white supremacy being used synonymously with racism because it situates white as the fixed reference point and places it at a higher social power than all other groups. They discuss the need for cultural competency to become the recognition and acceptance of difference with two components that are key: awareness and sensitivity. This means it is important for a person to make sure they have sufficient knowledge (awareness) about a group and that they challenge (with sensitivity) any stereotypes, biased frames, and historical myths encountered.

Delgado and Stefancic (2012) believe that there is a difference between the ideal notion of racism and the real notion of it. They explain that the ideal focuses on thinking, attitude, and discourse because race is a social construction, not a biological one. They also discuss how racism is used as a means for society to create racial hierarchies allocating privilege and status.

we may unmake it and deprive it of much of its sting by changing the system of images, words, attitudes, unconscious feelings, scripts and social teachings by which we convey to one another that certain people are less intelligent, reliable, hardworking, virtuous and American than others. (p. 17)

Bonilla-Silva (2014), in his book Racism without Racists, suggests that racial discrimination still affects the lives of people of color because new racial constructs are safeguarding the traditional racial order as good as the old ones. He suggests that for most white people, racism is simply an idea or attitude.

Most contemporary researchers believe that since the 1970’s, whites have developed new ways of justifying the racial status quo distinct from the “in your face” prejudice” of the past. Analysts have labeled whites post civil rights racial attitudes as “modern racism,” “subtle racism,” “averse racism,” “social dominance,” “competitive racism,” or the term I prefer, “colorblind racism”. (p. 259)

Carr (1997) believes that the term “racist” itself too often gets confusing.

The problem is that discrimination is no longer distinguished from its presumed cause, prejudice. Racism became both the cause and effect … It [the term] does not distinguish between the racism of the oppressor and the oppressed … There is no way to make this distinction, there is only the term racist, as an ideological phenomenon. (p. 155)

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Enlightened racism, as discussed by Jhally and Lewis (1992), moves in this same direction arguing that racial bias is not only about simple skin pigmentation but also cultural class position. Their study of The Cosby Show explored how and why white viewers identified with an upper-middle class black family.

What shows like The Cosby Show allow, we discovered, was a new and insidious form of racism. The Huxtables proves that black people can succeed; yet in doing so they also prove the inferiority of black people in general (who have, in comparison to whites, failed). (p. 98)

Racism usually promotes the superiority of white people over black people. And unfortunately, when certain racial issues are normalized within various media products we all buy in. If a child grows up seeing a specific idea or image as ordinary they learn to accept it. For example, when black men are primarily shown as criminals in the news, on prime-time television shows, for popular films, and through gangsta rap music videos, the black man as a criminal becomes the norm. Not only do members of white society start to believe the stereotype but many blacks, even though they know better, start to make assumptions as well.

Doane (2014) says it is problematic to think that diversity works better in a colorblind world or that it is moving us beyond race.

Diverse casts and commercials, successful athletes and entertainers can all coexist along with racial disparities in income, wealth, poverty, education, and incarceration. The inclusion and upward mobility of ‘diverse’ individuals do not necessarily challenge the logic and structure of an unequal racial order. (p. 19)

In other words, many scholars are already moving away from the loaded notion of racism, but the necessity for change needs to be explained more clearly. Racialism is a significant product of today’s racial ideology. It involves various racial images and messages that are seen everywhere and all the time. Such images and messages are normalized through the media and accepted by society. Too often racialism slips by unnoticed, molded into popular mediated representations.

Critical Race Theory

It is through the lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT) that this book will explore racialism in the media and investigate racialized subjectivities and norms. CRT is effective for exploring the intersection of racialism and the media based on the examination of specific media products and practices. This book is an attempt to identify, ←5 | 6→critique, and ultimately transform the root causes of racial inequality in selected programs, products, structures and practices of media (Delgado & Sefancic, 2012). Each chapter offers exemplars of racialism operating within mediated experience.

According to Delgado and Stefancic, the structural and systematic influence of certain racial ideology can create oppression, bias, and discrimination. Therefore, it is the goal of CRT to deconstruct those consequences (Rocco, Bernier, & Bowman, 2014). Delgado and Stefancic argue that “racism is an ingrained feature of our landscape, it looks ordinary and natural to persons in the culture” (p. xvi).

Production and programming in the media make up key systems, structures, and practices of knowledge. As the media constructs representations of black culture, it uses racialized words and images. This book presents a cultural critique of how mediated representations and knowledge operates in these production systems using exemplars of racial phenomena, racial effects, and racial hierarchies (Ford & Airhihenbuwa, 2010).

Bell (2000) suggests that racism is a consistency in American society. He says it lies in the center, not the periphery; in the permanent, not the fleeting; in the real lives of black and white people. So, the purpose of my analysis is to think about how we might separate racism (malicious and purposeful hatred) from racialism (consistently normalized mediated racial images and messages). The ultimate goal is to better understand how the media constructs, controls, and manipulates race in our society.

Martinez (2014) suggests that people of color can also be responsible for racism. While some argue that this is rare because racism is tied to power and control, she sees things differently.

People of color can and do reproduce structures, systems and practices of racism too, but by writing and speaking against the oftentimes one-sided stories existing in a white supremacist world, CRT scholars illuminate the fact that the social world is not static, but is constructed by people with words, stories and also silences. (p. 20)

As more scholars have started to study media and race there is a movement toward the examination of storytelling within CRT. This approach is endorsed by Solorzano and Yosso (2002) who describe how “majoritarian” stories are, “generated from racial privilege and stories in which racial privilege seems natural” (p. 27).

These stories privilege whites, men, the middle and upper class, and heterosexuals by naming social locations as natural or normative points of reference. A majoritarian story distorts and silences the experiences of people of color and others distanced from the norms such stories reproduce. (p. 23)

Each chapter in this book examines the normalization of racial images and messages in the media, particularly the way they create the basis of our knowledge ←6 | 7→and understanding when it comes to African American culture in this society and around the world. I see the term racism as having extreme historical and emotional ties pushing it into a deep abyss of negativity, fear, and hatred. When we focus on those extremes, we often miss the important, but subtle elements of racialism that are just as powerful and problematic. For example, the Jezebel stereotype is alive and well in Gabrielle Union’s role on Being Mary Jane. Despite the fact that she is a highly successful black woman working in the broadcasting industry she jumps in bed with a number of men. And the contemporary mammy stereotype fits Tyler Perry’s Madea with her no-nonsense attitude, extreme protective nature, and southern accent thrown in for comedic purposes.

Abraham and Appiah (2006) discuss how the role of visual imagery in the priming of racial stereotypes through the media involves an implicit racial propositioning.

In this process, the images of blacks function as concrete and vivid cues, exemplars, which provide context that adds to and elaborates understanding of the specific issue discussed explicitly in the text … This process of implicit racial propositioning may be one of the discursive means through which contemporary forms of prejudice manifest themselves, and through which black stereotypes are rehashed and maintained in society. (p. 189)

Despite the fact that we are seeing more African Americans in mediated products today, many of those images and messages reflect certain stereotypes, biased frames, and historical myths. In an effort to open up the conversation about race and media and to promote a move toward change in the status quo, Racialism and the Media: Black Jesus, Black Twitter and the First Black American President presents selected exemplars of how race is normalized in the media.

Research has shown that mediated images and messages are an important part of how people see the world (Means-Coleman, 2013; Napoli, 2010; Nightingale, 2011; Ross & Nightingale, 2003). While the media may not have an all-encompassing power or control over an audience, it has been documented that images and messages can impact certain people, at certain times, in certain ways (Newman & Guggenheim, 2011; Potter & Riddle, 2007; Preiss, Gayle, Burrell, Allen, & Bryant, 2007). Mediated texts offer ideas and images that feed our societal norms and ultimately influence how meaning is constructed and deconstructed around the world.

Born out of what sociologist, Herman Gray (1989) calls, “America’s storehouse of racial memory,” racialism is supported by the historical and ideological distinction between races in this country. As a political construct, it is also tied to social and institutional ideologies and behaviors (Harris-Lacewell, 2003). And ←7 | 8→finally, the commodification of race through commercialism is another important element to be considered as part of racialism’s significant reach (Thornton, 1996).

Chapter One, “Contemporary Zip Coons: The Problem with Funny” examines how the Zip Coon stereotype is alive and well today. It has evolved into a contemporary image in film and television that is very popular. For example, comedians like Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Chris Tucker, and David Mann star in numerous roles as modern day buffoons.

Chapter Two, “Ghettofabulous: How Low Can You Go?” critically explores exemplars in reality TV, rap music, news, film, and urban/street fiction questioning how “ghetto equals black” has become a norm in society.

Chapter Three, “Advertising and Black Folks: Whassup!” focuses on advertising as it uses images of and messages about black culture to sell certain goods and services. This chapter will not only look at negative exemplars, but it will also discuss advertising that frames black culture in a positive way.

Chapter Four, “Black-ish and the Changing Nature of Black Identity” offers an exploration of core ideas surrounding blackness. Through this comedy series blackness is challenged and redefined in relation to class, gender, and environment.

Chapter Five, “Balancing Stereotypes: Black Male and Female Roles on Prime-Time Television” explains how complex characteristics can be found in numerous roles on prime-time television that challenge black stereotypes such as Jezebel and Mammy or gang member and criminal.

Chapter Six, “A Satirical Parody: Black Jesus in the Hood” investigates how religion and poverty coexist in the inner city. Black Jesus meets the people where they are and in his own way he tries to help everyone understand that life should and could be better.

Chapter Seven, “Deconstructing Intersectionality in Crash” is an evaluation of the movie Crash which demonstrates how the collision of different genders, classes, and cultures in Los Angeles influences power and experience.

Chapter Eight, “Black Twitter, Interpretive Communities, and Cultural Capital” studies the way that Black Twitter has redefined activism on a global scale by generating a wealth of knowledge and opportunity through shared experience, meaning, and collective behavior.

Chapter Nine, “President Barack Obama: Biased Frames and Microaggressions” evaluates the problematic macro and microaggressions experienced by Obama as the first Black American president. Visual and verbal exemplars are discussed in the perpetuation of biased cultural framing.

Chapter Ten, “Science Fiction and Fantasy: Going Where Few Blacks Have Gone Before” is a critical examination of black themes and characters imagined now ←8 | 9→and in the future. The world today is fifty percent people of color, so it makes sense that stories about the future in science fiction and fantasy must be more inclusive.

Race will always be a significant part of America’s ideological consciousness. As Cornel West (1994) so eloquently wrote, “… a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of the crisis of American Democracy (p. 156).” Race matters and it will always matter because our societal structure is built on a system of Democracy that depends on it.

The media exemplars studied in each chapter of this book will show that racial phenomena, racial effects, and racial hierarchies are not necessarily the product of racists or racism. Instead racialism, routine images and messages about race have been shaped and sustained through the media over decades then accepted as mainstream ideology and developed into comfortable social behavior.

This book is definitely not an effort to let racists and racism off the hook, but rather a means to expose, deconstruct, and critique other factors that make up racialism. We are technically already there. When scholars use concepts like modern racism, colorblind racism, enlightened racism, averse racism, or subtle racism they are taking a step away. Yet, that one word, racism, still pervades the overall meaning, so I propose this repositioning. We need to think beyond racism in order to better understand the world we live in today. My goal is for Racialism and the Media to provoke a serious change when it comes to the problematic racial images and messages that we have all come to know and love.


Abraham, L., & Appiah, O. (2006). Framing news stories: The role of visual imagery in priming racial stereotypes. The Howard Journal of Communications, 17, 183–203.

Bell, D. (2000). Race, racism and American law. New York, NY: Aspen Law and Business Press.

Black Panther. (2018). IMDb. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1825683/

Bonilla-Silva, B. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield.

Carr, L. (1997). Colorblind racism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical race theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Doane, A. (2014). Shades of colorblindness: Rethinking racial ideology in the United States. In S. Nilsen & S. Turner (Eds.), The colorblind screen: Television in post-racial America. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Ford, C., & Airhihenbuwa, C. (2010). Critical race theory, race equity, and public health: Toward antiracism praxis. American Journal of Public Health, 100(S1), 30–35.

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Gray, H. (1989). Television, black Americans and the American dream. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 6, 376–386.

Harris-Lacewell, M. (2003, November). The heart of the politics of race: Centering black people in the study of white racial attitudes. Journal of Black Studies, 34(2), 222–249.

Hill, J. (2008, March 21). LeBron should be more careful with his image. ESPN. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/espn/page2/story?page=hill/080320

Jhally, S., & Lewis, J. (1992). Enlightened racism: The Cosby Show, audiences, and the myth of the American Dream. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

“LeBron James ‘Vogue’ cover called racially insensitive. (2008, March 24). USA Today. Retrieved from https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/people/2008-03-24-vogue-controversy_n.htm

Martinez, A. (2014, November). Critical race theory: Its origin, history and importance to the discourses and rhetorics of race. Frame, Journal of Literary Studies, 27(2), 9–27.

Means Coleman, R. (2013). Say it loud! African-American audiences, media, and identity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Morris, W. (2008, March 31). Monkey business: So is that Vogue cover racist or not? Slate.com. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/03/monkeybusiness.html

Napoli, P. (2010). Audience evolution new technologies and the transformation of media audiences. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Newman, W., & Guggenheim, L. (2011). The evolution of media effects theory: A six stage model of cumulative research. Communication Theory, 21, 169–196.

Nightingale, V. (2011). The handbook of media audiences. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Potter, W., & Riddle K. (2007). A content analysis of media effects literature. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 84, 90–104.

Preiss, R., Gayle, E., Burrell, N., Allen, M., & Bryant, J. (2007). Mass media effects research: Advances through meta-analysis. New York, NY: Earlbaum.

Rocco, T., Bernier, J., & Bowman, L. (2014). Critical race theory and HRD: Moving race front and center. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 16(4), 457–470.

Ross, K., & Nightingale, V. (2003). Media and audiences: New perspectives. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Sawrikar, P., & Katz, I. B. (2010). Only white people can be racist: What does power have to do with prejudice? Cosmopolitan Civil Societies, 2(1), 80–98.

Solorzano, D., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23–44.

Stewart, D. (2008, March 17). Is Vogue’s Lebron Kong cover offensive? Jezebel.com. Retrieved from https://jezebel.com/368655/is-vogues-lebron-kong-cover-offensive

Thornton, S. (1996). Club cultures: Music, media and subculture capital. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Vogue Magazine. (2008, April). Lebron James and Giselle Bundchen. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Vogue-April-Issue-Editors-Magazine/dp/B00168A5DM

West, C. (1994). Race Matters. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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Contemporary Zip Coons: The Problem with Funny

Many stereotypes are normalized in our society, especially through the media. Stereotypes are generalizations or overgeneralizations of a group or culture (Brigham, 1971). Unfortunately, many of the normalized stereotypes of African American culture confirm accepted distortions. In his research on implicit stereotypes, Hinton (2017) argues that “culture in mind” is key to influencing the cognition of cultural group members. He believes that stereotypes are predictions and the brain uses predictions based on the structures and meanings experienced in the world (p. 6). Therefore, stereotypes become a resource that enables the transmission of cultural information, specifically within a network where common understandings exist (Kashima & Young, 2010).

Burr (2001) identifies three issues concerning stereotypical images of African Americans in the media.

First, these images affect how African American children and adults view themselves … Second, these images affect African American adults because others tend to view these images as indicative of how African Americans really act and respond accordingly … Third, these images harm the entire society in that they create disharmony between reality and perception and decrease the chances of positive interactions between blacks and others. (p. 181)

It is important to remember that stereotypes are not inherently racist. Yet, because of their history, many generalizations come from a negative or problematic ←11 | 12→place. Today, stereotypes are ingrained in our mediated culture as routine. We use them in the everyday process of creating meaning. They are very persuasive and not easy to change.

Social Identity Theory

Social Identity Theory explores group membership and identity arguing that most people identify who they are in society based on the specific groups they belong to, in other words in-group or out-group perspectives (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Since we exist in a constant cycle of experiencing the world and constructing meaning as members of various groups, Hinton (2000) suggests that we are more likely to accept stereotypes as norms when there is a consensus among friends, family members and even societal groups.

Social Identity Theory argues that through the cognitive process of categorization and grouping, the in-group members will develop a stereotypical view of the out-group members and through the process of seeking to maintain a relatively high social identity the stereotype of out-group members will tend to be negative. (pp. 114–115)

Hinton also believes that in-group members will view out-group members as more different than they really are from the in-group and they will see out-group members as more similar to each other than they actually are. For example, Banjo (2011) found that white viewers enjoyed stereotypical entertainment based on their cultural openness and competence concerning the out-group.

Viewers reported low-enjoyment when uncomfortable with entertainment that disparages out-group members and identified conflicts between attitude and behavior when interacting with black culture whether personal or mediated. (p. 153)

Gandy (1998) argues cognitive structural thinking can help us to, “pay attention to the relationships between the attitudes, images, and impressions of self and others as they are shaped through direct and mediated experience” (p. 51). He suggests that priming also helps to normalize racial stereotypes because stereotypes are primed by a certain trait or exemplar which is easily accessible and made applicable to societal perceptions.

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Humor and Black Americans

Numerous studies have been conducted to examine how an African American audience relates to humor. Some researchers focus on how humor is used to create joy and understanding, while others examine how it may help to cope with oppression and self-deprecation. For example, black participants reported a more positive attitude and identification when viewing racially charged comedy with black in-group members rather than with white out-group members while white viewers displayed no differences in a 2015 study by Banjo, Appiah, Wang, and others.

Social identity and racial socialization display a direct relationship between the negative stereotypical images received from media, especially when it comes to being black and understanding how blacks identify with their racial group (Adams-Bass, Stevenson, & Kotzin, 2014). Sanders and Ramasubramanian (2012) detailed through their research how most black film and television characters are considered favorable by black audiences despite the fact that many of those images are stereotypical.

A number of studies have explored how to eliminate or counter problematic stereotypes. For example, Holt (2013) found that the fear of crime is becoming more about the human dyad and less about racial stereotypes. Fojioka (1999) studied Japanese students and the negative stereotypes they recognized about African Americans. This research reported that negative stereotypes could be reduced by seeing positive portrayals of African Americans on television.

Tan et al. (2001) studied the social environment and popular roles in order to assess the influence of normative peer groups on changing stereotypes. They reported that peer groups could change the impact of specific stereotypes and they also confirmed that it does not extend to more general racial beliefs. Plus, a combination of critical media consumption and counter message control may reduce some racial stereotypes that are perpetuated by news stories according to a 2007 study by Ramasubramanian. Finally, targeted training against stereotypes can reduce the activation of those stereotypes among audiences based on the research of Kawakami, Dovidio, Hermsen, and others (2000). This means, sometimes people can be motivated to avoid stereotypes when they experience alternative processing.

A few studies have examined the connection between ethnic humor, stereotypes, and media. Reifsteck (2017) discovered that there is a strong correlation between black racial identity and humor specifically when it comes to enjoyment, expression and perception. She reported that exposure to culturally specific humor might also aid in racial identity development. Apte (1987) defined ethnic humor primarily as a type of humor where fun is made of the perceived behavior, customs, ←13 | 14→personality, or any other traits of a group or its members based on sociocultural identity. Gandy (1998) believes that ethnic humor works because it relies upon readily available stereotypes that make up the core of the joke.

Telling a joke that depends upon such stereotypes reinforces the symbolic structures in which stereotypes exist and do their cultural work. The joke works because it is understood and we understand or ‘get’ the joke because we possess knowledge of the stereotype. And, unless our response to the joke is hostile and resistive; getting the joke is likely to increase the structural importance of the stereotype by establishing yet another link for it to the somewhat unique circumstance in the joke. (p. 90)

According to Gillota (2013) there are three broad theories about humor. The first theory, was created by Thomas Hobbes and called “superiority theory.” This involves the use of ethnic humor as a way to feel superior to the group that is joked about. The second, is “aggression theory” developed by Sigmund Freud. Aggression theory connects humor to a kind of release valve enabling the discussion of socially unacceptable content. Third, “self-deprecating” humor which is used as a defense among some comedians where they make fun of their own racial group.

Blacks have been the butt of American ethnic humor for a long time argues Cooper (2007). This includes both denigratory and self-denigratory humor. Cooper writes on the comedy of Richard Pryor, “If a humorist makes fun of stereotypes, the implication is that stereotyping is not such a serious issue to the groups so represented (p. 244).” Also, in his study, participants easily recognized Pryor’s comedy through the lens of dominant black stereotypes such as cool, tough, ghetto, inferior, poor, lazy, and violent.

According to Bostick (2010), black comedians who speak critically, publicly, and extensively about controversial issues involving the black community claim to be well intentioned, but unfortunately, they may be validating explicit stereotypes. She believes that when stereotypes are validated by these well-known black voices it allows white people (the in-group) to justify those stereotypes about blacks (the out-group).

A Textual/Historical Approach

History can be used to effectively interpret the evolution of a topic or theme. The systematic analysis of stereotypes as they have historically evolved through media programming provides a path toward interpreting primary and secondary texts. Bryant, Black, Land & Porra (2013) believe that history is like a collective ←14 | 15→memory, “Having a history is important because what happened in the past profoundly affects all aspects of our lives and will affect what happens in the future” (p. 4).

Porra, Hirschelm, and Parks (2014) propose a concept called “cyclical history” which means that the past as reality is unchanging and repeating. They suggest that historical analysis offers a unique potential through scope and duration in which to understand complex phenomena. It is through history that researchers can analyze particular episodes, empirical cases, and patterns of activity according to Smith and Lux (1993).

This chapter analyzes one black stereotype that has evolved throughout history in film and television. It is the examination of specific words, ideas, images, and characteristics that make up particular patterns and themes connected to the Zip Coon stereotype. McKee (2003) argues that this kind of historical analysis can help us understand the way that various cultures and subcultures make sense of who they are.

This analysis examines intertextuality as described by Fairclough (2003), explicitly as it relates to the consistency of the Zip Coon stereotype. It is understood that different cultures may experience different things in different ways, specifically because of intertextuality. And, the interaction of certain images and messages are negotiated within specific historical timeframes.

The Zip Coon Stereotype

The Zip Coon stereotype evolved from minstrel shows in the early nineteenth century (Turner, 1994). Turner explains that the Zip Coon caricature is often presented in colorful, ill-fitting clothing, and he is usually staged as destructive, loud talking, and stupid. According to Jardim (2016), the Zip Coon is an arrogant trickster who avoids responsibility at all costs. Finally, Bogle (1973) described the Zip Coon as a male buffoon who is depicted as an unreliable, subhuman creature misusing the English language for the amusement of white people. Bogle adds that racial stereotypes have been used for decades to confirm white superiority over African Americans.

All were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing inferiority. Fun was poked at the American Negro by presenting him as either a nitwit or a childlike lackey … The movies which catered to public tastes, borrowed profusely from all the other popular art forms. When dealing with black characters they simply adapted the old familiar stereotypes, often further distorting them. (p. 4)

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In her book Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) (bell) hooks agrees. She expresses concern because stereotypes are distorted inventions, yet they can be seen as reality.

Stereotypes however inaccurate are one form of representation. Like fictions they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are not there to tell it like it is, but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the other that makes them less threatening. (p. 170)

The contemporary Zip Coon stereotype has evolved into a prominent media staple. He is the funny, ignorant, aggressive, loud talking, ill-dressed, black male caricature in popular movies and television shows. For example, Stepin Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934) and other films during the 1930s took Zip Coon off of the minstrel stage and placed him on the television screen (Fetchit bio). Stepin Fetchit is depicted as a slow-witted, mumbling coon who moves with a lazy shuffle. He scratches his head when he is thinking, uses poor dialogue and his intelligence is questionable.

The Kingfish character was introduced in the Amos and Andy radio show (1928–1955) as a Zip Coon stereotype. Freeman Gosden, a white man, did the voice over for radio, but the 1950s television show (1951–1953) used a black actor, Tim Moore (Watkins, 1991). Kingfish displayed the general Zip Coon traits showing a lack of intelligence, plus constantly scheming and trying to con people. For example, he set up a phony raffle, got amnesia whenever it came time to pay his debts, bought and tried to sell a broken-down race horse, and was accused of robbery several times concerning different items.

Despite his standup routines that were often socially conscious and controversial (Trickster, 2010), Redd Foxx in the television sitcom Sanford and Son (1972) was a streetwise representation of Zip Coon (Foxx bio). The character of Fred Sanford was a junk dealer living with his only son. He constantly made stupid mistakes, followed get-rich-quick schemes, dished out insults, walked with a stagger and threatened to have a heart attack when confronted about a problem.

Good Times (1972) began as a unique look at life in the urban ghetto, but J.J.’s character eventually developed into an obvious Zip Coon stereotype including his signature action of screaming “dy-no-mite.” Jimmy Walker as J.J. also mixed up words showing his illiteracy and flaunted ill-fitting and colorful clothes on his tall, lanky body. Finally, Will Smith in The Fresh Prince (1990) brought urban slang and cool pose to upper class Beverly Hills in his more contemporary version of the Zip Coon. His style included wearing a private school jacket inside out to expose the bright red, blue and yellow lining. Since he came from the hood, Will’s loud and brash personality was depicted by the upper class kids as cool and different.

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The Blaxploitation period meant changes in the Zip Coon stereotype, even though key features continued to thrive under the surface. Confidence in the use of language changed into a jive talk. For example, Rudy Ray Moore used rhyme and signification in his records and movies. “Yes, I’m Dolemite. I’m the one that killed Monday, whooped Tues, put Wednesday in the hospital, called Thursday to tell Friday not to bury Saturday on Sunday” (Dolemite, 1975).

The clothes in many of the Blaxploitation films included bright yellow, red and green suits worn by pimps and players that were promoted as stylish. Black men were depicted as sexually empowered dope dealers and gangsters involved in fighting, shootouts, and other aggressive actions. Bogle (1989) argues that the strained ethnic humor and the inferiority of Black people turned upside-down was used to trick black people into believing that Blaxploitation meant better depictions. But the major characters were superspades with aggressive, take-no-shit attitudes concerning “the man” according to Bogle who argues that the Black Power movement was actually mocked in these films.

Contemporary Zip Coons

Eddie Murphy is definitely a talented actor and comedian, yet his career is built around a number of stereotypes, specifically, the Zip Coon. One of his most controversial characters appeared on Saturday Night Live (1998) where he butchered the English language as Buckwheat from the Little Rascals (1955). In the Beverly Hills Cop series (1984, 1987, 1994), 48 Hours (1982), Another 48 Hours (1990), and Showtime (2002) movies his signature laugh, wide-toothy grin and aggressive nature create a comfortable Zip Coon reminder for white and black consumption. And, despite Murphy’s enormous skill of being able to portray various members of the Klump family in The Nutty Professor (1996), Buddy Love shows up to portray the cool yet ignorant stereotypical Zip Coon.

A number of other popular Murphy characters display Zip Coon characteristics like the jive-talking donkey in the Shrek (2001) series, the con artist, street thug Billie Ray Valentine in Trading Places (1983) and even the Oscar winning Jimmy from Dreamgirls (2006) with his bright suits and third person speech pattern. According to Sands (2018), while not overly racist, a number of Murphy’s movies reinforce negative stereotypes. Sands says that throughout Murphy’s career, he has been able to appeal to mixed-race audiences by using stereotypes. However, he has also taken the time, occasionally, to celebrate the more positive attributes of blackness in Coming to America (1988), Dr. Dolittle (1998) and Daddy Day Care (2003).

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In 2016 Kevin Hart became the highest paid comedian in American history making 87.5 million dollars between June 2015 and June 2016 (Berg, 2016). Hart’s movies and television shows like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), Ride Along (2014), Ride Along 2 (2016) and The Real Husbands of Hollywood (2013) have grossed millions and his stand-up comedy fills huge stadiums like the Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York (Box Office Mojo, 2018).

Many of the characters played by Kevin Hart fall easily into the category of contemporary Zip Coon. For example, Ride Along and Ride Along 2 introduce Ben as a high school security guard who eventually becomes a police cadet. James, played by Ice Cube, is not happy about Ben marrying his sister so he proposes a ride along for Ben. Ben agrees in order to win James’s blessing for the wedding while James makes the offer to prove Ben does not deserve his sister. In both movies critics call Ben a clown, a man Smurf and Sir Scream-a-lot. He uses many tired Zip Coon tropes like talking loud, acting stupid, and dressing in bright, colorful, distracting clothes. At different times in the film Hart even imitates an ignorant street hoodlum and an outlandish African Prince.

Get Hard (2015) presents a number of the stereotypical traits related to black men in general and Hart specifically. James, a white, hedge fund manager played by Will Ferrell, is found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to jail at San Quentin. Although Darnell, Kevin Hart’s character, has never been incarcerated he agrees to teach James how to survive in prison. Throughout the film examples of problematic ethnic humor are inserted linking Hart to the Zip Coon including encounters with gangs, prison sex, and urban violence.

A number of roles in Tyler Perry’s movies and television shows depict stereotypical characters, but none more obviously than Zip Coon Mr. Leroy Brown played by actor David Mann. In the movie (2008) and television show (2009–2012), both titled Meet the Browns this character is as close to the original Zip Coon stereotype as you can get today.

Mr. Brown dresses ridiculously, wearing striped shirts with flowered pants in bright, lively colors like red, blue and yellow. He is portrayed as very stupid with a poor understanding of the English language and he talks constantly about nothing. Mr. Brown’s acting efforts are usually over the top including lots of eye popping and hand waving, not to mention his high-pitched whiny voice.

He is the constant butt of the joke. In one television episode, Mr. Brown eats drugged-up brownies and flashes back to the 1970s where he dresses and talks like a stereotypical pimp during the Blaxploitation period. In other episodes, his character continuously offers insults, pranks, and exaggerated movements in response to intense situations. As a matter of fact, in some episodes his degrading ←18 | 19→ethnic humor gets very extreme. For example, Mr. Brown wets himself, eats rotten food willingly, and even jokes about performing a vasectomy on himself. Svetkey, Watson, and Wheat (2009) express concerned that there is power beyond images in Perry’s depictions of black life, so even though Perry believes his characters are simply tools to make people laugh, such comedy mixed with such stereotypes deems black disparity as palatable.

Chris Tucker tends to be a Zip Coon stereotype in most of his movies. In the Fifth Element (1997) he is a transgendered Zip Coon, in the Friday (1995) movie series he is a pothead Zip Coon and in the Rush Hour series (1998, 2001, 2007) he is a crime fighting Zip Coon. Tucker uses all of the conventional Zip Coon elements like bugging his eyes, loud talking, head rolling, misunderstanding and mispronouncing certain words, and displaying an obvious ignorance. Leslie (2001) describes Tucker’s character in the Rush Hour series a one-dimensional role.

he’s the sidekick, he’s the frightened, yet funny dim-witted buddy. It’s a role filled with all the standard black stereotypes: he’s loud, child-like, dishonest and unable to restrain his emotions when faced with sex and money.

For example, Tucker spends most of his time in The Fifth Element screaming in an irritating, high-pitched voice and bugging his eyes. He is dressed in a tight leopard-skin outfit wearing afro puffs or a large white bun. His comedic debut as Smokey in Friday focused on how lazy and unreliable his character was. Smokey smoked weed constantly rather than selling it, whipped his neck when he spoke for more emphasis, and jumped around on numerous occasions almost monkey-like.

When Dave Chappelle walked away from a fifty-million dollar contract for his show on Comedy Central everyone thought he had lost his mind, but instead he had actually found it. Several years later, Chappelle explained in various interviews that he realized his racial humor was not changing problematic societal perceptions but rather reinforcing them (Cosgrove-Mather, 2006).

Discussing Chappelle’s revelation, Bostick (2010) clarified how the context of a joke must be understood in order for someone to actually get it. She says many people do not understand or appreciate black culture enough to make the necessary connections so they laugh at the joke based on face value rather than registering the hypocrisy, sarcasm or satire.

While jokes about black people by black people may not seem inappropriate; they advance bias depictions of African American traditions, behaviors and cultural norms while offering white people a license to laugh at those stereotypical images. (p. 276)

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In their research on Rush Hour 2, Park, Gabbadon, and Chernin (2006) found that comedy encourages audiences to naturalize racial differences rather than challenge racial stereotypes. Their findings suggested that many black and white viewers who actively consume comedy derive pleasure from racial jokes.

Racial stereotypes in comedy are problematic because they help validate racial differences through humor, thus rendering them natural and unchallengeable. Because racial stereotypes in comedy rarely offend the audiences and are presented in an enjoyable way, audiences are able to naturalize specific knowledge about racial minorities without resistance. (p. 173)

So, it is possible that the white crew member who made Dave Chappelle uncomfortable when he laughed at the sketch about “Black Pixies” (Farley, 2005) was not necessarily a racist, but he simply enjoyed a certain comfort level because of the way stereotypes have been naturalized in our society. It is possible with racial images and messages consistently perpetuated by the media and accepted in society a person does not have to be a racist to laugh at racial ideas or create racial content.

Hinton (2000) maintains that stereotypes reflect faulty thinking about a group or culture, and some people may not be aware because of the prominence and consistency of the humorously focused images and messages. This means that the active monitoring of our own cognitive process is necessary to create oppositional or counter-stereotypical strategies for the elimination of such stereotypes (Fiske, 1984).

As Entman (1992) discussed in his article on news, modern racism and cultural change it is easy for people to fall into stereotypical thinking, especially when normalized stereotypes are promoted consistently and intertextually.

Because old-fashioned racist images are socially undesirable, stereotypes are now more subtle and stereotyped thinking is reinforced at levels likely to remain below conscious awareness. Rather than the grossly demeaning distortions of yesterday, stereotyping of blacks now allows abstraction from and denial of the racial component. (p. 345)

Humor, fuels conversations, challenges assumptions, and stretches social boundaries often with stereotypical images and messages just under the surface. According to Amditis (2013), the continued use of racial stereotypes in humor today contributes to the preservation of the current racial hierarchy making the fight for a better racial climate more difficult.

The difficulty involved in identifying, processing, interpreting, comprehending, and retaining the subtle and symbolic undertones when exposed to humor is the key to understanding the ultimate harm that is done by the use of stereotypical tropes and tactics in comedy. (p. 5)

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Humor is usually based on stereotypical ideas and images. Stereotypes through humor provide easily recognized and understood historical impressions of how members of black culture might think and act. Unfortunately, when ethnic humor is based on normalized and accepted stereotypes racialism is involved and that means there is a problem with funny.


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Ghettofabulous: How Low Can You Go?

Not all African Americans live in poverty or in the inner city, yet somehow American society seems to believe that black equals ghetto. In her book Ghetto Nation, Cora Daniels (2007) argues that in the twenty first century ghetto no longer refers to where you live but how you live.

It is a mindset, and not limited to a class or a race. Some things are worth repeating: ghetto is not limited to a class or a race. Ghetto is found in the heart of the nation’s inner cities as well as the heart of the nation’s most cherished suburbs; among those too young to understand (we hope) and those old enough to know better; in little white houses, and all the way to the White House; in corporate corridors, Ivy League havens, and, of course, Hollywood. (p. 8)

Ghettofabulous is a problematic pop culture frame that refers predominantly to a bias about black culture displaying extreme tendencies like loud talking, garish dressing, bling blinging, fighting, and certain levels of ignorance. It has become a repetitive image in pop culture where white college students throw ghettofabulous parties (Wise, 2010), Miley Cyrus’s twerks at a VMA performance (Hare, 2013), Cardi B holds a $500K ghettofabulous baby shower (Heller, 2018), average women flaunt long nails with extreme manicures like Niecy Nash in Claws (Penrice, 2018), and a California yoga studio gives out do-rags for their booty-shaking, ghettofabulous classes (Baker, 2013).

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Domonoske (2014) said, in a NPR interview, the word “ghetto” has evolved from meaning a segregated, restricted neighborhood to an individual context such as acting, dressing or talking.

[It is] Being ghetto, or behaving in a low-class manner (see also ratchet). Ghettofabulous, flashy glamour without the wealth. Ghetto as an adjective, roughly synonymous with jury-rigged, for anything cobbled together out of subpar materials.

Daniels (2007) adds that ghetto as a state of mind is hard to describe but easy to recognize. For example, she spots an ice cream truck rolling down the streets of Brooklyn blasting Lil John’s “Okaaaaay,” she watches a contest on VH1 where they are searching for Nelly’s Miss Apple Bottom (a regular girl with an irregular waist to butt ratio), she lambasts the Oscar nominated film Hustle and Flow when the pimp-wanna-be-rapper sings “Beat that Bitch,” she complains about young people who are calling each other baby daddies or baby mammas (a term she sees as dismissive), she admits frustration concerning the number of youth living in today’s depressing culture of nihilism and self-destruction, and she wonders why in school if a black child is not ghetto then they are seen as “acting white.” Because the popularity of ghetto in American society is based on a lack of self-respect, Daniels worries most of all that too many of these biased frames embrace the worst instead of the best of black culture.

Giles (2010) defines media framing as the process by which a topic is presented from a particular angle (or a variety of angles), inviting audiences to draw particular conclusions, and to make particular allusions to other topics. Entman (2007) describes the process of biased framing as introducing or raising the salience and importance of certain ideas, to some extent getting audiences to think, feel or decide in a particular way.

The text contains frames, which are manifested by the presence or absence of certain key words, stock phrases, stereotypical images, sources of information, and sentences that provide thematically reinforcing clusters of facts or judgements. (p. 52)

In this chapter, the biased framing of black culture as ghettofabulous on television, in film, through rap music, for news, and as urban fiction is explored. According to Mukherjee (2006), ghettofabulous offers new standards of cool and the spectacle within popular media emerges less as subcultural resistance and more as hegemonic cooptation through capitalism.

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Ghettofabulous in Television

Reality television shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta (2008) and Love and Hip Hop (2010) are the ideal exemplars for ghettofabulous TV. Audiences tune in each week to watch African American women and men cussing, arguing, fighting, and displaying certain levels of ignorance. To some extent that problematic and biased frame has become a staple when it comes to rap music and hip hop, but The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) features a number of prominent black women who became stars in their own right, yet still fit the mold. For example, Kandi Burris-Tucker is a Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur formerly part of the popular group Xscape (Mitchell, 2017). Cynthia Bailey is a supermodel who has walked the runways of New York, Paris, and Mulan. She owns the Bailey Agency School of Fashion in Atlanta (Anderson, 2013). Kenya Moore was named Miss USA in 1993 and landed in the top six for the Miss Universe pageant (Hensley, 2016). Eva Marcille won the third season of Americas Next Top Model and has since become an actress, television host, and entrepreneur (Koerner, 2017).

Of course, there are other cast members who have built their fame and fortune from the show. For example, NeNe Leakes’ has milked ghettofabulous for all it is worth. Her original claim to fame before RHOA was as a stripper, but she has now launched a one-woman comedy show, appeared on Glee as a swim coach, co-hosted the Today Show, and acted on Broadway in Cinderella (Ferrise, 2018). Portia Williams went from a subservient athlete’s wife to a co-host on the nationally syndicated talk show Dish Nation (Ho, 2014).

The display of ghettofabulous in RHOA is obvious. There are ostentatious pictures of expensive houses, cars, and name brand products in every episode (Hawley, 2014). Each cast member seems eager to outshine the other when it comes to conspicuous consumption. On Season 4, NeNe Leakes told Sheree Whitfield (former cast member) “I am very rich, Bitch!” (Orr, 2019). Orr discusses how over several seasons, Whitfield and Kenya Moore battled about the size and quality of their homes: “Chateau Sheree” vs. “Moore Manor.”

Baby showers and weddings are ghettofabulous. Kenya Moore created a fairytale shower filled with princess ballgowns, tiaras, gold wigs, crowns, and capes in a room staged like a royal court, including an enchanted forest, with an oversized gold throne (Quinn, 2018). When Kandi Burress married Todd Tucker they had a Coming to America themed wedding that included African Dancers, drummers, and real lions (Palacios, 2015). Finally, Phaedra Parks ordered 12 different birthday cakes for her son’s first birthday party (Parks, 2012).

The cat fights among these upper-class, grown women are constant and ugly. For example, Sheree Whitfield got into a lot of battles. She and Marlo Hampton ←27 | 28→went at it in Africa when Marlo was purposely excluded from an activity (Lucas, 2012), she pulled off the wig of former RHOA cast member Kim Zolciak, and had an argument with her party planner Antony that resulted in the popular phrase “Who gonna check me, boo?” (Moylan, 2014). Kandi Burress has gone several rounds with various cast members as well including Portia Williams who she attacked for accusing Burress of planning to drug her for sex (Mathers, 2018). Burress and Phaedra Parks fell out behind a business deal with Burress’s husband, and later Burress was livid when she found out that the drugging allegation originally came from Parks (Quinn, 2017).

Sexuality and looks are over-the-top on the show. Kandi Burrus has launched a line of sex toys as part of her internet show Kandi Coated Nights (2018–) and produced a sold-out burlesque show in Atlanta. During Episode 12 in Season 11, the housewives visit Japan and in one crude scene they pretend that a pickle is a dick and imitate various sexual acts on each other. There are stories about some of the women having breast implants, liposuction, nose jobs, and butt lifts. The clothes that many of the cast members wear usually expose large sections of their huge breasts, thick thighs and wide bottoms. Parks and Moore even had a ridiculous blow up in Season 5 concerning the production of a DVD video that ended in a controversy over “stallion booties” vs. “donkey booties” (IMDb, 2013).

Empire (2015–) has been ranked as the number one broadcast drama among the 18 to 49 demographic (Berg, 2017). There have been many situation comedies, but a prominent black drama is rare on prime-time television. It is not surprising this black drama on television about a successful music company is ghettofabulous. The show is riddled with controversy based on the stereotypes perpetuating ghetto life including criminals, murderers, drug dealers, and thugs. The executive-producer, director Lee Daniels says, “It’s all set against a “boughetto” (that’s bougie + ghetto- try to keep up) backdrop of gunplay, glitz and gold diggers” (Williams, 2015).

Cookie Lyons played by Taraji Henson is a ghettofabulous character described by her stylist as flaunting a classy-hood style (Hope, 2015). When she is released from prison Cookie is wearing big hoop earrings, a white fur jacket, and a tight-fitting leopard print dress from the 1980s (Jones, 2015). Unfortunately, her wardrobe doesn’t change much once she is back in the real world.

In one instance she might wear an Alexander McQueen dress with a Balenciaga clutch. In another moment she might wear a rhinestone tiger-striped dress with a long slit up the side. She uses a big Chanel gold pendant, Cavalli necklaces, and Gucci python bags to accessorize her leopard jumpsuits. (Wright, 2018, pp. 93–94)

Wright adds that Cookie’s character is constantly slipping between hustler and music mogul. Dr. Boyce Watkins called the show “Ghettofied Coonery” on ←28 | 29→CNN in a discussion with Don Lemon (Emery & Bennett, 2015). Watkins said, “A lot of black actors and actresses are tired of being put in the entertainment ghetto. The entertainment ghetto is basically the place where you have roles … specifically designed for black people, where black actors are kind of locked into” (Emery & Bennett, 2015).

Niecy Nash has solidified her spot in Claws, a ghettofabulous dramedy on TNT. Nash plays Desna, the owner of a nail salon who launders money for the mafia, commits and covers up murders, but takes care of her crew who are known for their unique, over-the-top manicures. Nash wears signature tight fitting, low-cut jumpsuits, emphasizing her big breasts, small waist, and large behind (Carter, 2017). Her character also enjoys hood-style bling with rings on every finger, big silver chain belts, gold bangles, huge dangling earrings and necklaces, and, of course, long dazzling fingernails (Cutler, 2017). In a 2018 NPR interview, Nash said at five-years-old she told her grandmother that she wanted to be, “Black, fabulous and on TV” (Sanders & Sastry, 2018). She has definitely accomplished that.

Ghettofabulous in Urban Fiction

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan was released in 1992 and it became a huge success. The book sold four million copies, it was followed by a sequel and became a hit movie. Because of the success of Waiting to Exhale the doors to publishing opened wide for African American women’s fiction. Fast forward twenty years later, African American Women’s fiction has, for the most part, been replaced at large publishing companies by urban/street fiction which is flying off the shelves.

This new focus on negative black stereotypes of male thugs and female hoochies has made urban/street fiction the perfect genre to push into the mainstream. James Fugate the owner of Eso Wan Books in Los Angeles expressed his concerned, “The ghetto lit being written today is mostly ‘mindless garbage about murder, killing, thuggery. When you read this ghetto lit nothing happens to your mind. And that is the problem” (Daniels, 2007, p. 65).

Research in this area suggests that remedial learners are more engaged with urban fiction. Specifically, the stereotypes, sexual themes, and violence serves to lure them in despite poor reading achievement (DeBlaze, 2003; Mahiri, 2004; Morris, Hughes-Hassell, Agosto, & Cottman, 2006; Rampey, Dion, & Donahue, 2009; Stovall, 2005; Townsend, Thomas, Neilands, & Jackson, 2010). Gibson (2016) produced a study on African American girls reading urban fiction and found that outside of class urban fiction was very popular. She suggested that street lit could be used as a bridge to interest African American girls in other reading genres.

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In 2005, Stovall reported that a variety of readers from a broad range of class backgrounds were reading urban fiction. This report worried Pollard (2015) who argued that the depiction of drug culture, poverty, criminal violence, and hypersexuality in the genre was creating an unrealistic trope of authenticity fueled by market driven expectations. However, a student experiment, by Bean and Moni (2003) used urban fiction to motivate critical discourse concerning racial images and messages. They offered the storylines as a way to challenge negative representations and cultural stereotypes, along with questioning beliefs about identity. Gibson (2016) taking that same approach discovered that African American girls were able to demonstrate some of the critical literacy skills necessary to challenge such stereotypes and problematic representations in urban/street fiction.

When problematic images and messages are promoted and accepted through the publishing industry, researchers, librarians, and teachers racialism is at work. There is no denying that The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) by Sista Souljah was the catalyst for popularizing urban fiction. And the problem, as Fugate expressed earlier, was that the main character, Winter, had absolutely no growth in the story. She was stupid at the beginning of the book and stupid at the end.

Book stores today are filled with ghettofabulous stories about black inner-city life that promotes ignorance and glorifies violence. Some of the obvious titles include: Thugs and the Women Who Love Them (Clark, 2002), Crackhead and Crackhead II (Lennox, 2012a, b), Murderville (Coleman, 2012), Gangsta (K’wan, 2014), The Dopeman’s Wife (Coleman, 2014), and Nasty Girls (Gray, 2007).

Munshi (2015) wrote about an urban fiction couple Ashley and Jarvis Coleman. Not only do they write urban/street fiction, but they met in a ghettofabulous way. According to the article in Financial Times, Jarvis was sixteen-years-old, running from the police when he threw nine ounces of cocaine into 15-year-old Ashley’s back yard. Ashley stashed the drugs for him and they have been together ever since. The couple started out reading urban fiction books together, then one day they decided to write one, Today, they each write approximately 5,000 words daily finishing a book in approximately three weeks. This is one of the many criticisms concerning urban/street fiction, the lack of quality. A book written in three weeks usually reads like it was written in three weeks.

Ghettofabulous in News

The unique difference when it comes to thinking about ghettofabulous in the news is that the news is real. In his song “Ghetto Fabulous,” Dr. Dre says no matter how much money you make you have to stay true to the game. Halnon (2011) argues ←30 | 31→that the way to stay true is to situate oneself in materialistic culture while at the same time maintaining authenticity which means keeping a connection to the street.

On the consumer side this means that media representations of the black ghetto require certain realities to support the popular image such as real thugs, real gangs, real gangbanging, real drug dealing, and the real selling of women … the authentic value of black ghetto cool is contingent upon the harsh material realities of everyday African American inner-city life. (p. 4)

The crossover between pop culture images of the ghetto and the real inner city are very important. Loury (1998) wrote that the legacy of slavery lingers in our cities’ ghettos. He believes there is problem with the color line when it comes to the lower class.

These black ghetto dwellers are a people apart, susceptible to stereotyping, stigmatized for their cultural styles, isolated socially, experiencing an internalized sense of helplessness and despair, with limited access to communal networks of mutual assistance. Their purported criminality, sexual profligacy, and intellectual inadequacy are the frequent objects of public derision. In a word, they suffer a pariah status. It should not require enormous powers of perception to see how this degradation relates to the shameful history of black-white race relations in this country. (Loury, 1998)

We see this pariah status in the news often. For example, one news headline reads, “In Chicago, One Weekend, 66 shooting victims and Zero Arrests” (Oppel & Harmon, 2018). The article reports that the shootings were concentrated on the west and south sides of the city which are areas known for high crime and high levels of gang activity. Another headline, “Baltimore is the Nation’s Most Dangerous City” was in USA Today. It cites city officials as saying that gangs and drug activity are responsible for the high crime numbers (Madhani, 2018). A third headline from FiveThirtyEight speaks for itself, “Black Americans are Killed at 12 Times the Rate of People in Other Developed Countries” (Silver, 2015).

In his memoir, rapper and actor Ice T said crime is about making easy money, “There is something sexy about crime because it takes a lot of courage to fuck the system.”

On mass media screens today, whether television or movies, mainstream work is usually portrayed as irrelevant, money is god, and the outlaw guy who breaks the rules prevails. Contrary to the notion that black males are lured by the streets, mass media in patriarchal culture has already prepared them to seek themselves in the streets, to find their manhood in the streets, by the time they are six years old. (hooks, 2004, p. 27)

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Dixon’s research (2008) suggests that exposure to the network news often confirms black stereotypes such as blacks are poor and intimidating. Oliver’s study (2003) suggests that the power of black male stereotypes is real and examined how black men are often misidentified and assumed guilty based on bias frames. When crime victims were white, eye witnesses often described black suspects in stereotypical terms according to a study from the University of British Columbia. In that study, Jacobs (2016) found that white victims and black perpetrators tended to be seen through a stereotypical lens, specifically when it came to the more violent crimes.

Images in the news also send certain messages concerning black culture generally. Wing (2017) argues that the mainstream media sometimes treats white killers better than black victims. He reviewed a plethora of news stories that demonstrated how officials seemed dismissive or unsympathetic to black victims some even blaming them for their own deaths. Wing’s research showed that stories about black victims become character assassinations, while white criminals are written from a more positive and empathetic perspective. The article, included examples for black victims like, “Montgomery’s latest Victim had a history of narcotics abuse, tangles with the law” (Ala.com, 2014), “Travon Martin was suspended from school three times” (NBC News, 2013), and “Police: Warren shooting victim was a gang member” (WKBN, 2014). Along with examples for white criminals, “Santa Barbara Shooting: Suspect was soft spoken, polite, a gentleman, ex-principal says” (Whittier Daily News, 2014), “Oregon School Shooting Suspect fascinated with guns but was a devoted Morman, his friends say” (FOX News, 2014), and “Ala. Suspect brilliant, but social misfit” (Lubbock-Avalanche Journal, 2010).

An extensive study on news and opinion media conducted by Dixon (2017) found that many outlets misrepresent blacks in association with criminality, poverty, welfare recipients, and generally instability. His two-year study reviewed more than 800 news stories reported distorted representations, inaccurate information, and racially biased coverage which is a serious problem. Finally, Jan (2017) explains that media outlets routinely show poor black families as dependent and disfunctional while white families are usually depicted as stable. She cites a 2017 report by racial justice organization Color of Change that suggests political rhetoric and public policy are often fueled by stereotypes like absentee fathers, criminality and poverty in the inner city.

Ghettofabulous in Rap Music

In real life, according to a report by Lewis (2015), rapper Brandon Duncan known as Tiny Doo was charged with nine counts of gang conspiracy and faces 25 years in prison. Although Duncan did not shoot anyone, he was apparently linked to the gang responsible for a number of shootings when his mixed tape was released a year later. ←32 | 33→Because a couple of his songs described the murders in detail the prosecutor added Duncan to the court order. This means, if the gang is convicted, the prosecutor plans to argue that Duncan promoted and benefitted from their illegal acts (Lewis, 2015).

Just like Duncan, other rappers have found it difficult to break the link between real crime and rap music. As a matter of fact, in order to maintain their authenticity as mentioned earlier many believe that they need to stay connected to the streets. A timeline constructed by Emmett (2018) shows a series of clashes that rapper, actor T.I. has had with the law. In May of 2018, T.I. was arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. In 2010, he went to prison for eleven months for drug charges and parole violations. In 2009, he struck a plea deal and was sentenced to a year and a day for weapons possession as a convicted felon. In 2001, 2002, and 2004 he was arrested for illegal gun possession. In 1998, T.I. served a year in prison for the manufacturing and distribution of cocaine.

Gangsta rap exploded into the mainstream in the late 1980s. In the beginning, traditional record companies had a hard time with this music labelling it as not really music. So, rap music during the early period had to embrace the inner-city streets for funding and support. Drug dealers became record moguls with companies called Death Row, Ruthless Records, and Bad Boy Records. In the mid 1990s rap music was bought up by mainstream music corporations.

According to Quinn (2004), in these corporations gangsta rap involved a number of major themes: social cultural commentary, authenticity, nihilism, and commercialism. This music placed the anger and frustration of young black men up front with controversial songs like “F--- the Police” by NWA, “Cop Killer” by Ice T and “Geto” by the Geto Boys. Rap music encompassed other problematic frames as well when it came to black culture such as misogency, sexism, hypermasculinity, drug use, homophobia, and greed. For example songs like Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle,” “The Chronic” by Dr. Dre, “Bling Bling” by Gucci Mane, and “Rich Niggaz” by Juvenile popularize negative images and messages.

As Donalson (2007) explains, “by the 1990’s a number of popular rappers and Hip Hop producers had taken their market appeal into that celebrated American area labeled ‘entrepreneurship … where their celebrity status and financial success is staggering” (p. 131).

Rap music and Hip Hop made the ghetto cool, crime and all. The negativity of inner-city life was absolved in a blast of money, sex, and power. Younge (2005) in The Guardian talks about how the beats and rhymes of rap music easily tapped into free market capitalism.

There’s fabulous. And then there’s ghetto-fabulous … Fabulous is meant to be desirable—classic, pricey, and proper. Ghetto-fabulous is meant to be deplorable—crude, crass, vulgar, and vile. Fabulous is for the urbane, who buy gold by the ounce and call ←33 | 34→it jewelry; ghetto-fabulous is for the urban, who by their gold by the pound and call it bling. (p. 1)

Rapper Lil Jon is the self-proclaimed King of crunk. Apparently crunk is the feeling of being crazy drunk (Daniels, 2007). Lil Jon is the perfect example of ghettofabulous as he raps through a gold grill, wearing huge gold chains, and dark glasses. Many of his videos promote misogyny and women in tight clothes twerking, or fighting in water. He has suggestive song titles like “Get Low,” “Act a Fool,” “Madness,” and “I don’t Give a F---” feeding into the genre’s ignorance.

Despite the power that she has built in the rap industry, Nicki Minaj produces videos and lyrics that can be labeled ghettofabulous as well. The sexual nature of her words and movements leave very little to the imagination. In a song called “Good Form” (2018) with Lil Wayne she falls right into the misogynistic trash heap as her dancers perform an erotic dance and she raps, “I let him eat the cookie cause it’s good for him and when he eat the cookie he got good form.” Soon, Lil Wayne drops in a few lines talking about “women as bitches with asses jumpin’ [gotta] get on his dick turn it into a pipe bomb.” There was a recent controversy concerning Minaj’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Berlin where she is not standing but positioned on her knees and dressed provocatively in ghetto fashion (Matthews, 2020).

Finally, in a song titled “Act Ghetto” (2015) by Tyga featuring Lil Wayne the lyrics say all that needs to be said.

She just wanna act ghetto. She just wanna dance like a stripper, rap like a nigga. She just wanna rub her titties, pop her ass. She just wanna act ghetto when the cameras flash … She wear diamonds on her pussy, diamonds on her neck. Talking out her neck, demanding respect. Yeah, she wanna act ghetto getting drunk on the set. Gonna drink it out the bottle, flip the finger when she ready … (Tyga).

… Ghetto fabulous, she so booty-ful. She ain’t got home training, she got Uber tho. She just texted me O-M-W with two XO’s. Only thing she always coming through is project hoes. Gotta put my jewelry up, gotta hide the dough … (Lil Wayne)

Ghettofabulous in Film

Poverty and violence seem to encompass the image of inner-city ghettos in most films. A plethora of films perpetuated the inner city during the late 1990s reflecting ghettos as gang and drug infested hell holes. This includes, New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, Juice, Menace II Society, Colors, Clockers, Gang Related and others. There was one movie in this group that offered a more balanced look at the ghetto environment, Boyz N the Hood (1991).

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The recent 25 year anniversary of Boyz N the Hood has enabled scholars to rethink the impact of this film. Written and directed by the later John Singleton, Boyz was one of the first in this genre to offer a more contextual look at what was happening in the inner-city. Tre and Ricky live in the hood, Crenshaw South Central Los Angeles, but they are not involved with gangs and drug dealers. Ricky’s older brother DoughBoy is a gang member and he has also served time in jail. Ricky and Doughboy are being raised by a single mother, while Tre’s mother decides he should live with his father, Furious, because he started getting into trouble at school.

The film shows the good and bad of black communities. For example, there are good and bad characters like Furious who works and owns his home and Tre who receives important lessons from his father about responsibility, economic stability and respecting women. Ricky and Doughboy’s mother Brenda is usually shown at home in a house robe, so it doesn’t look like she has a job. She makes a difference between her two sons based on their projected futures. Ricky has the possibility of going to college on a football scholarship while Doughboy is connected to gangs and jail.

Black cops can be as bad as white cops in the film. When someone breaks into Furious’s house, the police take a long time to show up and when they do arrive the black police officer insults Furious. Tre and Ricky are targeted by a gang and Ricky is ultimately killed. Doughboy and his crew seek revenge. Tre joins them at first, but soon realizes he is in over his head and drops out. At the end of the movie, Tre graduates and goes off to Moorhouse College while Doughboy is killed.

Singleton’s main message in Boyz was that boys need fathers to help them grow into men. That message was challenged by Jones (1991) who felt like it suggested that single women could not raise strong, positive men. Walcott (1992) agreed, voicing concern that Singleton’s stance was dismissive of the countless single mothers who have raised successful black sons inside and outside of the hood.


X, 160
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 170 pp., 6. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Venise T. Berry (Author)

Venise T. Berry is an Associate Professor in African American Studies and Journalism at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Her professional media career began in radio news but has expanded into teaching, media research and criticism, as well as fiction and non-fiction writing. She is published widely in academic circles with numerous journal articles based on her research in the area of media, African Americans and pop culture. To learn more visit: www.veniseberry.com.


Title: Racialism and the Media