Picturing Diversity: I Am Stereotype (part 2a)

Esteemed author and cultural critic Ilan Stavans, will be writing a series of ten essays specifically for our photographic journal, Nueva Luz and our blog. ‘I Am Stereotype’ is the second article in the ‘Picturing Diversity’ series, which will later become a book on photography. In discussing how the medium has changed, Stavans challenges assumptions on how society sees the world and how we view each other. It is a pleasure to be able to bring this exciting series to our readers.

As stated in part one of this essay series, Picturing Diversity, in democracy, we are all unique in our difference and, also, that we are all actors. People of color have an added advantage here. Or perhaps it is a handicap. For not only are its members unique but they are trapped in that uniqueness. Normal means to be like everyone else, which implies that one thing minorities can never be, is normal.

Their abnormality depends on being seen as clannish, even when they are not. Others think they move around in groups. They are perceived as collectivities rather than aggregates of individuals. And they appear to distill a sense of defiance, of a lack of desire to fully assimilate, to become part and parcel of the status quo. I have italicized appear because all this—their tightness, their boldness, their pseudo-insolence—is only a perception. It comes from the environment, which thrives in portraying the minority as separate, unlike everyone else, different.

Different to what? To the center. The minority lives in the margins, in the outskirts of society, not at the heart of power. In other words, its members are as much individuals as they are followers. In sum, minorities are symbols. In existing, they are factories of meaning. They live to represent and convey meaning about their background. Their collective self is a reflecting mirror in which personal qualities are confused with distinctive characteristics.

Hank Willis Thomas, Smokin' Joe Ain't J'Mama, Unbranded series, 1978/2006. Lambda photograph, original photographer unknown, 52 x 50"
Hank Willis Thomas, Smokin’ Joe Ain’t J’Mama, Unbranded series, 1978/2006. Lambda photograph, original photographer unknown, 52 x 50″

I’m talking about stereotypes, of course. To understand this troublesome concept (troublesome yet invaluable), it is important to take a comparative approach. But first, let me say: I don’t believe it is possible to live in society without stereotypes, especially in a pluralistic democracy. For a stereotype is the mechanism the mind uses to process the universe, to make it coherent through the use of categories. Young and old, liberal and conservative, fat and thin, tall and short, bright and ignorant… We all depend on these reductive types. In a democracy made of a plurality of selves, the stereotype is the mechanism through which we digest the background, the ancestry of those around us: Italians, Jews, Asians, Blacks, Irish, Mexican…

What is the difference between a type, a prototype, an archetype, and a stereotype? They are all variations on the same theme, although the variation entails a degree of excess, perhaps even abuse. A type is a simple category; a prototype is a typical or preliminary model of something; an archetype is an original that has been imitated; and a stereotype is a wildly-held but oversimplified image of a person or a thing.

Stereotypes are the food of parody because parody depends on accepted, often-misconstrued knowledge. To see a thing parodied, the viewer must have a referent, e.g., that which is being ridiculed. In photography, the device builds on prior visuals, even when that knowledge is partial. I admire two photographers whose work I describe as parody: Hank Willis Thomas, who is African-American and Adál, from Puerto Rico. Willis Thomas’ image Smokin’ Joe Ain’t J’mama, for instance, is an injunction on how race is perceived in America. It comments on the way the big black woman in the Aunt Jemima pancake brand is seen as appealing. The brand was inspired in a popular 19th-century song, “Old Aunt Jemima,” supposedly composed in 1875 by the minstrel show performer Billy Kersands, although it has been argued—by Sterling Stuckey—that the lyrics actually come from slave songs. ¨The monkey dressed in soldier clothes,/ Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!¨

The artist replaces the face of Aunt Jemima with that of a black man who sits in front of pancakes, syrup, butter, and a glass of milk. Wearing a green sweater and an unshaved look, he wears a grandma’s colonial hat. What’s the effect? Our response is automatic. There is something placid, even anachronistic about the pose. Unlike black women, black men are perceived as threatening. Indeed, this man has his right fist up, in a sign of defiance. He doesn’t look at us hoping to offer comfort but, instead, offers a gesture that is between aggressive and bewildered. Is he ready to smile? Might he attack us?

The meaning of the photograph changes, or rather, it becomes apparent, when we decode its title: Smoking Joe is the boxer Joe Frazier, known as Smokin’ Joe, whose face is used in the image.

-Ilan Stavans

Next Article, Picturing Diversity: I Am Stereotype (part 2-b).

Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators, is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College-Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish(2003), Love and Language (2007), and Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (2010), Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots (Rutgers, 2012), and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic, 2012, with Steve Sheinkin). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda(2003), the 3-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories (2004), Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (2009), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), and The FSG Books of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry (2011), and a guest writer for Nueva Luz, volume 10#1 (2004).

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