The Value (?) of Stereotypes

I found the “Negritude” component of the presentation yesterday to be the most fascinating; elements of the phenomenon described seem to have evolved since Black Skin, White Masks  into what today is black pride. That Fanon believes such attitudes counterproductive to producing conducive racial discourse was surprising, but upon hearing the “existence precedes essence” reasoning, it does make sense. Still, would black pride be locking black people into images and stereotypes that are ultimately derogatory? Or is it so fundamentally different from the Negritude described that that is no longer the case? Or is Fanon, in any case, wrong?

Thinking of questions reminds me of some aspects of humour and parody with racial undertones. The skits performed by the comediennes Key and Peele come to mind. I watched one in which they claimed to “adjust the amount of blackness” depending on the ethnicities of their company; claims that appeal to perceptions the collective hold about black and white people. These are perceptions that are rooted in stereotypes and mass culture–that we know what they are talking about–does this mean we are unable to truly eradicate belief and adherence to these stereotypes? “Black humour” and cultural practices such as black people using the N-word among themselves–these seem to be cathartic processes, an erasure of past pains by making them ridiculous, or a subjugation of the power of that word by invoking its historical black-white relation–“humour as tragedy plus time” come to life. Would such humour be part of the solution? I do not know, and whether it contributes to the easing of racial tensions seems to be presumptuous criteria for judging its value.

As some have already mentioned, I feel vaguely uncomfortable and/or patronizing expressing my thoughts.

One thought on “The Value (?) of Stereotypes

  1. Christina Hendricks

    I am not certain I’ve got Fanon’s attitude towards negritude exactly right; he seems to have a conflicted view, actually, which I didn’t have time to get to in lecture (I’ll talk about it in seminar). I think what he is concerned about is not the idea that one should have a positive sense of one’s ethnic identity, but rather the idea that there might be some essential identity that one should take on, that one can glean from the past of African cultures (which is what some proponents of negritude seem to have tried to put forward). Negritude need not lock people into stereotypes that are negative, but it can lock people into a sense that there is some type of identity they ought to have because of the colour of their skin. There’s nothing wrong with pride about who one is, but thinking one has to be one way rather than another is, on my interpretation of Fanon, the problem.

    I understand the feeling of vague discomfort (or perhaps specific discomfort)–I just wrote a long comment on Lindsay’s blog post saying that I’ll quote below, just because it’s relevant to your last line too. Sorry to be not original in this part of the comment, but I’m not sure I could say it much differently than this!

    “There are some people who argue that those who are on the “oppressors” side, even if they have the best intentions in the world, shouldn’t really try to write or speak about the experiences of the oppressed because they can’t possibly understand them. I think the last part, that I cant’ understand them, is probably true. And there is a danger in those among the dominant groups taking the voice away from the dominated, not allowing them to speak but taking over once again. That’s what I worry about. Nevertheless, I think that these issues are so important that they must be discussed, and I just try to be as careful as I can not to suggest that I know what it’s like or what ought to be done.

    I also think that having allies in men, for feminists, or in other dominant groups, for others who experience oppression, can be useful. It shows that the various forms of oppression are not things that only the oppressed are concerned about, that those from the dominant group also care and do what they can to try to address them–all the while recognizing that theirs should not be the only or last voice.

    It’s a tough balance, for sure. And not everyone will agree with me that it is of some value to have those in the dominant group raise and discuss issues of oppression that they themselves may contribute to (whether knowing it or not). And that’s fair.”

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