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During the war period, with all the propagandas and the alliances, the model of immigration for both Canadian and American nationalism was shaped towards a pursuit of a White identity; one that represented only one culture, one race, and one political view. The retrospect consequence of such nationalistic identity became evident for minorities such as the Japanese, Chinese, Blacks, Aboriginals, and women, who were legally margionalized by exclusion acts, immigration, and relocation policies. While the 1960s has brought forth immense progression for many of these groups such as affirmative action plans, civil rights, and feminist movements, there remain nevertheless persisting challenges that exist in the uneven power exchange of these ethnic minorities. Historically, immigration policies and state sanctioned slavery have had far reaching ramifications upon one particular ethnic group: African Americans. This paper will argue that the underpinning of 'blackness' associated with the African American identity is based on a model of white supremacy and a diverting media representation of black ethnicity which has allowed the maintenance of a racialized hierarchy.
Race has played an obvious role in the policies of the past and while 1960s has marked the beginning of change, authentic expressions of black identity have and continue to be a dilemma for African-Americans. This paper will explore how the contemporary black experience is distorted and rendered complex through the promulgation of media representations of ethnicity, hidden discriminatory policies, powerful racial discourse (based on stereotyping and essentializing a group of people according to racial characteristics), as well as the advent of gangster rap.
The media is a culture system that not only controls and shapes attitudes and beliefs held in society but it also redefines our understandings of 'race'. For a majority of people who do not have a direct experience with black culture, their attitudes towards black identity may be primarily granted upon media representations. Media plays a critical role in systematically filtering the content and information exposed to the public. This propaganda manipulation regulates social and political views that are ideologically motivated by a particular way of thinking about certain types of racial groups. This is evident when one examines the case of Percy Paris. In 2007, Percy Paris, a black MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for Nova Scotia had reported that he felt discriminated against in the legislature due to his racial profile. Local news media covered his story by interviewing two former black MLA members separately, in order to investigate if the on-going accusations were also evident in their experiences at the legislatures (Steward, 29). Following an official investigation launched by the Speaker of Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly, the media's position on Paris' story took on a different position. His allegations were downplayed and an onus on his lack inexperience in dealing with stress and schedule as well as his misinterpretation of his fellow peers' racial comments were the causes of his 'false' allegations (Stewart, 30). Essentially, the media cleverly succeeded in shifting the blame of structural racism from the system itself to the individual (Stewart, 30). The media thus portrayed Paris as the person at fault rather than contesting the undeniable and inherent existence of structural racism within our institutions.
It is then not surprising to state that the image of 'blackness' embedded into the streams of our contemporary mass media communications are often conflicted and misunderstood. Blackness encompasses a myriad of experiences that are culturally constructed and positioned in specific historical contexts. Media portrayals of 'race' do not accurately represent the social reality of black culture but rather they project a specific way of thinking about blackness that remains in accordance to dominant ideological and economic imperatives (Stewart, 30). This is evident when one examines the shift of definitions associated around what it meant to be African-American during colonialism and subsequently after, during post-colonial era. For instance, during the first centuries of colonialism, white people had constructed and imposed their own definitions of 'blackness'. Embedded by stereotypes and Eurocentric racism, all African Americans were labelled as savages, uncivilized and even cannibalistic. By the end of the 19th century, with the dissolution of colonial practices taking place through the process of decolonization, the definition of being African-American once again took on a different connotation.
In television and films, minstrel shows' depiction of traditional 'blackface' characters such as coons and Aunt Jemima became the anchors of explicitly opprobrious stereotypical portrayals of African American blacks. Through concealing practices of codes and covertly assigning particular inferior social roles to black entertainers, mass media had once more succeed in shaping an identity of blackness understood only through dominant perceptions. The construction of such racial images was not simply a result of political or economical initiatives but also functioned as a hegemonic tool to sustain an assigned social hierarchy in place. The formulation of black stereotypes established by a white majority further reinforced Edward Said's principle of Orientalism. Stereotypical portrayals of blacks in the media served as a means for creating a Self and Other dichotomy where the inescapable process of labelling black identity as 'Other' was explicitly evident (Said, 3). The 'othering' of the black race functioned as a hegemonic tool sustaining power relations in place and preventing African Americans from excelling beyond the established preconditions already assigned for them (Said, 3 ). Thus, due to the inconsistency and lack of proper representation, black identity was often limited, distorted, and degraded by whites.
Indeed, it is under such dissatisfactory pretences that a rising demand for increased black representation during the late 70s prompted a shift in the way black identity was articulated in the media and as well as within communities. Tricia Rose's chapter excerpts of her book, further explains how the streets in the South Bronx during the 70s became a place of gathering, where black artists with different talents began to creating identities for themselves (Rose, 3 ). The South Bronx was a predominantly black and Hispanic neighbourhood and later with the construction of the expressway, thousands of homes were demolished and the area was devaluated into what is known as the 'ghettos" (Rose, 12). Being black was not longer associated with a racial affiliation but was emblematic of a political movement that fought for the liberation of African American. The erroneous generalizations imposed upon African Americans from those outside the race were undermined and the idea of reclaiming one's 'manhood' assumed prominence. Hip hop was a response to these structural barriers that were put in place for these minorities living in those ghettos (Rose, 1). Similar to the Blues and jazz, hip- hop emerged in connection the Civil Right movement, perpetuating a progressive and anti-racist sentiment through music.
Today's contemporary discourse on black identity is reflective of a preceding black masculinity produced and circulated throughout the Civil Right movement. The definition of a black man has extended into a range of racial representations that have reshaped the complexity of what it means to be 'black' in the public sphere. Contemporary representations have thus served as to challenge the narrow repertoire of black representation once imposed by earlier stereotypes. With celebrations of diversity and differences as its central components, these contemporary images have strived to provide a more equitable and racial representation. Yet while black masculinity under our current context has worked to challenge and disturb the racial constructions of blackness; it has also reproduced familiar patriarchal and heterosexual basis of masculine privileges (Rose, 16). In principle, notions of diversity were suppose to embrace the wide range of racial representations of black identity but rather conversely, they have indeed produced newer and more complex racist images that not only propagate existing stereotypes but have created new one as well.
Rose talks about how the blues and jazz were a form of resistance to the Jim Crow laws that were put in place and thus music became an avenue for those segregated to be heard, to evoke some form of revolt against the circumstances that they have experienced and continue to experience. In the late 70s and early 80s, hip-hop was born and it paved the way for a new form of music narrative. Artists like Dj Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five brought forth strong lyrical commentaries on drugs, poverty, and social issues that their communities were facing (Rose, 35). In the 90s, rap took a shift towards authoritarian critics, with rappers like Run DMC commenting on police and the social institutions that stereotyped and racialized black males (Rose, 36). However contemporary rap's significance and purpose is no longer a political one but has shifted more towards an economical imperative (Coates). The advent of 'gangsta rap' in the late 80s and early 90s gave rise to constructed stereotypes about black masculinity, gun culture, violence; enfeeble sexist commentaries, as well as street experiences (Coates). The peculiar and inverted glorification of lower-class reality in gangsta rap was supposed to give the public a glimpse into the world of impoverished streets and daily struggles overcome by low income black folks (Coates). However, while representations of the ghetto life may perhaps have been authentic in the past, they currently do not accurately reflect the conditions of the ghetto (Coates). Indeed, there seems to be as an 'exotification of the ghetto' that has taken place, where the fascination and fear associated with the ghetto are continuously exploited and sold into commodity forms to rap audience (Coates).
The cultural effects of these dominant representations of black identity are both complex and disturbing. Blackness encompasses a variety of different representations yet under the context of the media; understandings of being black are often associated with masculinity (Hooks, 147). This further marginalizes and embeds generalizations within the black community itself. Certain behaviours, ways of speaking, social practices, even gender affirmations have become deemed part of the central tenets that define contemporary black identity. These normative criterions of blackness do not however conform or resonate with the voices of more those black individuals who do not fit into under the umbrella of the new masculine definition of blackness (Hook, 140). Alienation of black gay man from black communities is an example of some of the complex ways in which the contemporary representations of black identity fails to take in account other lived experiences that also embody a black experience but do not necessarily fit into fixed binary categorizations (Hooks, 140). Bell Hook also uses the conflicting and lack of representation of black gay men in their community as an example of the ways in which the media can neglect or under represented certain categories that do not compel with normative conventions (Hooks, 148). Taking the documentary 'Paris is Burning' as an example, she argues that even documentaries can unintentionally project 'a cultural arrogance' that may not accurately comply or embody a true representation of these individuals' experiences (Hooks, 152). Bell Hooks criticizes Jennie Livingston's 'Paris is Burning' documentary by arguing that the filmmaker's white lesbian and female position actually shaped and formed the perspective and lenses through which the lives of black gay were presented in the film. Livingston assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way counter hegemonic to way whiteness represents blackness but instead further aggravates it. Therefore, a genuine representation of what blackness and black masculinity truly represents is hard to capture simply because the very concept of black identity is itself multiple, fluid, and contested.
In conclusion, this paper has attempted to shed light on the complex nature of black identity in our current era. It has canvassed a discursive narrative that further confronted the various dimensions in which black identity has been constructed and rearticulated through the media and in society. The black body is celebrated and exotified in the world of hip-hop. It is also policed as a social threat because it transgresses and challenges previously assigned social roles and stereotypes put in place by white dominant culture. Nevertheless, while it disturbs and questions racial and class constructions of blackness, it also incubates and reinforces hierarchal structures of power that further divide, marginalize, and complicate representations of what it truly means to be an African- American person. This paper has forced us to consider race complicity beyond the fixed categories put in place in society and has pushed us to come in terms with contradictions