Race and Representation

I don’t think I’ve given YouTube and some of the other web video portals their just due as pedagogical tools.

However, my class this week focuses on the representations of African-Americans in the media over the past 100 years. I showed my students a clip of failed “American Idol” contestant Larry Platt’s “Pants on the Ground,” which has become a web hit and was even imitated by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre following his team’s win.

But the spectacle of “Pants on the Ground” shows how exaggerations of Otherness have been popular in the age of the Internet. Platt’s song and dance routine was reminiscent of some of the minstrel shows of the early 20th century, and, as a result, it carries some strong ideological implications.

One of these implications is the fact that minorities often must exaggerate stereotypes or play up (or down) to assumptions of behavior. Having studied Southern Black masculinity as part of my dissertation research, I can vouch for the fact that Platt embodied some of the most caricatured aspects of Southern Black men.

Many of my students, who hail from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, were just as offended by this representation, perhaps because of their own geographically based notions of identity.

But Platt’s buffoonery is similar to the exaggerations of Otherness that are quite common in mainstream media. For example, Metro PCS is airing an ad featuring two heavily accented Indian tech guys discussing a new cell phone. These images play to the stereotypes of the geeky Indian immigrant and reaffirm popular conceptions of the emasculated Indian male. Similarly, former “American Idol” contestant William Hung became a best-selling singer by playing to American stereotypes of East Asian men.

These exaggerations of identity can have a devastating impact on our conceptualizations of race and identity. I’ve tried to tell my students that there are still many non-Blacks who base their perceptions of Black America purely on what they consume through mass media. A steady diet of Larry Platt and BET videos would probably leave an outsider a strongly stereotypical opinion of African Americans.

I think we as educators need to highlight how these spectacles of Otherness play into our daily discourse and intergroup communications. Through these clips, my students are beginning to understand just how much they internalize without critically interpreting the content they consume.

Thanks to Larry Platt, perhaps we can pull our pants up and actually have substantive conversations on race and identity.