11 Racist Caricatures Infesting Popular Culture

When I was little, my mom wants a Picaninny doll. I had no idea what they were, but the word was odd and sounded sort of cute. That’s what it’s like being a little white girl: racist caricatures that harm other people didn’t strike me as wrong. I had no idea they had anything to do with race, much less that they were based on horrible stereotypes.

Image shows an ad for Picaninny Freeze. A drawing of a black child with enormous lips and a huge slice of watermelon is being used to sell the product.
This ad from 1922 is incredibly racist… and people like my mother didn’t get that even recently. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Deeceevoice

There are all sorts of caricatures that infest our culture. If you’re not the target of the caricature, you can easily miss the racist connotations. You can be oblivious to the messages being sent, the harm they do, and the way they perpetuate the othering of black people. You can unthinkingly perpetuate racist stereotypes, have your opinion colored by them, even if you’re staunchly anti-racism.

Tony recently curated a series explaining eleven of these caricatures. I urge you all to read about them. In becoming more aware of them, we can avoid perpetuating them, and push back when others use them.

The Coon.

Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people).  This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner.  One such racist caricature is ‘The Coon’…

The Nat.

Sambo was a devoted house servant; Nat, an angry field hand. Sambo’s love for his “master” was all-consuming; Nat hated his enslaver. Sambo often gave his life to protect his master; Nat wanted to kill his enslaver.

The Jezebel.

The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel.

The Brute.

When reading this, I ask you to think about the critics of 18 year old Michael Brown.  Think of the people who claimed that he was a hulking brute who’s very size was a threat to Officer Darren Wilson.   Think of how Brown’s size was used to justify Wilson’s fear and subsequent actions, including his murder of Brown.

The Sapphire.

The Sapphire Caricature portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing. This is the Angry Black Woman (ABW) popularized in the cinema and on television. She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing white women.


(Incidentally, this post showcases why Tony is one of the most awesome humans in existence, and exemplifies what we should all do when running across unfamiliar tropes that are pissing off a particular group:

There are many people out there who don’t understand what’s wrong with the A[ngry]B[lack]W[oman trope].  Prior to writing this post, even I was largely ignorant of the trope. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know its history. This is one of the many ways that I, as a man, am privileged.  When I read that black women were pissed that she employed this stereotype, my first reaction was “Ok, this is a problem. I need to understand why”, which led to this post.

Tony, you are made of awesome!)

The Tragic Mulatto.

A century later literary and cinematic portrayals of the tragic mulatto emphasized her personal pathologies: self-hatred, depression, alcoholism, sexual perversion, and suicide attempts being the most common. If light enough to “pass” as white, she did, but passing led to deeper self-loathing. She pitied or despised blacks and the “blackness” in herself; she hated or feared whites yet desperately sought their approval. In a race-based society, the tragic mulatto found peace only in death. She evoked pity or scorn, not sympathy.

The Picaninny.

The picaninny caricature shows black children as either poorly dressed, wearing ragged, torn, old and oversized clothes, or, and worse, they are shown as nude or near-nude. This nudity suggests that black children, and by extension black parents, are not concerned with modesty. The nudity also implies that black parents neglect their children. A loving parent would provide clothing. The nudity of black children suggests that blacks are less civilized than whites (who wear clothes).

The Mammy.

From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks — in this case, black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.

(Oh, yeah, I remember this caricature being used to sell my family’s favorite syrup. Makes me shudder now.)

The Golliwog.

The Golliwog (originally spelled Golliwogg) is the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States. Golliwogs are grotesque creatures, with very dark, often jet black skin, large white-rimmed eyes, red or white clown lips, and wild, frizzy hair. Typically, it’s a male dressed in a jacket, trousers, bow tie, and stand-up collar in a combination of red, white, blue, and occasionally yellow colors. The golliwog image, popular in England and other European countries, is found on a variety of items, including postcards, jam jars, paperweights, brooches, wallets, perfume bottles, wooden puzzles, sheet music, wall paper, pottery, jewelry, greeting cards, clocks, and dolls. For the past four decades Europeans have debated whether the Golliwog is a lovable icon or a racist symbol.

The Tom.

The Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, like the Mammy caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies), were contented and loyal? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve. Unlike the Brute, the Tom is docile and non-threatening to whites. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on whites for approval.

The Nigger.

The racial hierarchy, which began during slavery and extended into the Jim Crow period, has been severely eroded by a civil rights movement, landmark Supreme Court decisions, a black empowerment movement, comprehensive civil rights legislation, and a general embracing of democratic principles by many American citizens. Yet, the word nigger has not died. The relationship between the word nigger and anti-black prejudice is symbiotic: that is, they are interrelated and interconnected, yet, ironically, not automatically interdependent. In other words, a racist society created nigger and continues to feed and sustain it; however, the word no longer needs racism, at least brutal and obvious forms, to exist. Nigger now has a life of its own.

Image is a British Crown poster in dark brown with the words Keep Calm and End Racist Caricatures.

11 Racist Caricatures Infesting Popular Culture

10 thoughts on “11 Racist Caricatures Infesting Popular Culture

  1. 2

    “I had no idea they had anything to do with race”
    I think that in the past this was a major factor. I grew up in the UK (born in 1947, when we still had an empire :-) ) and (in spite of the empire thing) I don’t think I saw a non-white person in our country town until I was maybe 18! In fact I don’t think I’d actually seen anyone who didn’t look more-or-less like me in the flesh (as distinct from a few in the movies or books or telly)!!! Things like the Robertson’s Golly were just things, I think I would have been surprised if someone had suggested that it represented a person (though I suppose we all knew that it did, it just wouldn’t have come up).

  2. 3

    The Jezebel is particularly pernicious. It’s not just a caricature, it is a way of viewing black women that is still too prevalent, and causes things like some whites assuming any black woman is a prostitute.
    And it’s the complement of the idea that black men are sexual predators.

  3. 4

    For the past four decades Europeans have debated whether the Golliwog is a lovable icon or a racist symbol.

    Meanwhile, the lovable Washington Redskins …

    When I was a kid I grew up reading a lot of Tintin. And, if I may say, it did not age very well; I was horrified when I was an adult to realize what a ton of stereotypical swill was going on below my childhood’s radar screen. Tintin in The Congo was – really really upsetting to look at as an adult, but generally every one of the books has a huge amount of racist content. I wonder if they are even still in publication.

  4. 5

    these posts on the racial caricatures made me hate Jar Jar Binks even more.

    AAAAGUUGGUGUGUHHHH!!! I had managed to finally rinse that out of my brain and you brought it back!!!

    Thank goodness George Lucas has been put out to pasture, finally.

  5. 7

    About 10 years ago I first heard of Tintin from someone who had encountered the books in Belgium. The books still are printed, but “Tintin in the Congo” comes with a ‘danger: full of offensive racial stereotypes ahead’ disclaimer, at least in the editions that I have seen.

  6. rq

    They are. But as mentioned, ‘Tintin in the Congo’ comes slightly separate from the rest of the series, as does ‘Tintin in the Land of the Soviets’ – that’s a rare one, too, but I’m not sure why.
    And yes, they have their good side, but… so much problematic material, seeing them as an adult.

  7. 10

    Confirmed – I had exactly the same experience in rural France and UK, even though I was born in 1970. I remember the Robertson’s Golly and had no idea of it representing a person. Incidentally, I also remember reading Huckleberry Finn when I was eight, abridged and translated into French, and understanding the word ‘noir’ (black) as meaning a black-haired white man.

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