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Performing Racial Stereotype

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Course Description

This class engages how writers and directors of color have included racial and/ or racist stereotypes in their texts in an effort to expose their absurdity, and by extension the absurdity of race in the United States. What are the origins of stereotypes? How have these pathologies come to circulate? And what does it mean for authors to include and reclaim them? We will look at literature, film, photography, and historical records to arrive at a robust understanding of how race is made—and remade—in the United States.

In Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, a television executive develops a “modern minstrel show” featuring black actors in blackface. In Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, a black academic decides to write a parody of a ghetto novel out of frustration with the publishing landscape. In the 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, a character named Chin-Kee is a composite of all racial stereotypes about Asian Americans, both the model minority and the coolie. We see some of these return in the television series Fresh Off The Boat. Why do these authors incorporate these depictions? And how do they work to make visible the racial logics of the US?

In this class we will investigate the origins of such stereotypes in biological theories about racial difference, in economic interests translated into law, in profound anxieties about demographic changes, and in toxic investments in whiteness. We will then move on to explore how authors of color have sought to rewrite these stereotypes. This move between a historical archive and a literary/visual archive will provide students with the interpretative framework to see how stereotypes that originated centuries ago persist and circulate today—they haunt these cultural productions.

We will end with a section on how others have tried to seize readily recognizable racial scripts and use them for personal gain—we will read Nell Zink’s 2015 novel Mislaid, in which a white mother and her daughter pass as black to take advantage of welfare loops. We will also read essays by contemporary cultural critics like Kevin Young, Allyson Hobbs, and Jesmyn Ward on figures like Rachel Dolezal. The variety of texts covered will provide student with critical reading skills and visual analysis skills.

This is also a writing-intensive course where students will improve their academic writing skills and learn how to craft an argument using original research. Students will learn a range of research methods, such as how to navigate historical databases like the Library of Congress or ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and how to identify primary sources.

By the end of the class, students will be able to

  • identify some of the most prevalent and pernicious racial stereotypes and be familiar with their origins;
  • grasp how racial stereotypes and racial codes circulate in US society—how they are not just present in popular culture, but codified in laws, regulations, affect economic opportunities;
  • see connections between racial stereotypes discussed and the current societal landscape and media landscape, where orientalist and racist depictions still severely limit opportunities for actors of color

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