Media and Ethnic Stereotyping

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DOI: 10.1002/9781118978238.ieml0109
In book: The International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy, Publisher: Blackwell/International Communication Association, pp.1-7
Cite this publication
Media and popular culture often serve as sites for the creation and perpetuation of negative ethnic stereotypes. Social cognitive theory, priming, and script theory explain that repeated omission, misrepresentation, and trivialization of minorities in the media have important implications for identity formation and intergroup relations. Biased media portrayals influence how marginalized groups understand and negotiate their identities, perceived self‐worth, and belongingness in society. They also impact dominant group members' social judgments, racial beliefs, prejudices, and policy opinions. Media literacy education can help audiences recognize and critique ethnic stereotypes in the media. Furthermore, it can challenge and counter harmful stereotypes by promoting alternative counterstereotypes, participatory media, and positive storytelling.
The International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy
Media and Ethnic Stereotyping
Srividya Ramasubramanian
Texas A&M University
Alexandra Sousa
Texas A&M University
Word Count: __2770______ (includes main text, cross-references, references, and further
readings; excludes headword, abstract, author biography, and keywords)
This entry explores the ways in which media lead to the creation and reproduction of
stereotypical representations of racially/ethnically marginalized groups, along with how media
literacy initiatives can be used to combat these biased representations. Media priming and role
modeling are used to show how harmful effects of racial and ethnic stereotypical representations
impact both marginalized and dominant groups. Media literacy and participatory media are
presented as ways in which racial and ethnic stereotypes in the media can be challenged.
Successful media literacy and participatory media initiatives are used to critique current
mainstream media stereotypes and explore future directions for the scholarship on media and
ethnic stereotyping.
Keywords: prejudice, race and ethnicity, racism, cultural diversity, participatory media
While media remains an important tool for disseminating information and connecting
people, it is also the site of harmful racial and ethnic stereotyping. Scholars have recognized the
role that the media plays in the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes for many groups, not
only in the United States, but also around the world. These stereotypes not only contribute to
how members of underrepresented groups negotiate their identities, self-worth and
belongingness, but also impact how dominant groups manage their own perceptions of
racial/ethnic minorities and make race-based decisions and social judgments. Understanding the
implications of media messages can help audiences recognize harmful ethnic stereotyping and
begin to construct ways to counteract it. Media literacy and participatory media initiatives are
some of the ways in which these harmful stereotypes are being challenged.
Effects of Racial and Ethnic Media Stereotyping
Media narratives provide significant information about race and culture across ethnic
groups and powerfully shape ideas about inter-ethnic and inter-racial relations (Tukachinsky,
Mastro, & Yarchi, 2015). One of the first steps towards countering ethnic stereotypes in the
media is by becoming conscious of how media represents these groups in biased ways. Racial
and ethnic minority groups are often positioned as “the other,” exotic and/or mediocre
counterparts meant to further bolster White characters and storylines. Between sensationalized
media coverage of incidents of police brutality to the disproportionate number of Black
characters who are cast as criminals, representations of these groups remain limited and harmful
(Dixon & Linz, 2000). Black women are set within a restricted set of roles, ranging from the
boisterous “mammy,” to the stereotypical welfare queen and also the hypersexualized jezebel.
Latino males find themselves posited as “macho” criminals and of limited intelligence, while
Latinas become over-sexualized and are depicted as loud and threatening to their majority
counterparts. Even though these characters are becoming more visible, stereotypes become more
engrained if not challenged (Mastro, Behm-Morawitz, & Kopacz, 2008). Historically, Asians are
portrayed in mainstream media as the perpetual foreigner, the exotic geisha or China doll, yellow
peril, and hardworking, polite model minorities (Mok, 1998). Representations of the Third World
and Global South in Western narratives similarly take a Eurocentric, orientalist approach by
presenting people from these areas as wild, uncivilized, and exotic, while contrasting them to
Western characters as heroic saviors (Shohat & Stam, 1994). Because of these stereotypical
representations, youth from minority/marginalized groups are left without sufficient role models
in the media.
Ethnic stereotyping in the media can impact identity formation for members of
underrepresented groups and also skews the perceptions of minorities for dominant groups also
exposed to the same limited representations. Scholars suggest that racial and ethnic stereotypes
in the media can prime majority White audiences to have negative stereotypes, social judgments,
prejudicial feelings, and even decreased race-based policy support (Gilliam & Iyengar, 2000;
Oliver & Fonash, 2002). Youth and adolescents are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects
of media stereotyping because they are in a period of identity development. Bandura’s social
cognitive theory has defined these effects and helped scholars explore how mediated characters
affect their young real-life viewers. Media has a tangible effect on how people perceive the real
world and the judgments they develop about certain groups of people because of the mental
models that they create (Mastro et al., 2008). Because the media has become a central tool in
helping adolescents shape and negotiate their identities, the effects of limited and negative
representations of race/ethnicity in the media can be detrimental. If minorities continue to be
marginalized and tokenized, these images also contribute to youth’s perception of how they
should act, not only because of their race, but also gender. Recent research suggests that
exposure to positive portrayals and counter-stereotypes can help negate the effects of harmful
media stereotypes. Vicarious positive mediated contact with ethnic/racial minorities are able to
bring about more sympathetic and supportive attitudes towards them. Specifically, exposure to
admirable positive media celebrities from racial/ethnic outgroups can lead to lowering of
racial/ethnic prejudice and increase support for policies such as affirmative action
(Ramasubramanian, 2015).
While most of the research on effects of racial and ethnic stereotypes in the media are
focused on White majority audiences, some other studies also examine how they shape ethnic
minority audiences. Script theory also becomes applicable in studying the effects of media in this
scenario. Scripts are knowledge and memory structures that we are exposed to and teach us what
is normal and comfortable for different people. People are drawn to familiar ideas and images,
which create scripts they use to respond to similar situations. These ideas are often tied to deeply-
rooted cultural and social scripts. Repeated exposure to the same scripts and stereotypes, therefore,
becomes hard to resist and help set the scripts we create for ourselves. These perceptions help
maintain harmful stereotypes in social hierarchies and work against efforts toward racial equality.
Media Literacy and Racial/Ethnic Stereotype Reduction
Although there are multiple avenues for addressing these types of abuses in the media,
media literacy remains one of the most effective and least controversial solutions. Media literacy
is widely defined as “the ability to analyze, access, and produce media in a variety of forms”
(Livingstone, 2004, p. 5). Media literacy assumes that messages are constructed for persuasive
purposes and are interpreted differently because of embedded values within particular groups.
Engaging in media literacy education teaches audiences to be more responsible and conscious
consumers. Countering the negative effects of racial and ethnic media stereotyping is one of the
goals of media literacy training. Often, such media literacy interventions start by encouraging
audiences to question and critically engage with media stereotypes.
Some scholars have made a distinction between the benefits of the production aspects of
media literacy and intervention-oriented media literacy education initiatives. Using a cultural
studies approach, the former focuses on what audiences do with media, while the latter takes a
media effects approach that is concerned with what media does to audiences. Scharrer (2007)
synthesizes the media effects and cultural studies approaches and defines media literacy as
fostering “critical thinking and discussion of media-related issues, including how media
messages are created, marketed, distributed as well as their potential influence (or how they are
received)” (p. 355). In practice, media literacy initiatives combine both of these approaches to
create alternative spaces that counter mainstream media. Ramasubramanian (2007) proposes a
two-pronged method that combines a message-centered approach (such as exposure to counter-
stereotypical narratives) and an audience-centered approach (such as motivating audiences to
develop critical thinking skills) to effectively combat implicit racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Research on the effects that media literacy initiatives have on reducing and combating
racial/ethnic stereotypes is sparse. Scharrer and Ramasubramanian (2015) provide an overview
of quantitative and qualitative research on media literacy initiatives relating to race and ethnicity.
For instance, Cole, Arafat, Tidhar, Tafesh, Fox, Killen, and Richman (2003) conducted a study
using positive Sesame Street video clips to reduce ethnic stereotypes between Israeli and
Palestinian youth and Gorn, Goldberg, and Kanungo (1976) examined the effects of similar clips
to study the willingness of White kids to play with non-White ones, in a Canadian context.
Hobbs and colleagues (2010) show that children are able to develop visual literacy skills and
conduct their own research to counter ethnic stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Easterners in
popular films such as Aladdin. In a rare study that involved older adults, Moffitt and Harris
(2014) conducted focus group discussions with Black girls and their mothers to understand sexist
and racist portrayals of African-Americans in the Princess and the Frog. Researchers working
with Latino/a youth show that participation in media literacy programs help them recognize
media stereotypes of their group and also feel motivated to engage in specific actions to counter
them (Vargas, 2006; Yosso, 2002).
Some researchers offer guidelines on how to effectively incorporate popular media such
as hip-hop, music videos, and video games into their existing curriculum, in order to highlight
racism and ethnic discrimination (Childs, 2014). Others have incorporated media literacy
education into after-school programs, such as the Media Minds curriculum (Owusu, 2010). At
the college level, Kavoori (2007) describes the Thinking Television Project that uses research
methods and critical media literacy to systematically engage students in conversations about how
to deconstruct media texts about African-Americans, link them to historical conditions, and to
wider sociological issues such as capitalism. In terms of transcultural media literacy initiatives,
some studies demonstrate that wishful identification with popular characters in Japanese anime
and Korean soap dramas help to break down ethnic stereotypes of American fan audiences (Kim,
Participatory Media and Alternative Storytelling
As the definition of media literacy also reveals, understanding the effects of media goes
beyond analyzing its content, but also producing content. Scholars such as Nakamura (2007)
suggest that instead of creating democratic spaces for equal participation, a colorblind Internet
tends to replicate real-world hegemony. Therefore, critical participatory media initiatives have to
collectively resist such hegemonic racial discourses online by creating alternative positive and
diverse stories and building social connections for greater solidarity (Santoy, 2013). Participatory
media empowers individuals to construct representations that better represent them, foster social
equity, and allow youth to become engaged citizens. Examples include blogs, podcasts, digital
storytelling, and sharing music, photos and video. By putting media tools into the hands of those
groups who traditionally have been silenced in the mainstream media, it counteracts not only the
negative representations that are prevalent, but also the detrimental effects that result. This
concept has become the foundation for many organizations and initiatives that use media to
counteract and challenge harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream media.
Participatory media sets the stage for producing counter-stereotypes, as well as fresh and
accurate representations. Certain organizations are adhering to the principles of media literacy
and participatory media, and are addressing ethnic stereotyping head-on, through the critique and
creation of media. These initiatives illustrate how media literacy can be used to make a
difference and change the media landscape.
Participatory media gives marginalized groups the ability to challenge and resist common
cultural stereotypes. This is the central mission of the Philadelphia-based initiative FAAN Mail, a
media literacy and activism project designed to give women of color a voice. It not only
recognizes that accurate and diverse representations of Black women are often missing from the
mainstream, but important issues that affect these groups are missing from the general
conversation happening in the media. It has even piloted a youth media program for girls, Sisters
Action Media. Similarly, Santoy (2013) describes how three Chicana bloggers use online spaces
to assert their ethnic identities through active participation that celebrates the creativity of
women of color. Latinitas, an Austin-based initiative, is a non-profit that empowers young
Latinas through the use of media and technology. The organization began by creating the first
online magazine produced by and for Latina girls, but now has workshops on technology and
media tools, an interactive blog, conferences, and a strong presence on social media. Question
Bridge is another example of a transmedia, community-based participatory project that uses
multiple media formats, such as geo-location hotspots, videos, and art installations, to resist and
redefine Black masculinity (Ramasubramanian, 2016). Central to this collaborative participatory
art initiative are video-based dialogic exchanges amongst anyone who self-identifies as a Black
male. This type of identity mapping using self-generated tags leads to unique visual mapping of
the dynamic and diverse nature of Black masculinity.
Media is often the source of harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes, which can negatively
impact intergroup relations and attitudes between majority and minority ethnic groups. However,
media literacy and participatory media can be used to promote responsible consumption and
production of racial and ethnic representations. Media initiatives in the United States and around
the world are using media to empower underrepresented and misrepresented groups and giving
them the ability to engage and create media that expresses the true scope of their diverse
Representation of ethnicity; Representation of Race, Stereotype Threat; Critical pedagogy;
digital divide; digital storytelling; emancipatory communication
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Americans. Cultural Diversity and Mental Health, 4, 185-202.
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Oliver, M. B., & Fonash, D. (2009). Race and crime in the news: Whites’ identification and
misidentification of violent and nonviolent criminal suspects. Media Psychology, 4(2),
Owusu, S. (2010). Using media literacy to combat racism. Youth Media Reporter, 4, 15-18.
Ramasubramanian, S. (2007). Media-based strategies to reduce racial stereotypes activated by
news stories. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 84 (2), 249-264.
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Further Readings
Scharrer, E. & Ramasubramanian, S. (2015). Intervening in the media’s influence on stereotypes
of race and ethnicity: The role of media literacy. Journal of Social Issues, 71 (1), 171-
185. doi: 10.1111/josi.12103
Brief Author Biography
Srividya Ramasubramanian (Ph.D., Penn State University) is Associate Professor and
Associate Dean for Climate and Inclusion in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M
University. Her interests are in cultural diversity, media literacy, and stereotyping processes.
Alexandra Sousa is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication, at Texas A&M
University. Her research is focused on diversity and inclusion, especially in the higher education
context. She is also interested in issues of conflict management, representation, and facilitating
dialogue about diversity.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
  • Closer than you think: Bridging the gap between media effects and cultural studies in media education theory and practice
    • E Scharrer
    Scharrer, E. (2007). Closer than you think: Bridging the gap between media effects and cultural studies in media education theory and practice. In A. Nowak, S. Abel, & K. Ross (Eds.), Rethinking media education: Critical pedagogy and identity politics (pp. 17-35). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  • Intervening in the media's influence on stereotypes of race and ethnicity: The role of media literacy
    • T Yosso
    Yosso, T. (2002). Critical race media literacy: Challenging deficit discourse about Chicanas/os. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 30, 52-62. doi: 10.1080/01956050209605559. Further Readings Scharrer, E. & Ramasubramanian, S. (2015). Intervening in the media's influence on stereotypes of race and ethnicity: The role of media literacy. Journal of Social Issues, 71 (1), 171-185. doi: 10.1111/josi.12103
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