BOOK REVIEW / If they're dancing, then they must be happy: 'White on Black' - Jan Nederveen Pieterse: Yale, 20 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LINFORD CHRISTIE may have won a gold for Britain, but he still represents a classic black stereotype. So does that other black star in the news, Michael Jackson. Blacks, the whites have always believed, are superior athletes and natural entertainers. Christie and Jackson confirm the belief and elevate it to a fact. Jackson's skin-lightening surgery only serves to emphasise the point.

Sportsmen, entertainers, servants, studs - these are the characteristic roles assigned to blacks in Western society. These historic white stereotypes of blacks, argues Pieterse in this excellent book, nowadays tend to function as self- fulfilling prophecies. Thus do stereotypes acquire the authority of truth.

The myth about the athletic and sexual ability of the blacks goes back to the dawn of colonialism and the association of blacks with wildness and nature. Lucid descriptions of their 'savage' and 'bestial nature' are an essential ingredient of colonial literature as well as a cornerstone of the science of that period. Just over a hundred years ago, European adolescents nourished themselves on The Sunday Reading for the Young (1877), which announced that the blacks 'are but one degree removed from the level of brute creation - the sole trace of civilisation about them is that they cook their food, and that, it may be assumed, in the crudest manner'. Such descriptions were often justified in terms of science. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus considered blacks to be a sub-species of Homo sapiens. In his scientific classification, Systema Naturae (1758), he described 'Homo Africanus' as 'black, phlegmatic, lax . . . crafty, slothful, careless'.

The stereotype of blacks as entertainers has its root in slavery. Slave traders would encourage their cargo to keep up their physical and moral condition by singing and dancing. 'Dancing the slaves' - as the exercise came to be known - often involved the use of the whip. Back on the plantation society of the American South, singing and dancing became a way of reducing friction and confrontation all round. A singing and dancing slave was a cheerful slave.

Europe, through colonialism, and America, through slavery, developed the same stereotypes. For historical reasons, both came to equate 'black' with 'south', as meaning something violent, impoverished and inferior.

White on Black contains numerous stereotypical images of blacks from branded products, advertisements, cinema and on the covers of popular paperback fiction. Shining black men - always with a benign smile - gaze out of shoe polish, soap boxes and tubes of toothpaste (one American toothpaste was, until quite recently, actually called 'Darkie']). The faithful black cook and servant can be found on 'Uncle Ben's' rice and 'Aunt Jemima' pancakes. The entertaining black 'coon' graces 'Banania tea', numerous brands of coffee and chocolates, and was the original Golliwog of Robertson's jam. Until quite recently, Pieterse tells us, American films were saturated with five dominant black types: toms, coons, mulattos, mammies and bucks.

The West has not always perceived blacks as inferior. In ancient Egypt, black beauty was valued and black was the prestigious colour of fertility. In Greece and Rome black was a colour of differentiation and carried positive meanings of rank and power. But these images changed as a result of the cultural battle within Europe. So long as the West could claim an alliance with black Christians in its struggle against Islam, blacks were portrayed in positive terms. But as soon as Islam was banished and subdued, blacks became demons again.

As Pieterse shows so powerfully, racial stereotyping plays a vital role in 'establishing and maintaining inequality'. It reinforces economic and political interests, and in subtler ways leaves blacks culturally, emotionally and psychologically disadvantaged. All this adds up to a powerful strategy for subordination.

White on Black tells us much more about white perceptions and aspirations than about blacks or Africans. But it should be required reading for concerned individuals of all colours.