The message we send

“Tell me,” the question begins. “Are black Americans more aggressive?”  This is a pretty common question I’ve heard from Russians, going back to my earliest days here. Most of the time the person asking is an adult, professional, with higher education. While any Westerner reading this is probably already uncomfortable at the open racism of that question, to Russians it’s perfectly reasonable.  As I was already familiar with the issue of racism in Russia, I was never shocked to hear such a question, but rather somewhat baffled.  Why aggressive? Why anti-black racism in a country which was once the champion of black civil rights and anti-colonialism, and where the only black people you encounter are students who usually only live in Moscow.  Where do they get these ideas about black Americans?  The answer may shock you.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the answer was right in front of my face from the beginning. In my first year here, I needed to rapidly improve my language skills. Thus I tended to watch a lot of TV, particularly their music channels. Unlike MTV in America, the MTV channel in Russia and its local equivalent Muz TV actually played music videos, both foreign and domestic.  Of course the all the music they played was basically crap, but I was picking up Russian from the veejays, advertisements, and Russian pop songs with simple lyrics.  Naturally a lot of American songs were of the hip-hop genre. Can you see where this is going?

If you’re an intelligent, worldly person in the United States, you should realize that the culture surrounding modern hip-hop is not representative of black culture. Even people who harbor very racist stereotypes of black people usually have friendly interactions with black Americans on a daily basis. Indeed, some of their best friends are black! If you asked such a person that same question Russians have asked me, they’d be shocked and horrified. For one thing, overt racism is taboo in America. But more importantly, even if their views of black Americans are largely racist and negative, their personal experience with those black Americans they find acceptable prevents them from making such a blanket judgement. A typically oblivious statement you might hear goes something like this, “Oh sure, those guys who look like Lil’ Wayne are thugs, but my neighbors are black and we all get along fine!”

Now imagine you’re from another country and you don’t speak English. You’ve never been to the United States, and everything you know about that country comes from popular culture. On TV, videos like the one below are being beamed into your country every day:

Or try to make it to 1:30 of this shitty video.

For those who aren’t able to watch the video now, or anyone who doesn’t want to listen to shitty music just to get the point, the clip features the white band recording a song in a hip hop studio while several black artists watch. Of course, one of the spectators has the stereotypical 40oz bottle in a brown paper bag, which the guitarist knocks out of his hand and onto the floor. Next we see the black spectator roll up on the white band members, one of whom stares at the camera in terror before we see a tabloid magazine proclaim that they were “thrown out of the hood.” Their faces bear bruises and blood. Even though spilling the man’s beer was obviously an accident, violence ensues. The message is clear- black males are very aggressive, and the band was taking a risk going into a recording studio in “the hood.”

Let the reader participate in a similar experiment. Below is a pop video from Kazakhstan.

And another…

A lot of Kazakh pop videos use imagery which hearkens back to their nomadic heritage. While one can still find people living a nomadic lifestyle in Kazakhstan today, this is simply not the way of life for the majority of people. If this were all we saw of Kazakhstan, however, what conclusion would we logically come to about the Kazakh lifestyle? This isn’t entirely hypothetical. For most Westerners and especially Americans, the popular image of Kazakhstan was formed by the movie Borat. While those viewers more intelligent than the average stapler consciously know the film is a parody, few have any idea how off the mark that film was when it comes to Kazakhstan and Kazakh people. For one thing, Sacha Baron Cohen looks nothing like an ethnic Kazakh. Though Kazakhstan does indeed have a large population of ethnic Russians, Cohen’s character speaks in Polish in the film. Though it is a parody, the film clearly plays on old, racist tropes about Eastern Europe, such as poverty, widespread antisemitism, and rampant prostitution.  Cohen’s film isn’t a parody of anything. It’s a smear, a minstrel show which demeans both Slavs and ethnic Kazakhs, in spite of the latter not even being featured in the film. Yet that film is what many Americans will inevitably associate with Kazakhstan.

Let us now get back to the image of black Americans that our pop culture industry is exporting abroad. Both of the videos were played on Russian TV constantly in 2006 and 2007, among many other hip-hop videos. Video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, rife with all manner of hood stereotypes from music and Hollywood, were extremely popular here as well. This is how not only Russia, but much of the world experiences black America, because this is what America’s culture industry exports to the world.

These days within the borders of the US there is all kinds of discussion regarding the portrayal of black Americans and other ethnic groups on television, film, and in music. While there has been some progress stateside, it seems that nobody is even remotely concerned about what America is exporting overseas.  In fact, I’d argue that we’d probably make more progress at home if we started paying attention to the message we’re sending to the world about our own citizens. This is especially true now that we live in a time when Hollywood and other parts of the entertainment industry are aiming their products more toward foreign audiences than the domestic market. Our culture industry is essentially exporting minstrelsy and racist propaganda all over the world, yet most Americans, including those who are most concerned about these issues, have no idea that this is happening. Why do Russians wonder as to whether black Americans are more aggressive? Because that’s what our media has been telling them for years.

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