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Visual Culture: Racism and Ethnic Caricatures

June 26, 2010


This is another item that speaks to the power of images to shape consciousness.  The documentary film Ethnic Notions by director Marlon Riggs covers over one hundred years of racist ethnic stereotypes of black, African-Americans and the impact on society, especially the effects of dehumanization, controlling behavior and inciting violence.

Ethnic Notions is Marlon Riggs’ Emmy-winning documentary that takes viewers on a disturbing voyage through American history, tracing for the first time the deep-rooted stereotypes which have fueled anti-black prejudice. Through these images we can begin to understand the evolution of racial consciousness in America.” (Quoted from newsreel.org)

If you can get a copy of this documentary (from 1987) from a library or other resource, it is a very valuable resource to understand the connections between seeing and “knowing”, how people are influenced, how culture is created and reflected, and the role of visual and material culture in the attitudes of people.

Oddly, this film is not in the Netflix collection but there is a Marlon Riggs listed as a user with three film recommendations including Black Is… Black Ain’t.

Some people have felt so strongly about this documentary, I have found footage on YouTube where someone played the video on a computer screen and recorded it with a camera to circulate it.  The image quality is poor, and seeing the imagery is the film’s biggest impact.  I felt sick to my stomach after seeing this film, the inundation of decade after decade of overt racism in visual imagery is crystal clear, and I think everyone should see this film to understand more about history.

To watch the entire documentary, to read background information and to order DVDs, visit:


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