It’s no secret that the society and culture we’re living in is divided. It may not be the most divided period the country has ever been, but the cuts still run deep. The sheer division alone has created an entirely brand new discourse, one that is influenced by deeply rooted stereotypes.
In wake of this, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium to address the stereotypes of Native American, African American, and African cultures and people that are prevalent within our society today.
The symposium, cleverly named From Tarzan to Tonto: Stereotypes as Obstacles to Progress Toward a More Perfect Union, featured four amazing speakers who addressed the different stereotypes that each of the aforementioned groups have and continue to face in every day life, on social media, in literature, film, and more.
University of Michigan professor Gaurav Desai spoke about the deconstruction of stereotypes in African literature; assistant professor at Brown University Adrienne Keene discussed stereotypes against native people in fashion; Princeton University professor Imani Perry covered racial narratives and how they perpetuate inequality; and finally, Jesse Wente, a leading film critic and producer of indigenous cinema, addressed depictions of native people in Hollywood.
What’s important about this symposium, however, is that it could not have been held at a more appropriate time in America’s history. It’s been less than a month since a new president was sworn into office, and with each passing day of his administration the division across racial and cultural lines in the U.S. becomes increasingly apparent. From Tarzan to Tonto shed light on the history behind how and why stereotypes against Native Americans, Africans, and African Americans have persisted for so long both in this country and internationally. The increasing awareness brought them during the program can hopefully serve as a way to respond and combat these stereotypes in the future.
The symposium also served as a reminder that cultural and racial divisions in the U.S. aren’t something new. These divisions go way back, as far back as the first time pilgrims came across the Atlantic and encountered the native people that inhabited this country.
It may seem as if the marginalization of various groups and the stereotypes perpetuated against them are more apparent than ever, but every thing is deeply rooted in the past. Literature, film, and every day interactions fuel pre-existing ideas and sentiments against various racial groups and ideas on how each group should behave. Granted, the symposium focused on three specific groups, it’s no secret that most racial groups in the states have been marginalized and stereotyped in one way or another over time.
However, if there was one important takeaway from the symposium aside from the eye-opening information shared is that there is no more appropriate time than now to tackle stereotypes and cultural appropriations head on. Again, the divisions in this country across various lines go far back into America’s history. But what’s different between then and now is that there are so many resources we can tap into, like symposiums, that can help us better understand why stereotypes exist and how we can address them in the most effective and appropriate ways. So go out there and educate yourself, there’s no better time than now.