Stereotypes kill. Even the “good” ones. Stereotypes end careers, or prevent them from ever getting started. Stereotypes hide real discrimination, and excuse real violence. Stereotypes change the fate of nations, usually for the worse.
So hit “ESC” on the macro in your head and think, dammit. And the next time you find yourself trying to justify a stereotype, or downplaying a stereotype as “good” stereotype, recognize what it is you’re doing. You’re being a bigoted asshat. You’re killing people and helping to make the world even more fucked-up than it already is. You are the problem.
Now fix it.
Representation matters. It changes minds and cements biases. Individual black women are more likely to be viewed as representatives of their race by the majority culture. Black women and girls do suffer from seeing limited and/or relentlessly negative reflections of themselves in the media. Those limited images do reinforce stereotypes about black women and often prevent people from recognizing their humanity. And those stereotypes do burden black women in their real, everyday lives.
What can we do about that?
Policing the behavior of black women is not the answer. If it is wrong for a contemporary black actress to portray a maid, what message are we sending to black women who do domestic work? If it is wrong to be shown having sex with white men, what does that say about black women in interracial relationships with white men? If Erykah Badu is a whore for having children out of wedlock, what does that say about all black single mothers? Indeed, since more than half of births to all women under 30 occur outside of marriage (regardless of race), what does it say about women as a whole?
The goal of respectability politics may be noble, but the execution is flawed, damaging, and ineffective. By indulging in respectability politics, we acquiesce to the racially biased idea that the actions of individual black people are representative of the whole. We add to the pre-existing burdens of racism and sexism. And we fail to solve our problem, because we move the responsibility for eradicating race and gender biases from the powerful institutions and systems that perpetrate them to those oppressed by them. It is easier to try to control the oppressed than challenge the oppressor, but it is rarely a humane or useful approach.
People have told us “if you want your daughter to play with other LEGOs, buy them for her!” Those of us with daughters have and will. But this isn’t just about parents and their kids; it’s about all children. By age 2, children internalize the narrow messages about gender sent to them by culture and media. By age 5, they’re concerned with expressing those roles as best as they can. These internalized expectations follow them through their lives: research shows that exposure to stereotypical notions of gender in media can affect girls’ and women’s performance in math, and discourages girls and women from stepping outside the perceived bounds of femininity.
In other words, even kids who will never own a LEGO set in their lives are absorbing the messaging of this hyper-gendered marketing campaign. When girls see commercial after commercial of other girls hanging out by the pool, doing their hair, cruising in their convertible, and playing with animals, they begin to think that those are they ways they’re supposed to play; that those are the things they’re supposed to do now and in the future. Meanwhile, toys marketed to boys—including pretty much any LEGO that isn’t part of the Friends line—send a much healthier message that boys can be anything: cops, spacemen, pirates, kings, city workers, engineers, presidents.
We want LEGO, who by their own mission are “not about products, but … human possibility,” to really think about the messages their current marketing is sending. We want pastel colors, cupcakes, robots, and wizards to live side by side in the most fantastical adventures that kids can think of. We want boys and girls to play together with a variety of toys in a variety of colors, not separately with different versions of the same product.