Racial Stereotypes in Popular Culture
The United States has often been celebrated as a haven for immigrants from around the world. The inscription on the Statueof Liberty famously reads, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door." Yet, Americans demonized and stereotyped immigrant groups, from the Irish to the Chinese, as they arrived on their shores.
This collection provides countless examples of how the Chinese were racially stereotyped in the popular media of the nineteenth century. Search on cartoons for hundreds of illustrations published in San Francisco's Wasp and Wave and New York's Harper's Weekly. Browse these images to determine how the Chinese were stereotyped in popular graphics of the day.
- What kinds of activities are Chinese people doing in these cartoons?
- With what are Chinese people associated in these images?
- How would you characterize the appearance of Chinese people in these cartoons?
- Which cartoons do you find most and least offensive?
- What makes a cartoon offensive?
Search on heathen for two copies of sheet music for a song called "The Heathen Chinee." The lyrics are a poem written by Bret Harte, the popular American local colorist, who won fame for his short stories and poems published in magazines such as the Overland Monthly, of which he was editor, and the Atlantic Monthly. "The Heathen Chinee" is a humorous account of a poker game involving Truthful James, one of Harte's popular characters, a narrator, Bill Nye, a California miner, and Ah Sin, a "heathen Chinee." The first stanza reads:
"Which I wish to remark — And my language is plain — That for ways that are dark, And for tricks that are vain, The heathen Chinee is peculiar: Which the same I would rise to explain. . . . . . Ah Sin was his name; And I shall not deny, In regard to the same, What that name might imply; But his smile it was pensive and childlike, As I frequent remarked to Bill Nye. . . . . ."
- Why do you think Harte's poem was set to music?
- What do the other items found by searching on heathen suggest about the popularity of Harte's poem?
In addition to "The Heathen Chinee," "Popular Songs Illustrated" from the Wasp excerpts another song about a heathen Chinaman, named Ah Yung Bull.
The collection also includes a short novel called The Bradys and the Chinese Dwarf, or, The "Que Hunter" of the Barbary Coast from the Secret Service Old and Young King Brady Detectives Series. Examine the cover and read this example of popular nineteenth-century fiction.
- How are Chinese people portrayed on the cover of this detective story?
- How are they portrayed in the text?
Finally, an advertisement for "Chinee-Graphs!" presents photographic studies "from life," assuring, "as most of them are unposed they possess a human interest that is at all times appealing. The signs on the walls in some of these pictures mean GOOD LUCK AND BEST WISHES." Search on postcard for more examples of popular depictions of Chinese people.
- What are the similarities in how the Chinese are portrayed in popular images and texts of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries? What characteristics are commonly emphasized? What qualities are commonly attributed to Chinese people?
- What do The Bradys and the Chinese Dwarf and the advertisement for "Chinee-Graphs!" suggest about the popular appeal of the Chinese in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States?
- What is the relationship between this appeal and stereotyping?
- How and why do you think racial stereotypes develop?
- Do you think popular media, such as cartoons, post cards, and dime novels lend themselves to stereotyping? Why or why not?
- To what extent do you see racial stereotyping in the popular media of today?