Last week, I lead a discussion with my class on an extremely important topic: racial and gender stereotypes in advertising. Since I teach mostly first-year students, I have come to expect a little reluctance when it comes to this topic. I usually try to choose advertisements with overt racism and sexism to open up the conversation before moving on to more subtle examples. While the discussion went well for the most part, it definitely showed me that we have a long way to go in terms of media literacy.
What shocked me the most, I think, was how many students flat out denied the existence of stereotypes in advertising. Of course, I am used to some skepticism on this topic but rarely have I ever had students deny the existence of racism and sexism in advertisements. One particular advertisement that ruffled my students’ feathers was the Nivea Re-Civilize Yourself advertisement, which was part of their Look Like You Give a Damn campaign. The advertisement features a black man tossing away a mask of his former “scraggly” self with the words “Re-civilize yourself.” The mask is not just scraggly – it also has an afro. The message seemed obvious to me. To my students, not so much.
After I projected the advertisement on a screen, the class was silent for a moment. Then, a student called out, “You think that’s racist? I think you’re just being nit-picky!” At that moment, the floodgates opened. My students started protesting, claiming that the message would be the same if the man in the advertisement was white and throwing away a mask with long hair. I tried to back up the conversation a bit and asked the class if they could come up with any racial stereotypes visible in advertising in general. The room went silent. After an awkward silence, another student said, “I don’t really think it’s a problem anymore. I mean, advertisements seem to feature everyone and make fun of everyone in the same way.” Many other students nodded in agreement.
At this point, I explained to my students that the image of the black man had hundreds of years of oppression behind it while an image of a white man in the same situation would not. This statement was met with rolled eyes. I pushed it a little more, pointing out the stereotype of the savage, uncivilized black man. Some students gasped, and at that moment I realized just how uncomfortable they were talking about the stereotype. It seemed as though they would rather deny its existence rather than discuss it. Perhaps they felt that talking about the stereotype would give it validity, or maybe they were afraid others would think they supported it. I reassured them, “Hey, we’re not talking about universal truths here. We are discussing stereotypes. Most of this is offensive. But there is a respectful way to go about it!”
Finally, some students started to open up a little bit. They still weren’t very responsive to the Nivea advertisement, but they were able to point out other advertisements, like this Sony PSP billboard featuring a white woman choking/silencing a black person. The discussion took off, and my students were less reluctant to point out racism and sexism in advertisements. I’m glad they were able to get over their fears, but I’m also a little disappointed that my classroom was the first place many of them had ever really thought about this topic. It is important to keep an open dialogue about stereotypes in the media, especially since we are exposed to thousands of advertisements every day.