Racial Profiling: Reading Race, Gender, and Representations of Criminality

“[Race] is not about how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you look.” – Robin D. G. Kelley, Historian

Both race and gender shape our social interactions according to our expectations of how others should behave based on their “role.” This is particularly true when it comes to our perceptions of deviance and criminality. For example, watch how individuals in a public park react to three different actors in the same situation in the following social experiment:

 

REPRESENTATION AND CONTROLLING IMAGES

In their essay on racial formations in the U.S., Michael Omi and Howard Winant discuss the importance of the media in both shaping and disseminating racial caricatures:

“Film and television…have been notorious in disseminating images of racial minorities which establish for audiences what people from these groups look like, how they behave, and ‘who they are.’ The power of the media lies not only in their ability to reflect the dominant ideology, but in their capacity to shape that ideology in the first place […This] has led to the perpetuation of racial caricatures, as racial stereotypes serve as shorthand for scriptwriters, directors, and actors” (17)

These caricatures have serious real-life consequences for people of color. As the author of “White Privilege Radically Changes Appearance of Tsarnaev Brothers” points out, recent portrayals of Muslims in the media since 9/11 reinforce “the current dehumanizing ‘Other’ label that whiteness has constructed as a sanctioned target for violence in US popular culture” (emphasis mine).

Consider how the decision to lighten or darken the skin color of the following two celebrities makes an argument about who is “othered”:

In 1994, former football running back O.J. Simpson made headlines after a dramatic police chase. Simpson was arrested and accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson, and the trial was widely televised. He was eventually acquitted of the murder charges, but opinions about his innocence or guilt divided the public for years. Compare the representation of Simpson on these two covers.

In 1994, former football running back O.J. Simpson made headlines after a dramatic police chase. Simpson was arrested and accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson, and the trial was widely televised. He was eventually acquitted of the murder charges, but opinions about his innocence or guilt divided the public for years. Compare the representation of Simpson on these two covers.

On the other hand, consider how often the complexion of Black performers and models are often lightened:

A photograph of Beyonce (left) compared to the representation of her in L'Oreal's advertising campaign for Feria hair color.

A photograph of Beyonce (left) compared to the representation of her in L’Oreal’s advertising campaign for Feria hair color (right).

Debate erupted about whether Rihanna had been airbrushed to appear whiter on the November 2011 cover of British Vogue magazine.

Debate erupted about whether Rihanna had been airbrushed to appear whiter on the November 2011 cover of British Vogue magazine.

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