By Gene Unterschuetz
Images is a white man’s reflection about the powerful and debilitating impact of the disparaging imagery that has been historically used to shape the perception of African Americans as dangerous. While he realizes that his mistrust of African Americans was formed by racial conditioning since childhood, as an adult his conscience is burdened by the knowledge that he caused others pain when he displayed that conditioning in cross-racial interactions. He vows to make a change.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Images-How-Stereotypes-Impact-Racial-Conditioning
- Why have disparaging images been used to discredit African Americans throughout the history of the United States? How might those images impact a person’s self esteem and his/her ability to gain access to the benefits of society? Cite some examples from our history.
- Why are disparaging images so injurious? Is it possible to free oneself from the harmful influence of disparaging images? How? What particular strength is needed to overcome the power of disparaging images?
- Do you think disparaging images played a role in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other unarmed young black men in recent years? How do disparaging images impact a person’s sense of freedom?
- At what point in one’s life does ignorance fail to be a valid excuse for hurtful thinking and behavior towards others?
- Documentary: Ethnic Notions – California Newsreel 1987
- Book: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
- Book: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Book: Longing: Stories of Racial Healing by Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz
- African American/Black History
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Gene. I’m gonna tell a story called Images, adapted from the book “Longings: Stories of Racial Healing.”
In 1949, when I was four years old, living in Chicago, I named my beloved, black, cocker spaniel Sambo, from a character, a favorite character in a book that I, that I really treasured as a child. I was 50, when I found out that the term, Sambo, was actually a caricature that had been applied to black men during slavery, and it was devastating, and very destructive, and had destructive, uh, repercussions. I di… wasn’t aware of that when I named my dog. Does that make a difference?
I remember a rhyme we used to, uh, to say as children to help us make choices. It was the eeny, meeny miney, mo rhyme. It went, “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. My mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it.”
There were two versions to this rhyme. One involved the tiger, which was an animal I was familiar with, but I was confused because tigers didn’t have toes. And the other choice was the N-word, and I didn’t really know what the N-word was. I thought maybe it was another animal but I wasn’t sure. My parents didn’t clue me in on that. My teachers didn’t tell me. Is that okay that I didn’t know at age four?
The images I saw on TV and in the movies of black folks were… portrayed them as either buffoons or savages. So, when we went into the city to zoos, and, uh, amusement parks, and so forth, I saw folks that looked like those, those people that I saw on TV. And I was ve… anxious and I stuck close to my parents. So, how did my early childhood and my adolescence prepare me to be, to be an adult?
Uh, in 1966, I decided to take a trip around the United States in my, in my car. My destination was New Orleans. The moment of travel… the moment of…the romance of travel faded the moment I left my dusty little country road and hit rural Route 72 and headed east to connect up with a… another southbound route that would take me down, down to New Orleans.
Three days later, I arrived in the Big Easy, a lonely and frightened country boy. After I walked around the, uh, French Quarter for a day, I checked into a, a hotel in an adjacent area to the, to the French Quarter. I remember the, uh, elevator attendant, who was an Afri… elderly African-American man, and I got into the elevator.
He said, um, uh, “Good evening, Sir.”
And, I, mm, kind of, mumbled, “Hello.”
Uh, so, remember my… the imagery that I had grown up with. Uh, and so, all the way up to the fifth floor, I’m really cautious about this guy.
And I’m thinking, “Ya know, I better watch out. He might, he might jump me or do something to me.”
Uh, so, we got up to the fifth floor. The doors open.
He said, “May I help you with your luggage, Sir?”
Certainly, he must have rendered this service to every patron, and probably hoped for a tip. I, all I could think of was the imagery of this black man entering my room and knockin’ me over the head and taking my stuff.
I said, “—- no!”
He was so shocked by that response. Looking back, I’m really embarrassed with that response. You know, before me, was standing a man, and because he was African-American, I automatically thought that he was dangerous. It never occurred to me, that my behavior was a response from my racial conditioning that I had received as a child. All that imagery was, was kind of guiding my reaction to, to this man in the elevator. But, you know, I, I felt, at the time, I felt that my behavior was justified. After all, I was out of my element, in a new environment. Uh, I felt cornered. I thought it was just an act of survival.
And my thought was, “Ya know, I may have to fight this guy or run for my life!”
That’s really where I was at, at the time. I know that seems kind of “over the top” today, ya know, and maybe a little, um, a little too cautious. But images are powerful, and the images that I had grown up with as a child were really what, what motivated my response to that, to that elevator attendant at that time. Does that make a difference that I wasn’t aware of that conditioning at that moment?
In California, I met… this was years later, in California, I met an African-American man, uh, and we had a long and probing discussion about race and racial healing. We had been to many of the same places in the Deep South.
And I brought up the issue that I had heard about called unfinished business, down there in the south. And, uh, so, we started talking about that. And…aa, what he, he really helped me understand it a lot better. Because he said his understanding was that the unfinished business in the south wasn’t just, uh, an issue between blacks and whites. It wasn’t just a unity issue but, in many cases, it was a family issue. Second and third cousins remembered the, uh, atrocities that grandparents and, and great-parents… grandparents had either perpetrated or, or, or, uh, endured from, from one another’s relatives.
So, uh, at one point he said, “Ya know, there’s just one thing I can’t get out of my mind.”
And I was waitin’ to hear what that was. Finally, he said, and his face was just full of pain, and I was waitin’.
He said, “It’s the idea that black people are less than human.”
And I watched his face, and, uh, I thought, “Wow!”
He sa… and then he continued, and he said, “It’s the devastating images.”
And he c… and he told me that the devastating images that have persisted throughout the centuries have made it almost impossible for white folks to accept black folks as equals. Um, h, so, we just stood there for, for a while and let that sink in. Uh, the pain that he expressed really took this to a deeper part of, of my being, ya know. Uh, because, you know, you hear a lot of things and, ya know, sometimes you can kind of abstract it. You know, you can’t really relate to it but that pain really carried it deep.
And finally, he said, “How do we get over that?”
I really had no answer for him, at that point in time, but I do have to answer that question for myself. What do we do?
So, I have knowledge now. I have knowledge about the devastating images that have, not only conditioned my own behavior, but have really impacted how we relate black to white in this, in this, uh, country.
So, I have choices to make. Who will I pick as friends? Will I visit them if they live in black community… in black neighborhoods? Uh, how will I respond to others’ pains that relate to racial injustice? How will I work with people? how will I collaborate with people who regard me with suspicion? These are challenging questions.
Uh, but the good news is that there is a… My experience is that I’ve been able to replace the negative images with positive images of a multitude of people that we’ve met along the way. Uh, so, it’s easy for me to imagine that there will be a time when we can collaborate and, uh, build communities that are devoted to our common prosperity. I ha… I have faith in that. I have no doubt that, that will take place.
So, today, my question is not a, a cautious, “Is my, is my, uh, ignorance, uh, an excuse for not being accountable?” Conscious of my responsibility to make a change, the question I ask myself is, “What can I offer – how will I make a difference?”