Letter to the Editor

I found the recent The Lawrentian cover featuring a student portraying a “Mammy” in a satire play called The Negro-Striatal Function very disturbing–not because of the content of the play, but rather because the photo had been chosen to represent all of the events of POC Empowerment Week.

Louric Rankine ’21, Vice President of the Black Student Union and the author of the skit shown in the photo, explains that, “[The satire] focused on stereotypes in the POC Community, satirizing the reputation and the effect the image has on society.”

POC Empowerment Week included well-attended talks, the Excellence Ball and Cultural Expressions, a long-running and always spectacular revue put on by the Black Student Union. These events should have been represented in the cover image the way they had been represented in the accompanying article.

Rankine went on to explain that this cover shows why “[this] skit is important and still relevant today. We automatically dismiss stereotypes as something that seldom happen, but it’s in these accidents and mishaps that we still see these misrepresentations exist today. I didn’t want Cultural Expressions to be solely represented by a satirical portrayal of a character, especially if this character is being played by a pivotal leader in the African American community. Cultural Expressions is meant to be a full representation of creativity from the African diaspora. It begs the question of why we need to communicate and understand the errors people could possibly make when encountering images, representation, and dissolving stereotypes.”

The Mammy stereotype was not the only image featured in the satire, but since it was on the cover of the newspaper, I think we should try to unpack the history of the caricature. As a white dude, I first put a name to the Mammy stereotype in school—but I had seen the image before; I just hadn’t had a name for it. Now that I recognize the image and the damage it causes, I would like to share some of the stereotype’s history to try to help illustrate why that image is offensive. (Full disclosure: I have worked on the Editorial Board as the Opinions and Editorials section editor for The Lawrentian, and written extensively for the paper before leaving because of disagreements with some of the current Board.)

In a journal article called: From Mammy to Superwoman: Images That Hinder Black Women’s Career Development, Wendy Reynolds-Dobbs, Kecia M. Thomas and Matthew S. Harrison explain the long running Mammy stereotype, caricature and racist obsession:

From Aunt Jemima to Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award winning portrayal in Gone with the Wind (1936), one of the most dominant images that emerged from the Antebellum South during slavery was Mammy(Pilgrim, 2000). As stated by Bell and Nkomo (2001), the

Mammy refers to a motherly, self-sacrificing Black female servant who is responsible for domestic duties and taking care of those around her.

Real mammies were characterized as loyal, faithful, and obedient servants who were the main caretakers of the slave master and his family (Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Jewell, 1993). Mammy was very devoted to her White family and oftentimes put the well-being of others before her own (West, 1995). Her image was used to portray Blacks as being content with slavery, thereby justifying its institution (Pilgrim, 2000).

It would seem obvious that this image should not be used by any newspaper, student or otherwise, to represent a celebration of our predominantly white institutions POC community.

While the article I’ve cited focuses on perceptions of women of color in the business world, much of its research was conducted among undergraduates. These same terrible images and racism impact POC students on campuses, including our own. The article goes on to explain that the modern Mammy stereotype in our culture is that black women, specifically lower-income black women ‘should’ be “competent at her work, but her emotional and nurturing qualities may overshadow her professional strengths. Thus, Black women who exemplify the Mammy image are still looked at as support systems in the workplace.” I have personally seen this stereotype forced onto women of color at Lawrence. It is not the job of POC, or any marginalized people, to explain what stereotypes are offensive or to educate people about their identities. People need to take action to become educated in areas of ignorance, most often in the same areas where we enjoy privilege.

I don’t know who made the choice to use an image that, when isolated from its context, is incredibly racist to describe POC Empowerment Week, or whether it was chosen because of the racial connotation of the image, or because it just seemed like a nice picture of a performing student. This glaring and, frankly, shocking mistake shows the importance of education. By understanding the history of our country and world, errors like this won’t happen. Racism is a part of the fabric of our campus and we should want to change that. Informing ourselves is a personal responsibility; informing the campus is The Lawrentian’s.

I hope that The Lawrentian Board owns up to what happened, and does not simply retract the issue. The paper must change course so that it can be a platform for informing students about issues, and not simply provide haphazard reviews of the calendar of events at Lawrence from the past week. This approach to coverage led to this offensive and harmful cover being vetted and approved, I imagine, by more than one staffer. The Editorial Board’s response and proposed actions in the online statement about the racist cover reminded me of the often-scoffed-at training program at Starbucks after a racist employee’s actions went viral. This problem is way deeper than bias trainings. A fundamental shift in operations is needed.

Our country is in a dire time. In America, student newspapers have historically tried to give voice to important stories and perspectives that were often ignored in the popular media. I hope that in the future our school newspaper will be about the news and the critical context, from the perspectives and in the voices of students from all backgrounds.

-Jonathan Caleb Rubin, ’19