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COMMENTARY ________________

Our Concepts of Self are Shaped by Iconic Images
By Brenda Otey

Brenda Otey

A 2005 study conducted at UCLA's Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center show that African Americans and Caucasians viewing African American faces display extremely similar changes in the activity of brain structures that respond to emotional events. Matthew D. Lieberman, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of the study, and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine brain activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that serves as an "alarm" to activate a cascade of other biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. 

Sixty-three percent of African Americans and 64% of Caucasians in the study responded with significantly more amygdala activity when presented with expressionless photographs of African Americans. Although a third of participants in each race did not show this effect, no participant in the study responded with greater amygdala activity to the Caucasian photographs than to the African American photographs. Lieberman recognized that, "Many people of either race may not be happy to find out that a part of their brain involved in responding to potential threats responds more to African Americans than Caucasians". "Even people who believe to their core that they do not have prejudices may still have negative associations that are not conscious."1

These results are not surprising but tend to support the fact that we are a product of this society and not immune to the media messages we are bombarded with. Looking at our history can provide examples of manipulation and exploitation of our understanding of ourselves.

Our concepts of self are shaped by the iconic images. For centuries Europeans have been the mirrors that has reflected to us our understanding of ourselves. From the first colonial venture and slavery to today, the print media, the movies, and the television news have created, filtered and presented to us and the world, their version of who we are.

"African Slave Trade and the subsequent slavery in the Americas, represents the longest most sustained assault on dignity and self-worth of human beings in the history of mankind."2 During that period European anthropology developed as a "science". Through this proposed science, European anthropologist studied "the other" (African, Indian, Egyptian, etc.) eventually acknowledging themselves (Europeans) as the "authority" on these people to the point that they professed to know them better than they knew themselves. Through the colonial process and the establishment in colonial properties of the European educational system these images were perpetuated along with racial stereotypes and bias. We have come to learn who we are from those who feared, hated and sought to subjugate us.

In our history as a people, Africans were interpreted to African Americans as uncivilized, wild people who lacked the mental capacity to rule themselves or utilize the natural resources of their lands. It was believed, and the contorted view of African people can be seen in the words of Booker T. Washington who said that the reason Africans were so lazy was because they did not have to work for their food.

Washington believed that the African only had to wait for the fruit to fall from the tree into their mouths and eat. Similarly, in 1860, Alexander Crummell an "African American", Episcopalian priest educated at University of Cambridge and transplanted to Liberia reflected cultural bias when speaking to citizens in Maryland. Crummell stated that Africans "exiled" in slavery to the New World had been given by divine providence "at least this one item of compensation, namely, the possession of the Anglo-Saxon tongue". He identified English as a language superior to the various tongues and dialects of the indigenous African populations. This idea denies the strong living tradition of oral culture, and ignores the importance of a few written traditional languages that exist in Africa.

In the last decade, Africans who came to America arrived with particular notions regarding African Americans. One woman from Cameroon told me that her people warned her to watch out for African Americans because they were violent and would hit you in the head and kill you.

We must all remember that European/American media is the lens through which we all receive our images of each other, and to the extent European bias distorts that image, it effects how we perceive ourselves and others.

Today, the media continues that tradition of telling us who we are. It is the persistence portrayal of African American men as violent, savage, and uncivilized that dominates the evening news. When given options in the selection of photographs, in electronic and print media, African American and Caucasians who have committed similar crimes or in some cases where the alleged crime committed by the African American person is a much lesser offence, the photograph selected of the Caucasian projects a smiling non threatening "girl/boy next door" image. The photograph selected of the African American usually portrays them in the worse light. They are not smiling and the photograph looks more like a "mug" shot.

We continue to get our information from the same source. The colonial power and those who have emerged from an educational system saturated with misinformation and lies. They have taught us and we believe what they say about us. They have supplied us with images that have inundated our psyche and brought us to fear our children, brothers and fathers. They have provided us with a wanted poster to carry through life, and as we travel, when we encounter those images of ourselves, we fear and hate ourselves.

Therefore, we must honor Carter G. Woodson and recognized that through his efforts in the development of Negro History Week/African American History Month he has created an opportunity to correct the image in the mirror. Still, we must recognize the effect of the image in the mirror on us, and that as a part of this society we have not escaped the messages about us. Some messages are subtle, while others are obvious. However, we are still being bombarded with those messages.

In order to emerge with ourselves intact we must first, be mindful of the message. Love yourself, not for what they want you to be, but for who you are. Don't let them make us afraid of our own children. Speak to our children, acknowledge them, be patient with them and never, never give up on them



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