A Primer on Visual Racism
by  Jonette O’Kelley Miller


The nineteenth century political scientist Alexis Tocqueville wrote in his 1835 treatise Democracy in America, "The European is to the other races of mankind what man himself is to the lower animals, he makes them subservient to his use and when he cannot subdue he destroys them.”1

Starting in the mid-16th century, the Spanish, British, French and Dutch began establishing geographic dominance across what is now known as the United States of America.2  When compared to Europeans, both indigenous and enslaved people of color were identified as both inferior and degenerate. 

With recognition that the term ‘race’ is a social construct, a convenient fluidity is revealed in its meaning. This fluidity facilitates the belief that an ethnic group’s particular characteristics give it specific attributes making it either superior, or, inferior to others.  Racism, as defined by the late activist and historian George Fredrickson, is a pseudoscientific theory purporting the inferiority of all people of color.3 In his book Racism, he called it a 'scavenger ideology,’ referring to its ability to pick and choose ideas from other ideas and values to form an entirely different context.4  He went on to state, “But when groups whose differing ancestry is culturally and/or physically marked; come into adversarial contact, there is a powerful temptation, especially on the part of the most powerful group, to justify aggression, domination, or extermination by invoking differences defined as “racial,” meaning they are intrinsic and unchangeable.”5

Visualized racial classifications have served to establish the idea of white superiority as both credible and acceptable to the American general public.  Historic American racial imagery, in its various illustrative forms, has been a strategic tool in perpetuating systemic racism. Whether in the genres of caricature stereotypes, fine art, photography or editorial illustrations, its subliminal influence cannot be ignored.  The impact of visualized racial classifications is horrifically evident in this country’s current societal events. Visual racism's power is found in its ability to affirm authority, difference and control.

Visual Racism Affirms Authority

The concepts of ‘denomination’ and ‘conquer’ are inherent in Western ideology.  Due to the presumed soundness of the medical, and anthropological fields, eighteenth and nineteenth century racial theorists who followed the pseudosciences of phrenology, physiognomy, and craniology used racial classification illustrations to visually prove people of color’s innate inferiority while also substantiating the innate superiority of whites. 

Eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists and physicians used these images to help establish a racial hierarchy that promoted the idea that biological traits exposed the behavioral and cultural weaknesses of people of color. It can be said that these images have also acted as a foundation for what the scholar Joe R. Feagin refers to as “the White Racial Frame.”6

In their book Native American Postcolonial Psychology, psychologists Eduardo and Bonnie Duran state, “The purpose of the continuance of covert racist views and cultural bias is to give credence to white superiority.”7 Along those lines, eighteenth century medical doctor Charles White’s illustrations supported his polygenesis position that the differences in facial features, skull sizes and the length of a body's limbs detailed the extent of certain people groups’ physical development and also proved their disparate ancestral origins.8  Fellow racial theorist, anthropologist and monogenist Johann Blumenbach, used illustrations focusing on a skull's measurement, shape, and surface to provide evidence similar to White's.

It should be noted that Blumenbach has often been credited with inventing five recognized human taxonomies.  In truth, Blumenbach's mentor Carolus Linnaeus a.k.a. Carl von Linne, initially identified four human varieties, i.e., Caucasian (White), Mongolian (Asian), Negroid or Aethiopian (Black), and American (Native American).  Blumenbach’s  contribution was a fifth one: Malay (South Asian), which was separate from Mongolian.9 These five taxonomies are the foundation for the racial classifications currently in use by the United States Census. (Figures 1-4)

(Figure 1.) "Types of mankind or ethnological researches, based upon the ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural, geographical, philological, and biblical history.” “Talking About Race.” Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, (Nott, Gliddon, 1854) (J.C. Nott and Geo. R. Gliddon/Google Books). License: Creative CommonsAttribution 4.0. Accessed May 6, 2021.

(Figure 2.) Comparison of humans and monkeys. An Account of the regular gradation in Man, and in different Animals and vegetables; and from the former to the latter. London, 1799. Source: 460.a.2. plate 3. Author: White, Charles Image ID: R59JKF. Purchased May 10, 2021.

(Figure 3.) Plate 2 from Charles White, An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man and in Different Animals and Vegetables; from the Former to the Latter (London 1799) (artwork in the public domain; photograph © the Trustee of the Welllcome House, London), Public
Domain. Accessed April 28, 2021.

(Figure 4.) “Blumenbach's five races,” Five skulls labelled Tungusae, Caribaei, Feminae Georgianae,O-taheitae, Aethiopissae, presumably serving as specimens for Blumenbach's Mongolian, American, Caucasian, Mayan and Aethiopian races (1795 edition) Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Treatise on "De generis humani varietate nativa," unnumbered page at the end of the book titled "Tab II,” Public Domain. Accessed April 28, 2021.

Visual Racism Affirms Difference

Racial classification imagery in the form of racist stereotypes is particularly insidious as its influence pervasively informs all aspects of visual culture.  Visual stereotypical representations successfully identify Chicanos, Asian, African and Native Americans as ‘Them,’ and as ‘Other.’ This designation enables the concept of difference to be negatively perceived evoking feelings of distrust, fear, hate, and, even ridicule.10  

Visual racial stereotypes are dangerous, particularly when used as social caricatures. Some have been popularized to the point of becoming iconographic.  Their power is usually overlooked due to their cartoon-like nature.  They often appear innocuous and therefore are easily absorbed into the prevailing culture. Even though in some circles the imagery is rejected as being offensive, the subliminal, dehumanizing meaning remains and becomes ingrained in the psyche.11 The imagery’s assimilation into the public consciousness serves to objectify, exoticize, and even sexualize people of color. This results in people of color being placed outside of established, supposed civilized norms and defined as ‘different,’ and as outsiders.

Along with the prevalence of doctored photos and cartoons of former President Obama and the former First Lady depicting them both as monkeys, contemporary examples include the 1980s caricature of the athlete Michael Jordan as a gorilla with elongated limbs. This cartoon elicits the 18th century illustrations by Charles White.12 One of the most controversial images referencing President Obama is Sean Delonas’ New York Post 2009 February 18 cartoon of two policemen, one with a smoking gun standing over the body of a bullet-riddled monkey, with the caption, “They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” These images conveniently hide behind so-called freedom of speech, ‘editorial’ and/or, political discourse.  A more recent example is the New York Daily News’ Bill Bramhall’s May 25 cartoon of the mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. The cartoonist portrayed Yang’s eyes as two slants and references the mayoral candidate as being a tourist. When these images are rejected as offensive, rebuttals say, ‘cancel culture’ is at play.

Because negative, racial representations are prevalent throughout American visual culture, twenty-first century Chicanos, African, Asian and Native Americans continue to have to mentally, physically and emotionally navigate the continuing stigmas brought on by past, visualized images. Historical, contradictory stereotypes of people of color as animals, and/or prone to thievery, laziness, promiscuity, violence, and being untrustworthy, are reflected in the increase of acts of hateful violence against members of the AAPI community. In addition, Chicanos, Native and African Americans continue to be criminalized and viewed as 'less than.’(Figures 5 —12)

(Figure 5.) Outcault, Richard Felton, Postcard depicting caricatured boy eating a slice of watermelon. (1909) Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer. Object #2007.7.404. Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom, "Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype,” https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-
stereotype https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2007.7.404, Public Domain. Accessed April 30, 2021.

(Figure 9.) The Two Indian Seasons.Engraving from Oct. 1, 1881 issue of popular Frank Leslie's newspaper. Stereotypes of the "savage" or "defeated" Indian have helped shape public opinion about Native Americans for more than 200 years. https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/File:Thetwoindianseasons.jpg. Accessed April 20, 2021.

(Figure 6.) "Down South Early Dawn,” An American Antiquarian Online Resource, "Racial Stereotypes of the Civil War Era” https://www.americanantiquarian.org/Freedmen/Intros/ questions.html, Public Domain. Accessed April 29, 2021.

(Figure 10.) Jean Leon Gerome Ferris The First Thanksgiving, 1621. 1912 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki

Reproduction of oil painting from series: The Pageant of a Nation. https://www.loc.gov/ pictures/item/2001699850/ Public Domain. Accessed April 23, 2021.

(Figure 7.) “The Yellow Terror in All His Glory," (editorial cartoon) 1899, https:// commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:YellowTerror.jpg, Public Domain. Accessed April 20, 2021.

(Figure 11.) General Emilio Campa and his bodyguards, Mexican War, 1912. https:// commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
File:General_Emilio_Campa_and_his_bodyguards,_Mexican_War,_1912.jpg. Public Domain. Accessed May 5, 2021.

(Figure 8.) Asians Stereotypes in American Popular Culture: Looking at Circus Posters from 1850 to 1950. The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. p4. https://www.ringling.org/sites/default
/files/basic_page_download/edu_Asian_ResourceActivityGuide_revfinal.pdf.  Accessed May 1, 2021.

(Figure 12.) "Mexican Spitfire,” Movie Poster. 1940. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
File:Poster_-_Mexican_Spitfire.jpg Public Domain. Accessed May 5, 2021.

Visual Racism Affirms Control

Racial classification imagery continues to evolve. Initially, in the case of African Americans during slavery, racial images promoted docile, child-like and unintelligent caricatures.  However, following Emancipation and Reconstruction came the fear that African Americans would gain rights and privileges that White immigrated Americans wanted only for themselves. Formerly enslaved African Americans were soon portrayed in the period’s public eye as sexualized and potentially violent brutes.13,14

In her June 2015 TED Talk Dr. Melissa Crum, an artist, education consultant and diversity practitioner, foretold visual racism’s influence in the September 2016 killing of Terence Crutcher by Tulsa, Oklahoma police.  Records document one the policemen who was scanning the scene from a helicopter saying Crutcher “… looks like a bad dude…”  Dr. Crum shared that during one of her diversity trainings, she asked educators to say what they saw when looking at Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 painting The Lost Boys which features two black male figures.

After attendees gave physical descriptions of the painting’s subjects, responses also included ‘something isn’t right,’ something’s wrong,’ and, ‘they’re up to something.’ When asked what gave them those impressions, the educators couldn’t pinpoint why they thought what they did. With Dr. Crum’s guidance, the educators were able to see the internalized stories they carried about others influenced what they saw in the painting. It was also revealed that those same internalized stories were the ones they took with them into their classrooms while teaching their children.15 All people of color are daily subjected to micro aggressions birthed in internalized stories, and imagery.  These internalized stories and images can often lead to the educational, professional, psychological and physical demise of individual people of color.

From North America’s beginnings, the nation’s founding fathers’ specific aim was to protect and maintain the rights and privileges of the homogeneous European Americans who colonized this country.16 The expropriation of land, and/or the exploitation of people as a cheap labor force, has historically been at the crux of legitimizing the concept of one people group being superior, intellectually, morally, socially and culturally to another. Even when people of color advocate for their humanity and safety while also protesting social injustice, they are often criminalized and portrayed as trying to steal rights and privileges that don’t belong to them. Specific images of individuals, children, and families crossing the border, along with being stigmatized by being associated with Covid-1917 perpetuate beliefs that Chicanos, and Asians, respectively, are trespassing in this country. Therefore instituting control over those identified as interlopers, was, and is, a prominent and purposeful strategy.

Along with documenting moments and events in time, photographic imagery has helped facilitate and reinforce the hierarchy of racial classification. Illustrations and historical photographs have been used to promote the idea of Chicanos, Asian, Native, and African Americans as being potentially treacherous and needing to ‘stay in their place.’  For people of color, staying in your place usually refers to a position of submission.  Historical, as well as current, images reveal how aspects of control manifest surveillance.  This type of imagery was, and is used to establish White Americans’ authority and jurisdiction. (Figures 13 - 20)

(Figure 13.) Cartoon shows three Natives, representing America, murdering six loyalists, four are being hung, one is about to be scalped, and the last, appealing to Fate, is about to be killed by an ax-wielding Native. Library of Congress (1792). https://loc.getarchive.net/media/the- savages-let-loose-or-the-cruel-fate-of-the-loyalists. Public Domain. Accessed May 5, 2021.

(Figure 17.)  Black/White postcard. Posed photograph shows two policemen arresting a black youth. (1910). Facebook, Originally posted April 28, 2015. Reposted April 30, 2015.

(Figure 14.) An 1839 woodcut depicts a slave patrol capturing a fugitive. Source: Anti-Slavery Almanac. Public Domain. Accessed April 30, 2021.

(Figure 18.) Christian, Carol, A U.S. border guard, right, and Mexicans behind the border fence in May
1920. Chron. “Historic Photos Transport Viewer to 1930s along Texas-Mexico Border. Philipp Kester/ullstein bild/Getty Images. Feb. 9, 2017, updated Nov. 15, 2017. https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/Life-on-the-Texas-Mexico-border-in- the-1930s-10920990.php#photo-8266970. Accessed May 5, 2021.

(Figure 15.) Edward D. Clay, “Uncle Sam’s Taylorifics, 1846.” Source: Henry R. Robinson (after a drawing by Edward W. Clay), 1846, lithograph—New-York Historical Society. In the mid-
nineteenth century, many Americans were eager to acquire additional territory from Mexico, and U.S. President James K. Polk was prepared to provoke a war to get it. In 1845, following the Congress’s annexation of Texas as a new state, Polk stationed General Zachary Taylor and his forces along the Rio Grande River. The Mexican
government, pledging to restore Texas to Mexico, soon attacked. The U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico in May, 1846 and authorized the enlistment of 50,000 volunteers. The war ended in early 1848, when the U.S. annexed half of Mexico, 1.2 million square miles of land. This political cartoon features a beardless Uncle Sam, his legs symbolizing the southern and western states (with Texas on his boot) that drove the quest for new territory. Cutting the already diminutive figure of Mexico in half, the scissors invoke the military campaign of General Zachary Taylor and his volunteer army. https://
Public Domain. Accessed April 24, 2021

(Figure 19.) Giron, Kiersti, Japanese-American detainees arrive for processing in Arcadia, CA. Originally uploaded by Shep182, English Wikipedia File: San Pedro to Santa Anita.gif., Heroes, Heroines & History, May 6, 2018, https://www.hhhistory.com/2018/05/japanese-
internment-camps-americans.html Public Domain.

(Figure 16.) Shosone at Ft. Washakie reservation in Wyoming, 1892. “The reservation system” - Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american- west/a/the-reservation-system. Image courtesy National Archives. Accessed May 5, 2021.

(Figure 20.) Iwasaki, Hikaru: WWII Poston, Arizona Relocation Camp for Japanese-Americans, 1945 (NARA) via pingnews.com on flickr(cc). This image is believed to be in the public domain
and is from the National Archives. Additional information from source: ARC Identifier:539871 Local Identifier: 210-G-K349 Title: Poston, Arizona. 09/1945


Racial classification imagery’s continued influence on the American psyche has many tentacles. One ‘hand’ reveals a strategy of subtly ensuring white people’s economic power; or, at least, in the case of members of the lower social class, a sense of privilege.18 Another ‘hand’ serves to cement the idea that people of color cannot be trusted and are inferior. Another ‘hand’ foments conspiracy theories with code words such as ‘replacement.’ Even more psychologically damaging is the disidentification of people of color with their own ethnic group that is facilitated by yet another ‘hand.’19  The power of racial classification imagery remains in its ability to visually give credence to people of color’s economic, political, and cultural disenfranchisement.

This past April, the actor and activist, Levar Burton stated in a television interview on The View that the term ‘consequence culture’ was more apt than that of ‘cancel culture.’ Reason being we are moving into a time where we must critically assess our thoughts and actions,  and the consequences following.  It’s past time to re-address both what and how we see.

1. Katz, William Loren, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. (New York: Simon & Schuster 1986) Opening page.
2. “European Colonization of North America,” National Geographic Resource Library, Accessed May 28, 2021.
3.  Fredrickson, George, The Black Image in the White Mind. (New York: Harper Torchbooks 1971) xi.
4. Fredrickson, George, Racism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2002) 8.
5. Ibid. 153-154.
6. Feagin, Joe R. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial and Counter-Framing (UK: Routledge 2013).
7. Duran, Eduardo and Bonnie Duran, Native American  Postcolonial Psychology. (Albany: State University of New York Press 1995) 18-19.
8. White Charles, An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables; and from the Former to the Latter. (1799) 217 - 263. (Kitson, Peter J.,Ed. Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, Vol. 8). (UK: Routlege 1999)
9. Gould, Stephen Jay, “The Geometer of Race," Discover Magazine. November 1, 1994. Accessed April 28, 2021.
10. Morin, LCSW, Amy, Medically reviewed: Akeem Marsh, MD. "Harmful Psychological Effects of Racial Stereotyping.” Accessed May 11, 2021.
11. Gaertner, Samuel L., and John P. McLaughlin. “Racial Stereotypes: Associations and Ascriptions of Positive and Negative Characteristics.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 1, 1983, pp. 23–30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3033657. Accessed 11 May 2021.
12. “The Coon Caricature: Blacks as Monkeys.” History on the Net. Edited by Scott Michael Rank, Ph.D. © 2000-2019, Salem Media. Accessed May 28, 2021.
13. Smiley, Calvin John and David Fakunle, “From “brute” to “thug:” the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.  Accessed May 1, 2021.
14. Fredrickson, George, The Black Image in The White Mind. (New York: Harper Torchbooks 1971) 1-2.
15. Crum, Melissa, “A Tale of Two Teachers,” 7 Ways Museum Educators Can Change the World.” June 19, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2021.
16. Steinberg, Stephen, The Ethnic Myth. (Massachusetts: Beacon Press 1989) 15-18.
17. Cho, Hyunyi, Wenbo Li, Julie Cannon, Rachel Lopez and Chi (Chuck) Song, “Testing three explanations for stigmatization of people of Asian descent during COVID-19: maladaptive coping, biased media use, or racial prejudice?”  Ethnicity & Health, Volume 26 2021 994-109) | Received 17 Jun 2020, Accepted 24 Sep 2020, Published online: 15 Oct 2020. Accessed June 4, 2021.
18. Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, ( New York: Random House 2020) 180-181.
19. Yip, Tiffany, “To Be or Not to Be: How Ethnic/Racial Stereotypes Influence Ethnic/Racial Disidentification and Psychological Mood,” Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology.  PubMed.gov. 2016 Jan; 22(1): 38-46. Published online 2015 Apr 20. Accessed May 28, 2021.
Jonette O’Kelley Miller is an independent art historian and art consultant. As a former actress/dancer she continues to be intrigued by the power of the visual, and performing arts. She sees both mediums as being able to provoke change along with instilling reflective joy. Jonette recognizes the duality of visual culture in its ability to expose injustices, as well its ability to substantiate them.

In celebration of Black History Month, she presented a virtual art exhibition entitled 19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Reality. Originally featured on the website of the Studio Theater in Exile, by popular demand, its viewing was extended for another month; and is also available for viewing by clicking on Studio Theater in Exile’s Past

Her previous projects include co-designing a Black Lives Matter exhibition as part of the Black Renaissance Festival at the Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh, NY; and being the guest editor of The International Review of African American Art, Vol.30.2 published by Hampton University. Her chosen theme was The Evolving Imagery of The Black Woman.

Jonette’s research addresses the impact of historical, racist stereotypes on people of color. She is currently researching the works of various contemporary Native visual artists for a future curatorial online project.