Ethnic Notions

Ethnic Notions is Marlon Riggs' Emmy-winning dumentary that takes viewers on a disturbing voyage through American history, tracing for the first time the deep-rooted stereotypes which have fueled anti-black prejudice. Through these images we can begin to understand the evolution of racial consciousness in America.

Loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies roll across the screen in cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts, even children's rhymes. These dehumanizing caricatures permeated popular culture from the 1820s to the Civil Rights period and implanted themselves deep in the American psyche.

Narration by Esther Rolle and commentary by respected scholars shed light on the origins and devastating consequences of this 150 yearlong parade of bigotry. Ethnic Notions situates each stereotype historically in white society's shifting needs to justify racist oppression from slavery to the present day. The insidious images exacted a devastating toll on black Americans and continue to undermine race relations.

Ethnic Notions has quickly become a mainstay of university, high school, and public library collections. It is a basic audio visual text for American History, Sociology, Black Studies, Anthropology, Social Psychology, Popular Culture, and any training program concerned with stereotyping and cross-cultural understanding.

Approaching a complex and delicate subject with great sensitivity, Ethnic Notions equips viewers to view media and other cultural representations with a more critical eye. It's a direct challenge to those who say, "It was just a joke."

Race - The Power of an Illusion
African American History

Cultural Identity
Diversity Training
Popular Culture


"Riggs packs enough in one hour to fill a documentary three times its length…Hearing the songs, watching the films and seeing all the artifacts are what make Ethnic Notions roll with the power of a juggernaut… It's nothing short of astounding."
--New York Post

"Decades of studying Afro-American history did not prepare me for the devastating impact of one-and-one-half centuries' worth of vicious racial stereotyping. Anyone claiming to understand out nation's past must see this documentary."
--Dr. Nell Irvin
Painter, Princeton University

"Downright superb! The visual presentation packs a wallop that would be impossible with worlds alone. Because it covers the entire course of American history from the 1820s, it will be useful for US history survey courses, as well as sociology and social psychology. I can think of very few people who would not benefit from seeing it."
--Dr. Winthrop Jordon, University of Mississippi

"Disturbing but absorbing… With no rancor and considerable scholarship it lays out how stereotypes helped white society justify slavery, segregation and even lynchings."
--Los Angeles Times

"A classic! Should be required viewing or every American. It helps us better understand the dangers of black stereotypes so deeply rooted in our culture."
--Dr. William Ferris, Executive Director, National Endowment for the Humanities

"A historically accurate, thoughtful, skillfully-crafted treatment of the racial stereotypes and images that have plagued black people since slavery. It is a compelling documentary, a superb teaching aid, and an impressive work of art."
--Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, Michigan State University

Producer/Director: Marlon Riggs
Narrator: Esther Rolle
56 minutes, 1987

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