Often, the most socio-economically disadvantaged individuals of a group are used as a wide brush to paint a picture of an entire minority race or ethnicity. Common examples include stereotyping all Black men as members of the inner-city underclass or as uneducated, unemployed, urban criminals, or all African-American women as “welfare queens.” In the current cultural and political discourse, Hispanics are often prejudicially construed as murderous drug-smugglers or as destitute immigrants who illegally cross the border to “drop babies” and exploit U.S. social programs. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued, these prejudices then disadvantage minorities of all social classes who are stereotyped and experience discrimination regardless of their individual socio-economic status or accomplishments.
However, focusing on the marginal members during the social construction of an entire racial group does not usually occur with Whites. The existence of poor Whites is often ignored as Caucasians are stereotyped as upper-class—which usually entails assumptions that they are hardworking, highly-moral, successful exemplars of American individualism, as Kirby Moss explains in The Color of Class. “The Whitest People,” a skit from Carlos Mencia (a controversial comedian who built his career drawing upon his Hispanic background to explore race in America), illustrates the connections between whiteness and heightened class status (sorry about the ad):
Mencia’s construction of whiteness critiques the excesses and frivolousness of the upper-middle class lifestyle often conflated with whiteness. While Mencia pokes fun at this lifestyle, outside comedy these same stereotypes mean Caucasians are usually viewed positively as many presume the upper class can only be reached through hard work and strong morals. Whereas minorities are often presumed poor and thus viewed with suspicion, whites are often prejudged favorably. For instance, Mencia himself mentions that because people are viewed through prejudicial lenses, when whites drink alcohol they are thought “sophisticated” but when Blacks drink they are accused of being “drunks.” These differential prejudgments based on race are the basis of white privilege that replicates and reinforces both class, and racial stratification.
The open expression of Latino stereotypes and slurs in this video also highlights why Mencia’s comedy is controversial. Detractors claim he engages in a process symbolic interactionists call trading power for patronage (see Schwalbe et al. 2000). This process occurs when an individual embodies a marginal identity in order to receive personal benefits that come at the expense of the larger group. For example, while Mencia’s comedy career benefits from the self-deprecating humor in this video about low wage employment, family violence, and food insecurity his jokes might also reinforce negative stereotypes about Hispanics.
However, Carlos Mencia’s supporters describe the open confrontation of race and racial disadvantage in his comedy as contesting stigma (Goffman) by celebrating a minority group’s ability to persevere despite their marginalization. To this group, Mencia’s frequent use of ethnic slurs to describe himself and other Latinos is an example of re-appropriation (Galinsky et al.), reclaiming a pejorative label in a way that redefines the meaning of racist slights and infuses the word with positive and empowering meanings.
Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.