Representation: Culture & Perception

Media, entertainment, and other forms of popular culture play a significant role in shaping our perceptions of others. For many of us, popular culture is the primary way we learn about people who are different from us. The problem, though, is that many representations are based on cultural stereotypes, which tend to marginalize and caricature members of nondominant groups. Through these representations, we see a limited, and distorted, view of others.

Both entertainment and news media are powerful forces in creating and perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes, especially about racial and ethnic groups. In television and film, characters from nondominant racial and ethnic groups often fall into formulaic tropes, and their storylines easily follow cliche narratives. The consistency of these representations reinforces stereotypes and makes them more readily available in our minds.

For example, black men and boys are systematically portrayed negatively in both news and entertainment programming. Many media images of black men are linked to criminality or poverty, and positive depictions are often limited to sports and music. One study of local news coverage found that black people are disproportionately portrayed as criminals, while white people are more often shown as the victims of crime. Despite the reality that most crime happens between members of the same racial group, the media exaggerates the prevalence of black-on-white crime. Though these representations are factually inaccurate, they are often left unquestioned because they fall in line with prevailing cultural stereotypes.

In order to transform perceptions, we must transform our cultural landscape into one that puts forward people of color in all of their complicated humanity, rather than relying on tired stereotypes. Popular culture is a critical vehicle in this work, as it can be used to promote more nuanced and varied representations. Perception Institute recognizes this potential—we harness social science research on the power of narratives to shift perceptions and use this evidence base to upend and expand current representations. At the same time, Perception Institute engages in empirical evaluation of cultural products to determine their impact on implicit bias, racial anxiety, and ultimately, behavior.

Learn more by exploring some of our events and products relating to narrative and culture change: