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Little Black Sambo Doll and Cultural Conformism

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In American culture today the pressure to fit into the societal norms is more prevalent than ever. By establishing very clear standards for “fitting in”, the dominant culture makes the idea of approval seem easily achievable. However, unknown to minorities is the rigidity of the standards and how frequently they are mocked when attempting to conform. This ridicule is often perpetuated through the use of racial caricatures — descriptive visual devices that exaggerate certain aspects of individual races in order to create humor. In the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, cultural standards are often reinforced through the use of the “Little Black Sambo Doll” — a racial caricature that changes the body of a Black Man into a monkey, to fit the “animal-like” stereotype of a black man, solely to entertain the beholder (SparkNotes). Though he does not recognize it, throughout the novel the Narrator is seen by the White community as the Sambo Doll. This view further dehumanizes him and allows the White culture to keep their power over him. Similarly, the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” is just one of these many caricatures, seen by many as: “A dehumanizing red ‘Indian’ cartoon wearing a wide, big-toothed grin. A cartoon caricature similar to Sambo or a piece of anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda” (Krimmel). The comparison of Chief Wahoo to “Sambo” directly connects the novel to today’s society.

According to Douglas Cardinal, a member of the Canadian Blackfoot Tribe, “Chief Wahoo actively contributes to the mockery of American Indians” (Taylor). This “mockery” dehumanizes American Indians, thus further isolating them from high society. The increased alienation minority groups face, along with complete disregard of their issues, leads them to dissociate from their roots in order conform to American culture and fit into society. This allegiance allows the dominant culture to feel entitled and paternalistic over minorities, which continually gives them a sense of approval to completely ignore the concerns of ethnic communities. The novel begins as the Narrator, is invited by the town’s scholarly white citizens to give a speech at the Battle Royal. Unbeknownst to him, the Narrator must participate in the brawl before delivering his speech. By coercing the eight black men to fight one another, the White’s are abusing them for nothing but pure entertainment. The ease with which the dominant culture is able to “Shake Sambo the dancing doll, shake him, you cannot break him” (431), emphasizes the social ladder gap in the South. Knowing they “cannot break him”, the white’s easily “Shake Sambo” by forcing the black men to fight for their amusement. Seeing the black community through the lens of their white-culturally formulated stereotypes and treating them as nothing but Sambo Dolls, the authoritative Southerner’s further separate the minority from American society.

The maltreatment the Battle Royal consists of, disrespects and dehumanizes the Narrator and his race, thus further complicating the climb up the social ladder towards hierarchy in American society. Similarly in today’s society, the most popular representation of Native Americans is the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo. Lack of knowledge regarding American Indian culture, in addition to the graphic caricature that inaccurately represents them, allows Americans to easily ignore the fact that, “The use of racist mascots dehumanizes Native Americans, and thereby, makes it easy for society to ignore their concerns…It allows people to treat us as invisible” (Waldstein).This claim by Philip Yenyo, the Executive Director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, demonstrates how classifying all American Indian’s into the ‘Wahoo’ caricature enables the dominant culture to sequester the ethnic group and their concerns. This easy, unconscious characterization leads American’s to disregard the people’s concerns, forcing Natives to identify less with their own culture in exchange for being heard and understood. In the novel, the Narrator attempts to distinguish himself away from his culture during his speech by withholding his true feelings about society and only expressing what the White’s want to hear.“‘Social…Equality’ ‘What you just said!’ ‘Social responsibility, sir’ ‘You weren’t being smart, were you, boy? You sure that about equality was a mistake? You had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times’” (31). By retracting “equality” and replacing it with “responsibility” the Narrator is suppressing his beliefs so that the White’s will “do right by [him]”, and possibly even help him be recognized by others of high society.Being as influential as it is, the popular culture in America lures minorities outside of their cultivation and traditions — many of which have been passed down for generations — in exchange for being accepted into society.

In Invisible Man, the Narrator’s undying belief, “‘If you’re white, you’re right’”(217) constantly propels him away from his culture and family. The Narrator constantly strives to dodge his past in an attempt to avoid societal isolation, often refuting connections made to his Southern or Black identities. For example, the Narrator denies himself of a very enjoyable breakfast: “‘Pork chops, grits, one egg, hot biscuits and coffee!’” as an attempt to step away from his isolating African American identity and toward integration. Instead of accepting his culture through the pleasure of a delicious meal, the Narrator orders “‘orange juice, toast and coffee’”, then quickly states, “I [was] proud to have resisted the pork chop and grits. It was an act of discipline, a sign of the change that was coming over me” (178). So deeply influenced by the white dominant society, the Narrator believes his refusal of savory satisfaction is “an act of discipline”. “Disciplining” himself to reject his desires to achieve White toleration lets the Narrator believe “a sign change was coming over [him]”. By disassociating from his culture the Narrator is increasingly ‘white-washing’ himself to be able to feel “a sign of change coming over [him]” that would help him climb the social ladder. The constant avoidance and subhuman treatment the Narrator is exposed to influences him to match the accepted characteristics of society. Native American’s today are similarly discounted by the same influential system, except instead of Sambo, American’s arrange the minority into the racial caricature Chief Wahoo. Lindsay Gibbs, a sports reporter whose focus is racism and protests, believes, “Chief Wahoo fosters disrespect of Native Americans” (Gibbs). Native Americans are viewed as nothing but a caricature which “fosters [American] disrespect” of the culture, allowing the majority to easily deride them. This dehumanization and dismissal of Native American’s and their concerns leads many to leave their culture in search of toleration. Philip Weeks, a retired professor of American Indian Studies in the United States especially Ohio, states, “The myriad of problems facing [Native Americans] in urban America lead many to protest. Yet most others did not agree, instead they chose to identify less strongly as Indians. Often marrying non-Indians, they sought avenues by which to find a home in, and the acceptance of, mainstream America” (Weeks). Suffering from neglect of their people and their issues, many Native Americans choose to “identify less strongly as Indians” in order to discover “avenues by which to find a home in, and the acceptance of, mainstream America”. According to a US History online textbook some Native Americans seeking recognition replaced, “The core of individual identity — one’s name — to ‘AMERICANIZE’ the children” (40.d Life on the Reservations). By altering even “the core of individual identity” Native Americans “cho[o]se to identify less strongly as Indians” so as to “Americanize” themselves and further their integration into “mainstream America”. Present in the novel and today’s society, racial caricatures disrespect and dehumanize minority cultures, disallowing them to achieve social equality; thus sequestering the minority and subjecting them to step outside of their delicacy to attempt to achieve societal amalgamation.

The ethnic communities’ strong and continually growing allegiance to American hierarchy further affirms the majority people of their “superiority”. This assurance of power gives the majority a sense of entitlement, enabling them to treat the minority and their concerns paternalistically. Though the Narrator does not initially realize it, the real purpose of the Brotherhood is not to further the rights of the Black Community, but to deceive them into thinking they are doing so. The Brotherhood was created to channel revolutionary energy from the frustrations of the Black’s who were failing to further themselves in the dominant White society. By hiring Black spokesmen such as the Narrator and Clifton into the group, the Brotherhood is misleading the black community and feeding them the false hope that they will help them. In reality, and as articulated by Brother Jack, these so-called leaders, “‘Were hired to talk’ ‘[And to] say nothing unless it is passed by the committee. Otherwise I suggest you keep saying the last thing [you] were told.’” (470). Reminding the Narrator that he was only “hired to talk” and be a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood reassures Jack and the rest of the white committee members of their supremacy. This affirmed dominance enables them to authoritatively advise the Narrator to “say nothing unless it is passed by the committee” and to “keep saying the last thing you were told”. The Brotherhood feels entitlement over the Narrator, because of his repeated die-hard devotion to the organization. This authorizes them to treat him in a paternalistic manner that repeatedly results in his compliance. Reassurance of their complete control licenses the Brotherhood to ignore the Narrator’s increasing unease concerning the politically failing Harlem district. Noticing the many political shortcomings in Harlem, which are causing extreme inhibitions in the advancement of blacks, the Narrator asks Brother Hambro for ways to revive hope and restore activism. Brother Hambro, a white leader, knows he is superior to the Narrator and his concerns, which allows him to easily veto the Narrator’s proposition. Hambro discloses to the Narrator, “[the Negroes] must be brought along more slowly. They can’t be allowed to upset the tempo of the master plan’” (504). In this context, Hambro is employing his paternalistic power to prove the Brotherhood — the dominant culture — knows what is best for Harlem. Stating, “they can’t be allowed to upset the master plan” Hambro is upholding the current social ladder that grants him the entitlement to easily ignore the minority’s anxieties. This dispensation authorizes Hambro and all of the dominant white society to treat non-whites and their concerns without much regard, which prevents them from acceptance.

Today, American society uses the overbearing influence of Major League Baseball to practice its paternalistic power. By recognizing the distresses Native American’s have regarding Chief Wahoo and refusing to change the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, the dominant white society “view[s] American Indians in a paternalistic manner evocative of negative stereotypic imagery” as noted in a psychological study conducted by Alexander, Brewer, & Livingston in 2005 (Freng, Scott, and Cynthia Willis-Esqueda). Rob Manfred Jr, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, has addressed concerns posed by Native Americans stating, “I know that particular logo (Chief Wahoo) is offensive to some people. And all of us at Major League Baseball understand why. Logos are, however, primarily a local matter. The local club makes decisions about its logos. Fans get attached to logos. They become part of a team’s history. So it’s not as easy as coming to the conclusion and realizing that the logo is offensive to some segment” (Oz). Manfred acknowledges the issues of the Native Americans when announcing, “I know that particular logo is offensive..and all of us understand why”, but then continuing his statement by saying, “logos are a local matter…fans get attached to logos…so it’s not as easy as coming to the conclusion and realizing that the logo is offensive,” he is exploiting the influential control the MLB withholds to excuse the lack of change to the logo. Completely ignoring the effects of the racial caricature that disrespects and dehumanizes American Indians’, Manfred and American society believe it is their prerogative to act paternalistically over the minority. People have travelled to America since its founding seeking new opportunities and a better life. Though the United States prides itself on the principles of freedom and individuality, for minority groups, who do not fit the standards of American society, it is extremely difficult to be accepted. Their differences, exaggerated by racial caricatures, complicate their integration. For example, according to Charlene Teters — an activist for the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media — “Chief Wahoo is Little Black Sambo, it is one of the most blatantly racist logos in professional sports” (Blackhorse). Referring to “Chief Wahoo as the Little Black Sambo” Teters directly connects Invisible Man to today’s society, proving that though Ellison’s novel was written over 50 years ago, the difficulties the Narrator suffers through are still prevalent today. Attempting to avoid these caricatures and the images they behold, minorities abandon their cultures in order to conform to American society. This constant conformity leads the dominant culture to believe they are superior, enabling them to ignore the subdominant group and their anxieties by treating them in a paternalistic manner that evokes their caricatures.

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Little Black Sambo Doll and Cultural Conformism. (2018, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2022, from
“Little Black Sambo Doll and Cultural Conformism.” GradesFixer, 14 May 2018,
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