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Representation and ethnicity: postcolonialism


Representations can reveal a great deal about the attitudes and values of the society that produced

them. What a society values, respects and fears an be seen. This is particularly the case when examining representations of ethnicity, which include representations of racial, ethnic and linguistic groups. Colonialism in this study is taken to mean the expansion of Europe and European countries seeking to extend or retain authority over foreign peoples and territory. Sophisticated technologies of warfare, transport and communications enabled European powers to conquer land and peoples in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and the Pacific from the late-eighteenth to late-nineteenth centuries. 


Post colonialism, the study of the cultural aftermath of colonial rule, explores the effects on a society after experiencing a period of foreign control. It became a prominent area of study in the latter half of the twentieth century, when previously colonized countries and peoples had gained or were fighting for independence. Post colonialism contributed to an increased recognition of how colonisation worked on a cultural level and the role played by representations in creating the myths Barthes talked about. These myths included the idea that there was a European superiority in all fields, including the cultural, and were coupled with a consistent portrayal of outsiders or the colonised as ‘others’. Edward Said, the twentieth century Palestinian- American literary theorist, argued that almost from its earliest beginnings, Europe had culturally defined itself at the centre, which placed all others as outsiders. Even terms such as ‘the East’ defined other cultures by their relationship to Europe as the centre point. Said argued that Europe characterised itself as rational, progressive, free, safe, scientific, educated and civilised and that ‘the East’ was its opposite: irrational, backward, dangerous, ignorant and inferior. He pointed out that these attitudes and values could be seen in the images Europeans used to represent both themselves and the colonised.




FIGURE 1.2.6 This Australian advertisement for Camp Tea

(1894) is a representation of European settlers’ opinions of

themselves as part of a European colonising power and their

attitudes towards Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants.





















FIGURE 1.2.8 The film Ten Canoes ( 2006) Is a story of ancient
aboriginal tribal life and morals in North eastern  Arnhem Land
















Land, Australia.

FIGURE 1.2.10 Dead Heart (1996) is a mature film that deals with the divide and conflict 

between European-influenced Australian values and Indigenous culture. 


















FIGURE 1.2.9 A 1920s Australian advertisement for soap





Learning activities


1 a Look at the Camp Tea advertisement in Figure 1.2.6 on the previous page and describe:

• who is in the image

• what they are doing

• what they are wearing

• what possessions they own

• what relationship they may have with each other

• the relationship each person has with the land they are living in.


b Do you see any evidence of Said’s arguments in this representation? What conclusions can you draw about representation and ethnicity from this image?

2 Look at Figures 1.2.8, 1.2.9 and 1.2.10. How do you think representations of Indigenous Australians have changed over time? Use the analyzing representations focus questions above to help you form a response.


The Exotic, The Dangerous, The Humorous and The Pitied


Many media theorists argue that while representations of ethnicity may change over time, they usually function to perpetuate established stereotypes and the myths and values societies hold towards the ‘other’. Alvarado et al. in Learning the Media (1987) group representations of ethnicity into four categories


 The Exotic, The Dangerous, The Humorous and The Pitied.


Some of these groupings serve to minimise what may be seen as a ‘threat’, while other groupings work to emphasise the threat. Remember, the composition of these groups is not fixed. It will change over time. It is also important to remember that these representations come from the dominant culture and not all groups in society see the representations in the same way.


The Exotic  is a representation the dominant society uses to group people that are seen as different, exciting, mysterious, strange or glamorous, but still as outsiders or ‘other’. This representation can often be of a place or time, as well as a group of people


The Dangerous  is a representation that tends to be prominent in news, current affairs or narrative texts. The Dangerous are generally represented as a threat to the dominant culture or ‘way of life’, and are a risk that needs to be dealt with. The type of people considered dangerous often changes over time, place and culture.


The Humorous is a representation often found in situation comedies and advertising. It generally relies on stereotyping—characterising according toa conventional idea or concept. Often it is hard to criticise representations that claim to be humorous when someone argues that they are ‘just a bit of harmless fun’ and ‘no harm was intended’. This representation often functions to mock and humiliate those the dominant society sees as a minor threat but are not considered dangerous. It also serves to keep a group as ‘outsiders’ who are laughed at not wit The Humorous representation changes with time and place.


The Pitied  is a representation often used by Western nations atoning for the damage they have caused through colonisation, economic exploitation or war. Representations of The Pitied tend to be seen as victims of famine and war. Usually, the causes of these famines or wars are not examined, as it may lead back to the actions of the Western nations themselves. Representations of The Pitied often go hand-in-hand with connotations of primitiveness, backwardness or underdevelopment, where again, the causes of which are not explored. There can be a fine line between The Pitied and The Dangerous.



Learning activities


1 Provide an example that you have seen in the media of a representation from each of The Exotic, The Dangerous, The Humorous and The Pitied representation categories. You may choose from any media form such as television, advertising, film, print and online media.


2 Can you think of representations of people that have changed over time? What category did the group(s) belong to before and after the dominant culture’s change in perception?


3 Research an ethnic group in Australia and prepare a short presentation for the class discussing the group’s representation in the media and how it relates to The Exotic, The Dangerous, The Humorous and The Pitied representation categories theory.



Sydney siege: confronting our anti-Islam backlash

Tue 16 Dec 2014, 1













In the aftermath of the Sydney siege, I hope the outpouring of support for the Muslim community will define us more than the anti-Islam sentiment that ignited immediately. But I'm sceptical, writes Ruby Hamad.

As I write this, NSW police have announced an end to the Sydney Siege. Two innocent people have died, as well as the gunman. Rather than speculate in the midst of this meagre amount of information, I prefer to cast my mind back to those early minutes and hours when the news broke that a gunman was holding people hostage in the Lindt Chocolat Café in Martin Place.


No sooner had the terrible story come to light, than the media speculation, misinformation, and outright lies came flying thick and fast. Leading the way was The Daily Telegraph, which didn't bother itself with such pesky irrelevancies as "facts" and "evidence" when it announced that "IS takes 13 hostages in city café siege".


Of course, it was not an Islamic State flag, nor was the perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, associated with any terrorist group. As his lawyer said: "This is a one-off random individual. It's not a concerted terrorism event or act. It's a damaged goods individual who's done something outrageous."

But of course, by then the damage was done. Despite the fact that the police didn't call it a "terrorist attack", and that the perpetrator was a classic "lone wolf", with a string of violent offences, the fact he was also Muslim means that, to many western audiences, his actions reflected on Islam and all Muslims.


Shortly after the siege's defining image - workers holding up the black Shahada flag in the window of the Lindt café - was beamed around the world, Lindt's Facebook page was flooded with messages of "support", congratulating the company for not being Halal certified, immediately linking Islam itself with the incident.


While it is true that this gunman put Islam front and centre by utilising that flag, let's put the emphasis where it belongs. He may have made it about religion, but the operative word here is "he", and not "religion."Like many other violent men, Man Haron Monis was charged with many crimes, including being an accessory to his wife's murder. Also like many other violent men, he slipped through the legal cracks and went on to offend in one of the most horrific ways possible.


Despite the copious amount of western criminals and gunmen who have held up, shot and killed many innocent people - one of the most recent incidents of which took place in Melbourne just two weeks ago - no one would seriously suggest they represent the entirety of white society, nor do they cause widespread fear and panic. But such is the marginalisation of Muslims that they are not given the benefit of being individuals.

The reason is simple. Westerners are regarded as complex human beings who are driven and influenced by a wide range of factors, including politics, mental health, and personal dispositions. Meanwhile, Muslims are often represented as a marauding horde, a grotesque collective that acts on nothing other than primitive, religious ideology.This dehumanising depiction may fit neatly into The Daily Telegraph's irresponsible "clash of civilisations" style rhetoric but does little to tell us anything about the reality of our world.

But let's back up for just one moment. Yes, it was a Muslim man who held those hostages, causing the death of two. What this should tell us is that our global society has a problem with violence. More specifically, we have a problem with widespread male violence and an unwillingness to even recognise, let alone confront it.By allowing ourselves to believe this latest gunman did it purely because of Islam, we don't have to confront those questions about what it means to be human, and the violence that is indelibly entrenched in our collective experience of humanity.

The Sydney Siege was not an organised terrorist attack. It was a violent rampage by a narcissistic man who should have been put away a long time ago, and who used Islam as a convenient peg for his own delusions and grievances.

What remains to be seen now is whether the outpouring of support for the Muslim community that spontaneously arose with the #IllRideWithYou hashtag will define us more as a nation than the anti-Islam sentiment that ignited even more quickly.

While I fervently hope for the former, the history of our society's attitude to Muslims, along with its reluctance to confront its own violent tendencies, leaves me feeling sceptical.As a Guardian columnist noted on her Facebook page this morning:

Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer and filmmaker.


Answer the following


  • 1. Explain the writers contention towards the media’s role when  news of the  siege broke to the public

  • 2. How does the writer explain the  marginalisation  jof Muslims where  they are not given the benefit of being individuals.

  • 3. What does the writer contend is the real underlying issue underpinning this action

  • 4. What established stereotypes and myth of ethnicity do Muslim Australians appear to suffer from. How ingrained do you feel this stereotype is. Do you feel that the media are merely reflecting public attitudes or  have perpetuated  the construction of  the Muslim stereotypes as “The Dangerous” 





 Further Links to the  dangers of the Media's stereotypical representation of  Australian Muslims

Sydney racist train rant: Muslims in Australia ‘under attack






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