3/18/2015 Peter Durantine

Censoring Racial Ridicule: A Century of Fighting Hate Speech

Early 20th-century stage shows and films that depicted the Irish as childlike drunks, Jewish people as greedy manipulators, and African-Americans as violent sexual predators spurred these groups to challenge free expression in their pursuit of equality. 

As a Franklin & Marshall College professor illustrates in her new book, "Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish and African American Struggles Over Race and Representation, 1890-1930," these minority groups rallied against stereotypes that resonate to this day.

"The debates we have today about hate speech seem to be part of contemporary political correctness, but these debates are actually not new at all," Associate Professor of American Studies and Women's and Gender Studies Alison Kibler said. "These issues go back at least a hundred years, when Irish, Jewish and African-American civil rights censors argued that images and words hurt people and they needed to be regulated to enhance equality, regardless of individual free speech rights."

  • Kibler spent 15 years researching and writing "Censoring Racial Ridicule," inspired by research she conducted for her first book, "Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville." Kibler spent 15 years researching and writing "Censoring Racial Ridicule," inspired by research she conducted for her first book, "Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville." Image Credit: Melissa Hess

Historians consider Kibler's book, recently published by The University of North Carolina Press, to be a groundbreaking work. She uncovers powerful responses to racial ridicule by three seemingly disparate groups that were often far more complex than just wanting to stop hate speech.

"She's digging deeply into ground that has just begun to be plowed," said Francis Couvares, the E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies at Amherst College.

Kibler showed how censorship creeps into a democratic society where free expression is enshrined in its governing documents, Couvares said. Groups often demand censoring to ensure they have equal status in the eyes of governing groups, he said.

"Censorship is not just some uptight blue noses wanting to shut down the dirty picture house," Couvares said. "It's a very complicated process. These groups are jostling for access to the public arena, for the right to regulate and moralize the public arena."

Kibler spent 15 years researching and writing "Censoring Racial Ridicule," inspired by research she conducted for her first book, "Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville." In particular, a chapter she wrote about an actress who impersonated clumsy Irish women drew Kibler's attention. Irish audiences accepted the actress's performance, while they rioted against a similar act by another actor.

"They were very crude, unflattering portrayals," Kibler said of the actress' impersonations. "One theatre critic at the time asked, 'Why haven't the Irish risen up against her in the same way they've risen up against this other act?' I was curious about how different groups were making choices about what they didn't like."

In this occasional feature called "Three Questions," Kibler discusses how she came to write about this topic and what roused these groups to protest racist depictions.

How did you come to write on this subject?

I just knew from researching vaudeville in depth that Irish, Jewish and African-American organizations were at that time making particular demands about what kind of acts they did or didn't like. African-Americans were agitating about gaining equal access to seating in theaters, while Irish and Jewish groups were trying to stop certain acts on stage. I became intrigued by groups that had enough power to focus their protest on certain images or what was on stage, while other groups had to focus on other things, like being able to get into the theatre in the first place.

You say the reasons these groups wanted censorship were complex. Why?

The censorship of racial ridicule was part of each group's effort to consolidate power and forward its own particular political agenda. Sometimes, the choices they made show that they are not choosing an act based on the details of the performance, they chose an act because the timing suited their other political goals. For example, one group among the Irish, the radical Irish nationalists, led the campaign against how the Irish are depicted on stage. They like a really good public display of rousing Irish masculine strength, and when a particular act hits the right moment, they go after it, but they let a lot of other things go. Sometimes, they're competing against other Irish groups as to who will lead the Irish. And arguments against defamation were -- and still are -- a good way to get yourself in front of a wide coalition.

What was occurring in that era that helped to rouse these groups?

It's a time of intense technological innovation in terms of entertainment, combined with a new racial landscape in the United States, with Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and with the beginning of the Great Migration of African-Americans moving into northern cities from the rural south.  First, motion pictures were a new and sometimes frightening medium. These groups believed that harmful images on film would inculcate a wide audience, so they tried to control racial ridicule motion pictures in particular. Second, there are strains of competing groups of Irish nationalists in the United States, who turn their attention to stage and screen, and there seems to be a rise in anti-Semitic incidents that causes the Jewish community to combat anti-Semitism in the United States, which is exacerbated by this large wave of new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. 

  • Kibler illustrates in her new book, "Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish and African American Struggles Over Race and Representation, 1890-1930," how these minority groups rallied against stereotypes that resonate to this day. Kibler illustrates in her new book, "Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish and African American Struggles Over Race and Representation, 1890-1930," how these minority groups rallied against stereotypes that resonate to this day. Image Credit: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives
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