This post supports the “I Am Not Your Stereotype” fundraiser by Positive Traction Inc. The campaign is a reminder of the damage done by negative stereotypes. By wearing the shirt, you pledge to pursue greatness on your terms, regardless of what the world’s stereotypes say you have the potential to achieve. The proceeds support after school programs and summer enrichment activities. Buy a t-shirt or donate HERE.
Stereotypes are death-dealing. How do I know? Just look around at the trauma endured by people of African descent living in the United States! Black and brown people of all genders endure physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual abuse daily at the hands of a society that has been trained to prioritize white Americans with economic privilege. Why does this trauma continue? A large part of our problem is the stereotypes that are perpetuated through literature, film and oral stories.
You might recall the testimony of Darren Wilson, a Missouri police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in August 2014. The case went before a Grand Jury that acquitted Wilson in November of 2014. During his testimony, Wilson explained that after he shot Brown once, he looked at him and Brown had “the most intense, aggressive face.” He continued his statement, saying, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon . . . I just saw his hands up . . . and that face coming at me again, and I just went like this and I shielded my face.” Wilson continued to explain that the more he pursued Brown and shot at him, the stronger Brown became. Wilson’s “memory” of the event in question was not cross-examined. The court took it as a fact that a large black male teenager would become stronger and more aggressive with each shot fired at him by a helpless, white cop. As a black woman, I had my immediate doubts about the veracity of Wilson’s testimony. As a Christian, I was struck by Wilson’s use of the term “demon.” What is so demonic about a wounded black teen? As a student of African American history, Wilson’s words reminded me of the twentieth-century cinematic depictions of black men in which wounded black men became stronger and more aggressive after being wounded. I couldn’t help but believe that Officer Wilson had seen Michael Brown through glasses clouded by stereotypes.
The blood of black and brown men runs through our streets because of stereotypes. It is downright sinful how often black men and boys find themselves at gunpoint for misbehaving in public while their white male peers receive leniency. Latino and Arab men are victims of racial profiling too. Black and brown men are incarcerated at astronomical rates in this country. Our society has little concern for their physical, emotional, or spiritual health. We call these men irredeemable, they are, as then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said in a 1996 speech “super predators . . . they have no conscience . . . we can talk about how they ended up that way, but first, they must be brought to heel.”
Ms. Clinton’s statement and others like it are the biggest problem facing black and brown people in the United States today. The fact is that each one of us is so much more than what our exteriors might display. As Christian social ethicist Emilie Townes puts it, “historically [black and brown people] were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.” In other words, American society [read white power-brokers] have talked about the issues facing black and brown people without speaking with the black and brown people in question. Perhaps the idea that black and brown “gang bangers” might have consciences and might even be valuable human beings who could positively contribute to society is all too much.
Stereotypes are not only death-dealing for black and brown men. Black and brown women are also the casualties of our culture. Last week, my dad sent me an article about a study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. The study is called Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. The executive summary of the report says, “A groundbreaking study released today by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality finds that adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14.” Previous research on black boys says that even black boys are allowed (in the minds of white people) to maintain their innocence past age 5. As one who was once a black girl, I was unsurprised by the findings because I lived them. Black girls are called more promiscuous and adult than our white female peers. As a black girl in secondary school, I was called “trouble” by many a white teacher who falsely assumed that my presence in public space presented a problem for the social and academic lives of my peers.
To be sure, girls in our society face challenges regardless of their race. But, the violence done to black girls goes unreported, and by-and-large adults do nothing to stop or combat it. Perhaps the stories of black girls are deemed less believable. As Townes writes, “The traditional paradigm of history and memory is that history is a discipline and memory is subjective.” Perhaps black girls’ memories are deemed subjective, not factual. Furthermore, the stereotype of the “strong black woman” does nothing to help us. Black girls as young as five are expected to endure hostility and abuse because that is what “strong black women” do. Even in the black community, we cling to a stereotype that aggressively erases the lived experiences of black women and girls whose backs are broken under the oppression of a classist, racist, and sexist society.
It is here that the contributions of legal scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw become essential to ensuring a better quality of life for black women and girls. In the late 1980s, Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” which recognizes the ways that living in a nation that is at once racist and sexist places women of color at an intersection that renders us at once invisible and hyper-visible. Regarding the Georgetown Law study cited above, Crenshaw’s work would illuminate the fact that black girls are at once the invisible victims of racist and sexist peers and the hyper-visible causes of any trouble that might happen at their schools. Black girls are at high risk as they navigate their schools and try to grow up to make valuable contributions to society.
Adults must move our conversation about stereotypes beyond just talk. We must push for policy changes in our school systems, neighborhoods, local, and national government. As individuals, we must value the intellect, memories, and experiences of black and brown youth. We need to treat the bodies, minds, and spirits of black and brown youth like they matter. We cannot continue to approach black and brown youth as stereotypes or caricatures, but as individuals who, if nurtured, can transform the world in positive ways. Black and brown youth can and do make valuable contributions to our society. Black and brown youth are not your stereotype. Black girls are not your stereotype. Black and brown adults are not your stereotype. I am NOT your stereotype. Creatively resist my friends! Until next time.
Jaimie D. Crumley is a minister, writer, and podcaster. She blogs at iamfreeagent.com. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @jdcrumley.