By Kianna Mahmoud, 5th year Neuroscience student
‘You are NOT the father’ – I remember at a young age tuning into my favorite daytime TV show Maury, where I watched a pop culture icon read the DNA test results of predominately African American men, accused of being the ‘baby daddy’ to the children of predominantly African American women.
While the sensationalized family drama may be entertaining for some (including my younger self), it perpetuates longstanding stereotypes about Black people. As in the belief that collectively, most Black people have irresponsible sex and make babies with complete strangers. As in Black women being angry ‘welfare queens’ who are unfit mothers. As in Black men being ‘hypersexualized thugs’ who are absent fathers.
Now you may be wondering: no one forced these individuals to go on the show, so, why did they do it?
The less obvious reason for choosing to appear on the Maury show is that out-of-town guests were given free airfare, hotel accommodations, and a small stipend. This is appealing considering most of the guests selected to be on the show were from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The more obvious reason is that these paternity tests provided guests with answers to legitimate problems for which other forms of resolution were costly.
But why are there so many Black single mothers, and why is the paternity of the fathers a form of mass entertainment, specifically in the United States?
The disorganization and instability of Black families can be traced back to the systemic deterioration of Black families by primarily White institutions. Historically, the buying and selling of slaves, slave-breeding, and rape of Black women by white men, have, in part, contributed to the disorganization of Black families. Looking more recently, the ‘War on Drugs’ first declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and the continued overincarceration of Black men has exacerbated the instability of Black families – let's be real, the war on drugs was not about keeping the community clean and safe; it was a war on Black men, Black people, Black families.
It is well known that the Maury show highlights and glorifies the social inequities experienced by Black people. Although there are tangible incentives for participating in such a show, this is only one example of the construction and commodification of ‘Blackness’ for consumption within a White supremacist culture.
Dominant Cultural Narratives
For many of us, these overlearned stories about Blackness are no surprise given the historical representation of Blacks. Like in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation wherein a White woman throws herself off a ledge in fear of being raped by a White man in Blackface; like in Disney’s 1931 cartoon Santa’s Workshop, in which a blond-haired, blue-eyed doll comes down a slide and Santa teaches it how to say “Mama”, but then a Black doll stumbles down the same slide, landing face first, and hoarsely screams “Mammy”; like in the majority of European history books and academic literature written by Judaeo-Christian scholars that propagates the myth of Blacks as savages and Whites as being racially superior.
Click for more examples of the historical representation of Black folks
Dominant cultural narratives are normalized and weaponized to maintain positive distinctiveness for White people. The constant framing of Blackness as lazy, morally inept, unintelligent, dangerous and brutish reinforces longstanding racial biases wherein the value and goodness of ‘Whiteness’ is assessed relative to the badness and darkness of ‘Blackness’.
These systems of representation communicated through media and other social and cultural institutions function as a not-so-subtle mechanism to maintain the subordination of Blacks and the imagined exceptional identity of Whites. For many Blacks (like my younger self) the internalization of these myths can manifest into psychological problems like decreased self-esteem, self-hatred, internalized racism and inferiority complexes, which, in part, influences our self-perceptions, expectations and behaviors in White spaces.
White is right, Black stay back
For many of us, engaging in self-regulation to comply with White normative standards is instinctual. From a young age we become conscious of the perceptions of Blackness, and as a result we micromanage our appearance and mannerisms in order to make ourselves more palatable for the White gaze. We avoid acting in ways that could be perceived as ‘too Black’ in fear of discrimination and/or being associated with an undesirable stereotype.
We learn how to be a ‘safe Black’.
For example, I am often asked by White folks if they can touch my hair. In response to their (probably) harmless fascination I want to scream out, “surely this cannot be the first time you’ve seen Black hair!!!” but, instead, I silence myself in fear of being perceived as sensitive, or worse, an angry Black woman; I silence myself to avoid the emotional labour of explaining how their question is a subtle reminder that Black hair is abnormal and White hair is the default; and even more daunting, I silence myself to avoid the exhausting task of comforting White fragility, and managing their denial and defensiveness.
Racial stressors are a type of chronic stressor. The experience of racial discrimination, threat of exposure to racial discrimination, cultural racism and internalized racism can all negatively influence the physiological regulation of stress. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to deal with racial stressors and our bodies become exhausted making us vulnerable to illness. Among Black people, racial stressors have been linked to a number of physical and physiological conditions like depression, anxiety, hypertension, breast cancer, and even mortality.
In order to adapt to the pervasive and often uncontrollable race-related events, we alter our cognitive and behavioral responses. These efforts involve (but are not limited to), putting on ‘armor’ in anticipation of a race-based threat, self-regulating in White spaces to avoid discrimination and negative stereotyping, and suppressing emotions in response to racially charged comments.
Yet, despite having access to an extensive coping toolkit, we still feel exhausted – Why? The tools in the toolkit do not resolve the problems we experience, and sometimes can have psychological and physical consequences of their own. For example, making the conscious or sometimes unconscious decision to not fully be authentic in order to fit into White spaces can compromise our self-esteem, increase feelings of helplessness, isolation and fear.
Black Lives Matter
We do not have to experience racism in order to feel the taxing effects of it. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic many of us, including myself, turned on the TV, logged into social media or flipped the newspaper to read headlines like: Black EMT shot dead in her own home by police in Louisville, Ky; FBI investigates death of Black man after footage shows officer kneeling on his neck; Former police officer and son charged in shooting of Black jogger; Black Wisconsin man hospitalized after police shoot him in the back.
Second-hand exposure to real life racial violence can have severe effects on mental and physical health.
Police brutality cannot fully be realized if one does not understand the narrative and ideological discourse that kills Black people. Although the violence towards Black people is not a recent phenomenon, the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and the brutalization of Jacob Blake have re-invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement. Widespread anti-Black racism protests emerged throughout the globe and as a result, it appears that now more than ever, in recent years, Black people are demanding change.
Social media has been used effectively as a tool for social movements to promote their messages, articulate core beliefs and offer a frame to the public. Most notably, Facebook is a popular platform for scaling up the Black Lives Matter movement through the creation of online spaces; where Black people can mobilize participants through the rapid dissemination of information, and form coalitions through sharing narratives and ideologies. Although these spaces are commonly used by Black people to cope collectively with the psycho-emotional trauma of the constant dehumanization of Black lives, it also provides us with a safe space to engage in purposeful, meaningful and culturally relevant dialogue. It is in this space where we can challenge, resist and deconstruct dominant cultural narratives; re-affirm our cultural values and traditions by the promotion of afro-centric values; and be intentional about building a stronger community through advertising and supporting Black owned businesses and entrepreneurs. For example, the table below displays quotes taken from newly formed Black communities on Facebook. Let me be clear – these groups are more than strangers ‘chatting’ online. These exchanges help create a shared collective understanding and build confidence among group members that empowers off-line actions.
Black Ottawa Connect (May 11, 2020): “Let’s connect and support each other. This group is for us, by us. Post about community events, Black-owned business, travel tips/deals, financial/life advice, job postings, etc.”
Black Lives Matter is more than a freedom movement, it is an intersectional movement that affirms all Black lives across the gender spectrum and calls on Black people to “buy Black, live Black, and love Black.”
It is not easy to liberate ourselves from the social myths and dominant cultural narratives about Black people, especially when we turn on the TV and see Black people participating in the perpetuation of these narratives. We self-regulate our appearance and mannerisms in fear of being perceived as ‘too Black’ or being associated with a negative stereotype and yet this is still not enough. Assimilating into Whiteness does not help us combat anti-Blackness, but rather, it permits the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and attitudes (with our assenting selves being regarded as ‘exceptions’); and worse, such self-regulation further alienates us from our authentic self and from one another.
Through Black Lives Matter and the creation of safe spaces online, Black people (strangers or friends) can come together and collectively cope with racial stressors. I am not suggesting that collectively coping with strangers online is the solution to all of our problems. Rather, I am suggesting that through online communities of support we can foster resilience, encourage and empower each other to tackle the Whitewashed versions of ourselves and embrace our diverse Black identity. We can reaffirm our values as Black people and embody resistance to dominant cultural narratives through the enforcement of unapologetic Blackness. We can build the collective confidence to challenge the dominant narrative of our daily living, and to contend with the push-back.
There is no room for White shame or Black victimization in the embodiment of unapologetic Blackness – It is simply existing and moving through spaces as Black people without being complicit in our own subordination. By embodying unapologetic Blackness, we are rejecting White measures of worth and choosing to live authentically as Black people.