It’s Official: Black People are Now Superhuman

Variations of the trope have existed for years beyond count. The myth that the “Middle Passage” had the effect of selecting only the strongest African captives, while the weaker ones died. Then, those who survived were further selected for strength through generations of enslavement. Which leads us to the persistent belief that Black people are athletically superior.

The Green Lantern
John Stewart, a.k.a. The Green Lantern (DC Comics)

Hollywood’s version is the magical Negro, that secondary character who selflessly assists the white hero with extraordinary wisdom, power, spirituality, strength, and other superhuman characteristics that white people cannot approach.

One might think that this is progress. Certainly applying positive traits to African Americans should be a good thing, right? It’s better than a long list of negative stereotypes, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s too complicated to say one is better than the other. They are both dangerous, and when negative stereotypes are combined with the myth of superhuman traits, we get Darren Wilson’s testimony: “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” … “That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” Brown had an “intense aggressive face” that looked like “a demon.” Strength, huge size, aggressive, demonic. (Read more at NPR’s Code Switch blog.)

Now, a study by scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia puts some data behind White perceptions of Black superhuman traits. (“A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, October 8, 2014.) Here’s the abstract:

The present research provides the first systematic empirical investigation into superhumanization, the attribution of supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans. Five studies test and support the hypothesis that White Americans superhumanize Black people relative to White people. Studies 1–2b demonstrate this phenomenon at an implicit level, showing that Whites preferentially associate Blacks versus Whites with superhuman versus human words on an implicit association test and on a categorization task. Studies 3–4 demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level, showing that Whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to Blacks versus Whites, and Study 4 specifically shows that superhumanization of Blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets. Together, these studies demonstrate a novel and potentially detrimental process through which Whites perceive Blacks.

The dangers of attributing superhuman traits to African Americans doesn’t stop with Darren Wilson. It has wide-spread, devastating real-world consequences.

  • If Black people have a superhuman ability to withstand pain, doctors will treat them with less pain medication.
  • If Black people have superhuman strength, then perhaps we’d better send forth the riot police pre-emptively so they don’t get out of hand.
  • If Black people have superhuman spiritual natures, then perhaps the rest of us can look to them to assuage our guilt and take care of us and our children.
  • If Black people have superhuman power, then Black people who go “bad” – even juveniles – should probably be locked up for a very long time.

No comic book hero ending here. Just more excuses for repression.

Increasing segregation

Charles Blow lays out some statistics in his opinion piece in the NYTimes today. He focuses on the increasing segregation by class and race that US neighborhoods are experiencing, like “about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

The associated infographic isn’t precisely about neighborhood segregation, but is also instructive, revealing differing perceptions of unfair treatment of African Americans.

Race, Perceptions and Stereotypes

Some interesting social science research on race, perceptions and stereotypes and how they play into white supremacy and internalized oppression/inferiority. Highlights from an NPR story (listen to the story or read the transcript at the link):

SAPERSTEIN: If someone went from being employed to being unemployed, or being out of prison to being in prison, or being off welfare to being on welfare, the interviewer was more likely to see the person as black – after they experienced that sort of downward mobility – than before.


And she [Saperstein]  found that when people went to prison, they became more likely to think of themselves as black. And that’s because their minds were also subject to this very same stereotypes.


New Report: Moving the Race Conversation Forward

RaceForward (formerly the Applied Research Center and publisher of Colorlines) has released a report which

  1. analyzes conversations about race in the “mainstream” media (Surprise! The mainstream doesn’t talk much about systems!),
  2. describes seven harmful racial discourse practices, and
  3. features case studies of attempts to change this harmful discourse.

They invited Jay Smooth to do a quick rundown, though he doesn’t so much give an overview as describe the difference between individual and systemic racism. Take a 5-minute break to look at it.

No Trump When Playing the Race and Class Cards

ImageThis past weekend, Roots of Justice trainers gathered in Dallas to develop a new training model to guide participants in an exploration of the ways that various oppressions intersect. So I was especially interested to hear a short (1:32) story today on NPR’s Morning Edition about how “race trumps class” in the digital divide. (The “digital divide” describes unequal access to internet resources, usually focusing on race, and has been a subject of study for years.)

That language, that one oppression can “trump” another, is common enough. But it distracts listeners from the ways that the  oppressions work together to get the result. “Trump” suggests that one oppression is in competition with the other, rather than that they are in collusion.

In the case of the digital divide, statistics may show a stronger correlation between internet access and class than between internet access and race. But that doesn’t mean poor people of all racial groups face the same hurdles. The class card never trumps the race card, or vice versa; those cards are always in the same hand.

Conversation between great Black feminists, bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry

So I finally had a chance to watch last week’s 90-minute conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, and given its length, I thought I’d jot down some general topics that they to make it easier to find, for those who want to listen again to a certain bit, or those who just don’t have time to listen to it all. It’s all good, though, if you only have time for a few minutes.

One warning, though, my notes are what I was hearing as an educated white male, and publishing these reference points is more like being an editor or gatekeeper than I am entirely comfortable with; I am not worthy of either role for these two great individuals. I hope this helps more people hear them, than detracts from messages that I failed to hear.

In an antiracism training setting, Roots of Justice trainers often say that White people need to educate themselves about racism and not depend on People of Color to do it for them. A common response is, How can we know without listening to the stories of People of Color? The answer is to read and listen to those who willingly and graciously put their thoughts out publicly.

First 7 minutes: Welcome and introduction. If you know who MHP and bh are and your time is pressed, skip this.

First 10 minutes of the conversation (until 17:00): Shift in the voices of Black women over the last generation. 

20:00 – Beast of the Southern Wild – Abuse of a young black girl presented for entertainment.

21:40 – 12 Years a Slave – Negating the Black female voice

24:30 – Michelle Obama – Has her stature remained strong or diminished?

28:50 – Back to 12 Years a Slave, bringing in Django Unchained and other films; white women have been complicity in oppression; sentimentality

32:40 – Why is there such an interest in sentimentality and melodrama at this particular moment in history?

36:10 – Grief, MLKing’s insight of “a native form of fascism” is coming/has come into reality

38:00 – the cognitive dissonance that Black people live with

41:00 – Is there a sentimentality around MLKing? We can’t just use him and ignore his sexism and heterosexism.

44:00 – Imperialist patriarchy is killing Black men. Story of a 7-year-old African American boy.

48:00 – Proximity to Whiteness provides privilege, and other intersections of privilege.

49:50 – Referencing Paulo Friere, exercising redemptive subjectivity

52:00 – bell hooks’s decision to leave NY and return to community and a different kind of writing

56:00 – Lorraine Hansberry: think critically about love

56:40 – I can’t count on the white racist world to keep the bell hooks legacy going

58:00 – Questions. Keep them short because “with Buddhist compassion I will tell you to not give that speech.” Question 1 – How can we balance telling the stories of the violence done to Black women’s bodies while imagining a “beyond that.” Response: Why is there no world that wants to see the lives of self-sufficient black women? Where is our decolonized image?

1:01:00 – Talking about an experience of sexual assault is exhausting.

1:04:30 – Question 2: On the “Black Elite”, neighborhoods, and the creation of culture.

1:08:30 – Question 3: On shaming each other and internalized oppression. Shaming people for individual decisions is a defense mechanism to keep people from doing the hard work of organizing for change; it’s the most dangerous thing in marginalized communities because then we do not organize.

1:13:40 – Shame is a tool of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because it produces trauma which often produces paralysis.

1:14:15 – Question 4: On dealing with hyper-masculine personalities who have elements of anti-imperialism. Response: If you mean patriarchy, don’t say “hyper-masculinity”. Don’t equate masculinity with patriarchy; that contributes to the assault on Black males.

1:17:40 – Question 5: Where are the voices of Black school teachers in the conversations about educational reform? Response: Black teachers are the targets, the reason for backlash against unions and the brining in of charter schools and Teach for America people to teach the kids instead. It’s not a mistake that this is one area where there is bipartisan consensus.

1:19:30 – More on TFA

1:20:45 – Question 6: Was there a moment when you realized you had something to write, and how did you push back against the urge to silence yourself? Question 7: Thinking about the different responses to the deaths of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin – How can we value women and men in our community equally? Question 8: How instrumental is the male or white ally in the movement against patriarchy? Question 9: On the ways that African Americans participate in imperialism globally.

Responses: Q7 – Dismantle patriarchy. Certain violence fits neatly into tropes, like Black men being lynched. We don’t have the narratives to talk about violence against Black women in the same way, except for rape by White men.

1:27:20 – Q6 – Find some safe audiences to develop your authentic voice with.

1:29:15 Q9 – What’s scary is that people don’t want to face that there is not one Blackness. 

1:30:40 – Q8 – I question the word “ally.” People who are standing on their own anti-patriarchal or anti-sexist beliefs are not allies, they are on their own front line in the same way I am on my own front line.

1:33:00 – On the Declaration of Independence. We don’t need allies as much as we need patriarchs to imagine something bigger than what is in this moment.

1:35:10 – One way to work for freedom is to move away from binaries.