“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4, NIV)
In May of 1987, Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice, delivered the Bicentennial Speech marking the 200-year anniversary of the US Constitution. He took a turn in the speech when he commented that he did not find the insights, future visions, and sense of fundamental fairness particularly profound.
According to Justice Marshall, America was born out of a great moral error – the robbery of land of one people, the indigenous people of the Americas, and the enslavement of another group of people, Africans. The government was defective from the start, requiring a civil war, several amendments, and a social transformation to win the respect for freedoms and human rights that we have today.
To find the flaw, we only need to look at the first three words of the Preamble: “We the People.” Those words did not include most Americans, including the black people, who did not have the right to vote but had 3/5s of their population counted for representational purposes in 1787 during the US Constitutional Convention.
Justice Marshall’s observations make one thing very clear. The history of this nation is riddled with the intent to create a ranked social order and included the belief that black people were inferior. This belief was used to justified slavery, lynching, and segregation. The sinister genius of racial dehumanization made many white people believe black people were inferior, and also made many black people believe this untruth about themselves. If everything around you reinforces the belief that blacks are inferior and whites are superior, blacks will continue to live out the inferiority complex and whites will see themselves as superior, whether unconscious or not.
If black people want to change life for the better, they must change the way they feel about themselves. This requires that the environment reinforce the understanding of the full humanity of black people and the possibility of a greater future.
Steps to Guarding Your Heart and Mind
If you lived in the mud for 400 years, at some point, you have to start cleaning. America has been in the mud. Bryan Stevenson
Changing reality for black people starts with changing the conditioning of black people. Black people were taught to be ashamed of being black. Racist systems are so well designed that some victims do blame themselves.
It’s important to note that the stolen Africans were not slaves when they were stolen. African doctors, teachers, builders, astronomers, mothers, and fathers were brought to the US. They were made to be slaves through their conditioning.
One of the first steps to making a slave is enslaving the mind. The most powerful weapon of the slave master is the mind of the slave. As Carter G. Woodson, author of The Miseducation of the Negro discussed, if you can control a man’s perception of himself, you can control his destiny.
Liberating the mind is just as important, if not more important, than freeing the body because we are not free until we can free our minds. In the 1930s, Negro teachers were powerless to change programs that promoted black inferiority. That is no longer the case. In our day and time, mentors can have meaningful impact.
To reverse the enslavement, you need to re-engineer and heal the mind of the enslaved African by changing the self-perception. As Frederick Douglass said, you have seen how men became slaves. You will see how slaves became men.
Here are the four steps:
1. Do a Detox
2. Learn to Protect Your Heart and Mind
3. Sharpen Your Perspective to Recognize Miseducating/Inferiority-Producing Content
4. Interrupt Racist Socialization
Step 1: Do a Detox
You become what you think about and what you expose yourself to. Your brain is like a computer program—garbage in, garbage out. Put yourself and your mentees on a detox program.
Unless your business depends on it, start doing a regular detox of social media and television. Start with a day, a week, or a month and see what your life feels like without constant exposure to random sources of media. Young or old, we are all impressionable. What we see and hear informs the direction we take. Be mindful of the character and quality of the content you take in. Be intentional about what you will and will not consume.
Some pathologies are rooted in lies you might have believed. Sometimes you need a change of input to ignite who you are. Emotions and desires are contagious. The higher the stakes are in your life, the more intentional you have to be about your environment and your exposure to it.
A detox will allow you to free yourself from the petty thoughts and concerns that weigh you down. James Baldwin said that it took him years to throw up all the filth he was taught to believe about himself before he believed he had the right to be on this Earth. We should be intentional in getting to that place as well. I strongly subscribe to the principle of new affections possessing expulsive power. In other words, to get rid of darkness, you have to flood it with light. Here’s a good Scripture to reflect on.
Solution: Fill Your Mind with Positive and Uplifting Content
“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8-9, MSG)
Step 2: Learn to Protect your Mind and Heart
The Scripture says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV)
An interpretation of this verse is to be careful how you think and what you allow to influence or condition you, because will affect how you move through the world. Be Intentional about the type of media you consume, because “As a man thinketh, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7, KJV)
You must protect your mind as much as you would protect your physical assets. On a daily basis, you have to stand guard at the door of your heart and mind by monitoring the movies/shows you watch, the people you hang around, the music you listen to, and the people you follow on social media. Your deepest perception of you must be self-determined, instead of being automatically programmed by the forces of the various media of communication (TV, social media, etc.)
Everything is conveying a message. The more positive your self-perception, the better equipped you'll be to cope with adversity. The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your thinking. Our acts can be no wiser than our thoughts. Your thinking will affect the decisions you make, the places you go, and the relationships you engage in.
Remember, the higher the stakes are, the more intentional you have to be about your conditioning. I would argue that the stakes are always high when it comes to guiding the young people of tomorrow.
Promote Positive and/or Humanizing Media Depictions of Black People from the Lens of Black People
If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.
Blackness is a powerful symbol, because we were taught to be ashamed of being black; to overcome that teaching, you must affirm blackness as a positive trait. Slavery is over. The physical bodies of African Americans have been liberated, but the mind must also be liberated. Our hands and feet were once shackled, but now our minds are being shackled. One of the ways to remove the shackles, aside from learning one’s history, is to take in positive media images of black people.
Reflection question: What content choices promote positive depictions of black people that you are familiar with?
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of people who are intentional about promoting overall positive and/or humanizing depictions of black people that you can google or learn about at www.imdb.com:
-Ava Duvernay: 13th (Documentary), When They See Us (TV Show), Queen Sugar (TV Show)
-John Singleton: Rosewood (Movie), Higher Learning (Movie), Boyz N the Hood (Movie)
-Spike Lee: Do the Right Thing (Movie), Malcolm X (Movie), Four Little Girls (Documentary)
-Ryan Coogler: Fruitvale Station (TV Show), Black Panther (Movie)
Be mindful that some of these works have serious, intense content. Know your own mind’s needs and determine whether it’s appropriate for you to take in a certain type of content. That is a judgment call that you have to make.
Step 3: Sharpen Your Radar for Recognizing Miseducating/Inferiority-Inducing Material
If people “put” you in your place long enough, after a while, you never want to leave.
Descriptions belong to the describer; not the described. Based on histories of genocide, a necessary precondition for culturally or state-sanctioned violence is dehumanization, which begins with language. As such, the war that is fought today is more a war of the mind. Marcus Garvey warned that black people would die from the effects of taking in information indiscriminately from Western civilization.
You think and believe according to what you’re exposed to, and your life becomes a reflection of what you believe. Generally, your world view comes from the programming received during the formative years of your life. Our friends, families, and communities are influential in forming our self-concept, but the most influential contributor, besides families, is the media.
Unfortunately, some people’s spiritual and emotional radar is broken, and they don’t know how to guard their hearts and minds. Oscar award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o, at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, read a letter by a young dark-skinned black girl. The little girl wrote to Lupita that she considered Lupita to be lucky to be successful despite her dark skin. The young girl wrote that she was about to buy skin-whitening cream until she saw Lupita on the screen—a woman who looked like her.
Lupita says she experienced the same thing as a little girl. She prayed to God for lighter skin. She would wake up disappointed that she was just as dark as the day before. She negotiated with God that she would be obedient to her parents and stop doing mischievous activities if he would make her wake up lighter. It wasn’t until Lupita saw Alek Wek, the dark-skinned British-Sudanese model, that she began to see herself as beautiful.
Media propaganda has created in blacks a contempt for themselves. Black people have been exposed to decades of miseducation and black inferiority-inducing content. Young people pay a hefty price for feasting on the narrow forms of beauty propagated in the media—and their caretakers might not understand how dangerous these messages are.
It’s been said that a slave cannot be bought. A slave must be made. One of the ways that a slave is made is through mental conditioning. We all receive two educations – the one society gives to us, and the one we give to ourselves.
Your mentee will pursue what they are conditioned to pursue. As a mentor, always ask what message is being conveyed in songs, movies, shows, and books that you and your mentees consume. Music and images, in particular, are the messages of the soul. You must look behind the content and understand the intent of the creator. Be aware of the programming behind anything you hear, because you can’t deconstruct what you are continually reinforcing.
When you look at the history of black film, feelings of inferiority were intentionally cultivated by depicting black people in stereotypical and degrading ways. Mentors of black children must ensure that children see positive images of themselves on the screen.
You use your mind to plan and chart your course in the world. Don’t give anyone else the power to condition you. Don’t give your power away. As far as the media goes, we are not required to partake in it, so you must exercise self-control or completely disqualify from the social menu any medium that promotes negative depictions of African American people with no redemptive value.
A black American whose sense of self has been compromised through the legacy of black trauma and ignorance of black history is not who he believes he is. He is not who you think he is, either. He is what he thinks you think he is.
The ideology of white supremacy created to justify enslaving black people is the same ideology used to incarcerate black people. It’s done in more sinister ways, like labeling certain demographics as “thugs” or “super predators.” It’s much easier to enslave people if you see them as less than. It’s easier to lock people up if you see them as destined for prison.
A clear example is an electoral strategy used by the Southern Republican party in the 1950s and 1960s. They increased political support among white voters by appealing to racism against black Americans. The campaign of Ronald Reagan, for example, used seemingly race-neutral words that were actually racially coded rhetoric, such as “welfare queens” to conjure images of black people in the minds of southern whites. The strategy was successful. When lies and myths have been told about you—and then TV, film, and media retell that story—you can end up believing what you hear. You must be on guard to not indiscriminately take in information or let young people do so.
The average black American is a decent, hardworking, faith-based person who wants to live a great life and reach their dreams—but you would not believe that if you watched the 6 p.m. news. Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, did a great job demonstrating the media’s use of provocative language and grotesque images to paint a horrific picture of the black man and woman. The dehumanization includes the robbery of complete and factual history. It also includes the use of labels, and/or carefully constructed images that misrepresent, demean, and degrade black people, in an attempt to exonerate American’s imperfect and complicated history.
Here are some examples of ways that miseducating/inferiority-inducing content gets created and addressed.
· Representation matters in the cinema more than ever, particularly at an impressionable age. Of the 1,000 top grossing films made in the last eleven years, more than 90 percent were directed by Caucasian men. The majority of the movies that receive top billing are creations from the mind and heart of white men. Does this man that all black movies produced by white men are racist? Of course not. A white man, Steven Spielberg, made The Color Purple, the story of a black family that had economic independence and the subversion against male dominance.
A white man, Brian Helgeland, made 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player
to make it to the major leagues. A white man, Taylor Hackford, made the movie Ray, the story of Ray Charles, a legendary black musician who lived an extraordinary life of ups and downs. What makes these movies authentic to the black experience is that the directors were willing to have the texture and cultural feel of the movies be guided and shaped by black people.
But those films are exceptions. Most popular movies portray life from a limited worldview that often does not capture the authentic and true experiences of non-white men and women. DGA (Directors Guild of America) President Thomas Schlamme acknowledges that discrimination is prevalent in the feature film business.
A black actress once said, about growing up when actors were all white and black characters were negatively depicted, that she wanted to love films, but the films never loved her back. To this point, Byron Allen asked a white man if he would be comfortable if Byron Allen, as a black man, controlled all the images of his daughter and how she saw herself on screen and grew up in the world. If a black man controlled how a little white girl saw herself—whether she saw herself as a crackhead, a prostitute, or someone who’s not that bright—would the white man be comfortable with that?
The white man said no and Byron replied, “Then why would you expect it from me?”
White-controlled media often exponentially reflects the challenges in the black community without highlighting the precipitating factors, including the historical policies and practices that created those challenges. Media campaigns that promote black inferiority can also be found in music videos and picture books.
As mentors, we must be mindful of how images and stories play a role in impacting people’s sense of self. We need to be intentional about our mentees’ cell phone access and the TV programs allowed.
· Ava Duvernay, creator of the most-watched Netflix series When They See Us, said she believes the news given by a white man goes unquestioned. Her series describes news coverage in 1989 about the Central Park Five. One study showed that 90 percent of the news reports about the five men falsely accused of the Central Park rape never used the word “alleged.” Meanwhile, a black man’s credentials are constantly brought in question as a means of discrediting. When a white man says something, at best, it's always true and at worst, he's credible without offering evidence. When a black man says something, at worst, it's always a lie. At best, his background and credentials will be investigated thoroughly. President Barack Obama’s citizenship denial (sometimes called “birtherism”) is one of the best examples of what has been perceived as a racist attempt to discredit a black man.
· With the rise of mass shootings and police killings, US media outlets now have different reporting policies. When an unarmed black person is shot and killed by a police officer, the murdered person’s life is often thoroughly investigated and combed through for any infraction that might be used as a justification for the murder:
o Michael Brown may or may not have stolen cigars.
o Eric Garner sold “loosey” cigarettes. He was a victim of making bad decisions, one journalist commented.
o Trayvon Martin wore a hoodie. This image was used to depict him as a “thug.”
o Tamir Rice, who was twelve years old when he was shot by police while playing with a toy gun, was referred to in the media as a “young man.”
This kind of reporting creates a sense of comfort in the mind of the viewer that these killings are not a
major loss, because the victims had checkered pasts. The danger of this kind of reporting is that it takes away from a person’s humanity. Someone’s checkered past doesn’t exonerate agents of law of enforcement from wrongful death. It’s important to maintain a perspective that allows for nuance and calls out manipulative uses of media to soothe society’s conscience. People will take up for those who are treated unjustly, but if they don’t believe someone is innocent, they won’t speak out. The strategy is to kill someone’s image, to lessen the public outrage when that person is killed.
On the flip side, when a young white man engages in a mass shooting, the default explanation is one of mental illness. That killer is humanized and is seen as a victim of inadequate mental health services.
o Dylan Roof, who admitted to his white supremacist ideology and intentions after killing
nine people at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, was described by an FBI agent as
having “mental issues.” His stated motive for killing the church members was that black men
were raping white women.
o James Holmes, who killed twelve people and injured seventy more in a Colorado movie theater, was described a “regular American kid.”
o Adam Lanza from Newton, CT was referred to as a young man of deteriorating mental health after killing twenty-seven people at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Murders by white people are generally deemed to be based on evil individual intent, instead of a pattern of behavior used to explain crimes by people of color. This exonerates the system from addressing residual white supremacy.
· “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem, is lauded as a uniting, patriotic song. It was written by Francis Scott Key. In the mid-1800s, Key was a slave owner who used his position as a District Attorney in Washington, DC to suppress abolitionists. The anthem, which was originally composed to have four verses, has a verse that many consider to be racist and anti-black. The third stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner discussed Key’s opposition of the Colonial Marines, an auxiliary force for the British Marines and a battalion of runaway slaves. It’s ironic that the person who wrote about “the land of free” amassed his own wealth by enslaving men and then endorsed killing these men when they fought for freedom. How should black people feel about this song? Can you redeem the song by only singing the first stanza? When the ugly truth of the song’s origin is uncovered, can the song still be considered a unifying symbol of freedom?
· The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, professes that all men are equal—but then goes on to refer to indigenous people of the Americas as merciless savages. The dehumanization of indigenous people of the Americas provided the white settlers with a moral exclusion that made it possible to kill millions of indigenous people and force many others to relocate. According to historians, roughly 10 million indigenous people lived in the United States before the settlers arrived. By the end of the Indian war, less than 240,000 indigenous people remained.
· In 2016, Princeton University’s board of trustees decided it would not remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and from a residential college. After a thirty-two-hour sit-in in the President’s office, the University agreed to consider removing his name from campus institutions. Why? Woodrow Wilson, who was a Princeton University president, had worked to keep black people from entering the University. He also agreed to screen the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation (1915) at the White House during his presidency, which served to revive the most lethal domestic terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan.
Famed journalist Katie Couric discussed how she had a sanitized impression of Woodrow Wilson until she realized Wilson invited members of the Ku Klux Klan into the White House and held other racist beliefs. Couric is not alone. In some states, children grow up to see white supremacists as heroes. For example, in some states, Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s birthday is celebrated alongside the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To black people in general, the Confederate flag is akin to the Nazi flag. It is a harsh reminder of a great struggle to keep a horrific institution (slavery) intact. While some consider the flag a “celebration of Southern heritage,” many consider it a symbol of black oppression.
Back in the days of the Confederacy, I, as a black man, would not have had an opportunity to learn about the heritage, because I probably would have been lynched and hung from a tree. It's an interesting intellectual, social, and moral exercise to re-examine history. Doing so has led some institutions and municipalities to take down Confederate statues and refuse to memorialize people who were white supremacists. Only after white supremacist Dylan Roof killed nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston did South Carolina’s Capitol grounds no longer allow the Confederate flag to fly.
· This is the simplest example: During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, credible US media outlets reported the white people “found” bread and water while black people were “looting.” White people were referred to as “survivors” and “residents,” while black people were referred to as “criminals” and “looters.” When social conscience is silenced in the minds of the viewers through the use of this language, the viewers can also condone police use of force against certain groups of people.
Step 4: Interrupt Racist Socialization
You may not be able to control what actions are taken against you, but you can decide not to be diminished by them.
As Dr. King pointed out in numerous lectures, those in power who wanted to infect the minds and hearts of people invented a lie: that black people were inferior. The lie was that whiteness is the prototype for all things beautiful and worthy. The lie works like walking in a smoky room. Attempting to avoid these negative media messages is like trying to hold your breath to avoid air pollution. Once you go in and come out, it’s everywhere. It’s on your clothes, on your skin, and in your hair and your lungs.
Our humanity, worth, culture, intellect, hair, skin, physical features, and morals have been devalued. This lowered sense of self becomes internalized, coloring our thoughts, feelings, expectations, and actions. One of the steps we can take to break down this lie is to interrupt it when it’s being spoken. Exercise honor in the moment by interrupting maladaptive behaviors like those you’ll read about below. Choose to be the “Rosa Parks” and exercise integrity to stop the negative cycles.
Examples of Racist Socialization
· Black mother to dark-skinned son about dating: Don’t bring anyone home as dark as you
· White people have good hair.
· She’s pretty for a dark girl.
· She was beautiful / she had good hair.
· Insult: Shut up, you black (blank) (blank).
· Look at those ugly sneakers.
· You sound white.
· You think you better than someone cuz you graduated.
· You ain’t better than nobody cuz you go to church.
· You know we gonna be on CP time.
· If you darker than the brown paper bag, you’re ugly.
These statements are theoretically incorrect and rooted in racist logic, but the opposition is often cerebral and not visceral. There may be a sense of outrage, but it’s often fleeting. These types of situations and messages affect your mentees’ perception of themselves, their worth and value, and their place in the world. Sadly, people develop a tolerance for racist ideology, and it becomes a normalized part of the culture. Just being critically conscious that racism has been normalized begins the process of liberation.
A Major Practice Reflecting Racist Socialization
Skin-bleaching. The Number One weapon used against black girls is the perception of beauty. Black women spend more money on cosmetics than other races of women. See Chapter 38 of Bridge the Gaps: Lessons on Self-Awareness, Self-Development, and Self-Care.
What other forms of racist socialization have you seen?