Gladys Mitchell-Walthour is a political scientist specializing in Brazilian racial politics. Her work examines Afro-Brazilian racial identification, discrimination, political behavior and opinion.
She will discuss her latest book, “The Politics of Blackness: Racial Identity and Political Behavior in Contemporary Brazil” (Cambridge University Press), on Wednesday, Nov. 29th at noon in 225 Friedl on Duke’s East Campus.
Mitchell-Walthour, an assistant professor of public policy and political economy in the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, uses an intersectional approach to analyze the impact of the experience of race on Afro-Brazilian political behavior in the cities of Salvador, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. Taking into account the experience of racial discrimination, she seeks to explain Afro-Brazilian political behavior with a focus on affirmative action policy and Law 10.639 (requiring that African and Afro-Brazilian history be taught in schools).
Mitchell-Walthour has also co-authored two edited volumes as well as the book, Brazil’s New Racial Politics (2010), with Bernd Reiter. She has published articles in Racial and Ethnic Studies (2010), The National Political Science Review (2011), and Latin American Politics and Society (2009) among others.
Mitchell-Walthour holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, a master of public policy from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. in political science and African & African-American Studies from Duke University. In addition, she was a visiting research fellow at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), and a Samuel DuBois Cook Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Gender in the Social Sciences (REGSS) at Duke.
By Wesley Hogan
New ways of looking at the world never fail to create within me feelings of both excitement and awkwardness, like learning a new dance step. When I became director of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in 2013, my training was an oral historian, so I asked my colleagues for advice on how to look at photography and film. Many generous and brilliant people expanded my understanding but none more than Courtney Reid-Eaton, CDS’s exhibitions director.
Recently, the richness of her knowledge enveloped me again as I listened to her curator’s talk and panel for the extraordinary exhibit, En | Gender, now on view at Cassilhaus. The show is part of the Triangle’s annual CLICK photography festival, which continues to develop as one of the most exciting gatherings around photographic work in the country.
“I had the good fortune to be invited to Curator Camp at Cassilhaus last summer,” Reid-Eaton began. “A lovely gathering of museum and gallery professionals from around the South. We began with conversations about upcoming projects, interests, and concerns, and when my turn came I asked, ‘Why am I the only person of color here?’ That’s a problem.”
Indeed, who is at the storytelling table is at the heart of documentary, journalism, and the arts nationwide. Most of the people who have trained as photographers, filmmakers, oral historians, and other nonfiction storytellers over the last five or six generations have been overwhelmingly white. For Reid-Eaton, this was true as she began her career: “I think of my photographic influences, especially in documentary, and they’re mostly white; my mentors and teachers were white. That had an impact on my aesthetic and the ways I learned to see. I realize on reflection, that there are things that I make that white people respond to and there are other things that I’ve felt really strongly about that they seem unable to read or connect with or that they exoticize.”
What impact does this have on developing artists who are people of color, or women, or LGBTQI?, she asked. She described how exploring that question became ever more important to her as she recognized that “most gatekeepers in the arts, people with jobs like mine, who select which artists and work to promote and support, are white.”
Reid-Eaton’s remarks got me curious: How do we learn to see, to read, the work by some artists, even as we find others incomprehensible, illegible? She explained that during her first decade at CDS, she “focused on the institution; showed the kind of work our mostly white audience responded positively and comfortably to.” Then her curatorial practice took a distinctly new turn.
“I decided I wanted to spend my second decade centering the work of people of color and women—my communities—by holding and supporting access to places/spaces like CDS and Cassilhaus; encouraging folks from my communities to take on gatekeeper jobs/roles, to create access for others.” She invited in new audiences, gathered local artists from the African diaspora at CDS, and expanded the range of her curatorial practice through innovative shows like “The Self Care Exhibit: A Word and Image Act of Self Preservation and Political Warfare” and “The Jemima Code.”
En | Gender emerges as another example of the nourishing fruit of Reid-Eaton’s intellectual labor. Here she brings together the work of three gender-nonconforming artists of color: Gabriel García Román, Saba Taj, and Lola Flash. “To bring the work of these artists together to be in conversation, to call in our communities, is a joy and a privilege,” Reid-Eaton notes in the gallery guide.
Invoking Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois’s focus on representation, she recognizes that “people of color, Muslims, women—people who have been identified by dominant American culture as minority, marginalized, other—don’t wear those labels in the wider world. We are, in fact, the majority of the world’s population. Our intellectual and cultural contributions, Spiritual practices, and the unpaid, invisible labor of home and family making/sustaining—the stuff that keeps the human race alive and growing—are undervalued, except when drawn on to entertain, enrich, and inspire the ‘powerful.’ But we know who we are. Artists and scholars like the three whose work is included in this exhibition, are working in a tradition that has existed much longer than the camera. Portrait, image, art; vehicles for collaboration and self-determination; opportunities for immortality.”
Cassilhaus has an enviable reputation for bringing thought-provoking artists forward, and Reid-Eaton’s virtuosity opened a space for those present at Cassilhaus to broaden understandings and legitimize the ways people choose to see and present themselves and their communities in documentary. She asked García Román and Taj to share some of their early influences. Who impacted how they saw the world?
Taj noted that her mother could make anything: drapes, delicious cuisine, clothing. She even “sculpted the hell out of the hedges.” Taj grew up in a majority white school where both family and school culture advocated assimilation. She identifies as a queer Muslim femme, and part of her early motivation was to express the beauty and diversity of Muslim and South Asian culture in a North Carolina where people held static stereotypes of both, particularly in the wake of 9/11.
García Román’s early influences included Jan van Eyck, and as he developed his work, he grew fascinated by texture; he wanted his subjects to be able to talk back to their portraits by allowing them to add their own words. “From the queer Latina fighting for immigration rights to the non-binary disabled Trans Filipino,” García Román writes, his sitters are “heroes in their own right.” Both Taj and García Roman explored how their early influences shaped their art, and how they began to create new expressions to better represent their own experiences and communities. Taj’s work presents a broad range of Muslim women’s experiences and emotions; García Román has focused on self-determination. Lola Flash makes disarming, complex portraits of gender non-conforming trailblazers such as Cheryl Dunye and DJ Formika. Reid-Eaton moves with these “outsiders” from margin to center, as figures that García Román notes are “inherently worthy of attention, emulation, and storytelling.”
One hundred and fifty-six years have passed since Frederick Douglass’s first “Lecture on Pictures” in 1861. Yet artist Coco Fusco recently observed that today, elite art schools avoid revising curricula and modes of critique that incorporate critical race theory or the history of anti-racist cultural production. Without that formative training, curators and artists lack a common ground for informed discussion about power and representation. I’m grateful, enormously so, that I work alongside a curator who fosters that informed discussion day in and day out and helps me to learn to see and engage in more authentic dialogues with people who’ve lived lives that may be different than mine.
“We know none of us are not free until we are all Free,” writes Reid-Eaton. Go see En | Gender—it’s on view until December 3—and imagine what your freedom will look like.
Wesley Hogan is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where she teaches the history of youth social movements, African American history, women’s history, and oral history. She is a research professor at the university’s Franklin Humanities Institute and Department of History. Hogan’s book on SNCC, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (2007), won the Lillian Smith Book Award, among other honors, and she is currently working on a post-1960s history of young people organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker.
For Thomas Stelzl, a semester spent as a high school exchange student in Wisconsin seeded a strong interest in American culture, and how it differs from German culture and politics.
“I’m drawn to American Studies because of the U.S. influence in the world,” said Stelzl who came to Duke from the University of Passau in Bavaria for a two-month, post-graduate research fellowship sponsored by the Duke Club of Germany and the Bavarian American Academy.
“When I tell people I am in American Studies and they ask what it is, I say ‘cultural studies.’ Sometimes I get as a response, ‘American culture, does it exist?’” Stelzl said. “People think of culture as being this Shakespearean thing. It’s different in the U.S. There is a distinctive American culture very different from European and German culture.”
Stelzl’s research straddles several fields including American Studies, political science and intercultural communication. In Germany, he is a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate who teaches seminars in cultural studies and American literature, exploring iconic moments in U.S. history such as Watergate and 9/11.
At Duke, Stelzl has been able to focus on researching and writing his Ph.D. thesis, tentatively titled, “Cultural Bias in Post-9/11 German and American Foreign Policy – An Intercultural Comparison.”
Stelzl says that although Germany and the U.S. have a lot in common in terms of trade, human rights and shared values most of the time, there are moments when foreign policy doesn’t translate well — or not as well as we expected.
“Of course, there are hard reasons like different capabilities and interests, but a very important factor is cultural differences. For example, American exceptionalism. There is no German equivalent anymore,” he said. “In post-WWII Germany there cannot be an equivalent.”
Stelzl says the countries also differ in their tolerance for military action with Germans much more hesitant to use their military because of historical experience.
“When was the last time massive numbers of German military forces were unilaterally sent abroad? That’s something we don’t want to repeat,” said Stelzl who is being hosted on campus by Duke’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender (REGSS). He will return to Germany in November.
“The fellowship is really helping because I have been able to get a lot of new input, and I can get away from the daily routine of my job and focus on my research for two months,” said Stelzl who has made use of library resources, attended lectures and panel discussions on campus, and also enjoyed festivities surrounding the inauguration of Duke’s president.
“My university won a prize for being the most beautiful campus in Germany. It’s a young university at the intersection of three rivers. But I think Duke can compete with the beauty of campus. It’s a bit like Disneyland for academics.”
By Sadé Dinkins
“When you’re in front of your beat Maschine, there’s nothing but you and the Maschine. It’s a sacred place nobody can get in between,” said Grammy Award-winning producer and African & African American Studies professor Patrick Douthit, also known as 9th Wonder.
Scott Lindroth, Vice Provost for the Arts and a music professor, said Douthit’s donation will “contribute to a more expansive range of inquiry linking artistic practice to history and culture” and is the beginning of an auspicious partnership.
Upon completion, Lindroth said the new Rubenstein Arts Center will host Douthit’s Hip-Hop production class and students will be able to access the Maschines in the new space.
“The art of sampling used in the creation of hip-hop and facilitated by Maschines, has opened up new ways music can ‘speak’ across generations. It brought new meanings to ‘old’ work even as it generated new art,” Lindroth said.
Douthit’s courses, which include Hip-Hop Production, Hip-Hop Cinema, and the History of Hip-Hop (co-taught with Mark Anthony Neal) have begun to lay a foundation for the education, appreciation, and fostering of hip-hop on campus. Douthit said the new arts building will provide a space for a more comprehensive hip-hop education, reaching every end of the spectrum, from production to DJing to rhyme structure.
“Just like you need to have a class studying the great poets of the time, you need to have a class studying the great MC’s of the time,” Douthit said.
Maschines are a product of Native Instruments, a leading manufacturer of software and hardware for computer-based audio production and DJing. Native Instruments has a long-standing relationship with Douthit, who praises the tech company for its apt ability to streamline the beat-making process.
Douthit lamented the fact that last year students were unable to take the Maschines to and from class in order to continue their creative streak outside of the classroom. His donation, however, will provide not only that option to foster one’s innovation outside the classroom, but also an additional resource through which students may find that creative escape from the academic rigor of Duke.
“The arts open up your mind and make you not think so much in the box,” Douthit said. “It helps you become imaginative and creative and you’re not so analytical when it comes to things, even with life decisions.”
Douthit is also donating Maschines to his alma mater North Carolina Central University, the Raleigh Boys Club, and the MLK Community Center in his hometown of Winston-Salem.
To quantify the impact of such a donation is a grand task, and one that deserves more qualitative recognition said André Mego, a Duke sophomore, who interns with Jamla Records, and who took Douthit’s hip-hop production class.
“It is much deeper than making music. It is about expressing oneself. You look for records that hold the sentiment you have inside you that you want to release and you piece it together either by chops or through a loop in order to express the feelings you hold,” said Mego. “9th’s donation is one that gives me hope for a bigger home for hip-hop at Duke.”
By Mark Anthony Neal
As protests go, the pulling down of Confederate monuments is low-hanging fruit. They are largely symbolic acts directed at symbols that, by and large, have long been relegated to unread history books and museums. But low-hanging fruit can also be poisonous.
State laws passed to protect these monuments—to weaponize them—are now being used to undermine the work of social justice activists and quell resistance. The “Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” was passed by the North Carolina state legislature in July 2015, roughly a month after activist Bree Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State Capitol in South Carolina in response to the shooting deaths of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof.
Newsome’s act became a social media moment that inspired many other acts of resistance— including Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.
The 2015 law is also the subtext of the recent arrest of Takiyah Thompson, a 22-year-old North Carolina Central University (NCCU) student, who was among a group of activists and protesters who helped bring down a Confederate monument in the city of Durham earlier this week. Additional protesters have subsequently turned themselves into authorities.
A day after footage of Thompson scaling the structure to place the rope that was used to pull it to the ground went viral, she was arrested by Durham County sheriff’s deputies. Thompson was charged with four counts, including two felony charges for participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500. That the sheriff’s deputies patiently waited for Thompson to finish speaking at a press conference arranged on NCCU’s campus, speaks less to their recognition of her first amendment rights as it was public show of the sanctity of state laws.
Yet what these Durham activists understand is the fact not all laws are just. Indeed, the very states that have enacted laws to protect Confederate totems from removal by local municipalities and individuals, also understand that not all laws are just.
Durham’s Black city manager dubbed the protest “unlawful and inappropriate” and there were many, who, while affirming the goals of the takedown, were less supportive and even critical of the means in which the monument was taken down. Yet, if the Civil Rights era activists would have been able to use Twitter or Instagram 60 years ago, they likely would have used hashtags like #unlawful and #inappropriate, which would have been entirely appropriate in the context of struggles against laws that were unjust and absurd.
Rosa Parks broke an unjust law to challenge the treatment of Black people on public transportation in the South. When four students from North Carolina A&T sat at a “Whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, they were pushing back against an unjust law—also a reminder of the role that HBCUs play in cultivating political consciousness among young Black people. Every enslaved African that chose to leave a plantation, under the cover of the night and live their lives as fugitives, knowingly broke, what they correctly deemed unjust laws. Indeed, there have been few examples of successful social justice movements that did not include the breaking of unjust laws, from the challenging of unlawful assemblies to illegal work stoppages. Generations ago, we quaintly named such activities as “Civil Disobedience” and can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s.
The tearing down of the symbols and trinkets of the confederacy might seem like low-hanging fruit, but when we are more concerned as a society about the treatment of formed pewter than about the treatment of people forced to live under the policies and tactics shaped by those symbols, then it is indeed time to take a stand. After a successful fundraising campaign Thompson was freed on bail hours after her arrest. It was a reminder there are some willing to stand on the side of justice.
Mark Anthony Neal is chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan.
Originally published in Cassius Life, Aug. 17, 2017.
Excerpted from The Black Scholar, Vol. 47, Aug. 2017
By Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal
Black Code Studies is queer, femme, fugitive, and radical. As praxis and methodology, it waxes insurgent. It refutes conceptions of the digital that remove black diasporic people from engagement with technology, modernity, or the future. It centers black thought and cultural production across a range of digital platforms, but especially social media, where black freedom struggles intersect with black play and death in polymorphic and polyphonic intimacy.
Black Code Studies roots itself in the challenge of living in the wake of black people rendered inhuman, non-existent, and disposable by the slave ship, the plantation, the colonial state, the prison, the border. Facing devastation again and again, black folks need in and for each other becomes both time-traveling desire and reservoir knowledge. As Gumbs shows, our oracle work seeps up and through tools, structures, analog and digital architecture we were never meant to survive much less occupy.
When Cramer and Raengo declare that “black code studies emerges as a way to prepare black studies for an increasingly complex set of cultural rhythms and temporalities,” they capture the context in which this special issue appears in your hands. “Black Code” was conceived at a particular moment in the history of race—or, perhaps more apropos, Blackness—and the digital. In 2002, Alondra Nelson gathered geeks, freaks, and global nerds of color around “Afrofuturism.” Their work—and Nelson’s listserv organizing praxis—pre-dated social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Broadband was not a “public” good yet.
Fifteen years later, protecting and imagining Black Futures is a rallying cry in the face of immediate and structural racial violence. When new platforms or syntax (i.e., hashtags) appear, as Conley shows, black feminists reappropriate them for their own use despite having been created by tech companies for capitalistic pursuits. Protecting our black digital presence is about protecting a future in which our physicality may not matter in the same way that it has in the past.
As praxis, Black Code Studies moves beyond the dyad Black + Digital, transgressive as that pairing has proven to be. It is the viral blackness that, described by Wade, “subverts social hierarchies by putting the needs and desires of Black bodies at the center.” It is the #Blktwitterstorians hashtag, created by Brown and Crutchfield to highlight black historians and history. It is blackness as a deep humanism and affect(ion) that confronts, as Driscoll shows, the biopolitics of the hexadecimal, and, as Greene-Hayes and James discuss, the biopolitics of organizing and everyday antiblackness.
Black Code Studies rejects formulations of Black Studies that tie intellectual production only to institutional structures or the digital humanities only to grant-seeking projects with university affiliations. Black thought, art, and activist work manifests in many forms. Barely scratching the surface, this special issue represents the possibilities and difficulties digital work faces within existing academic publishing models and of constraining Black Code Studies to text form. Although the work in this special issue appears in analog form, the contributors gathered here include practitioners and non-practitioners, whose projects beyond these texts we encourage you to explore, engage, and participate in. We thank you, all of you, for your work.
We conspire to abscond. We will shapeshift into being again. Soon.
This fall, Professor Mark Anthony Neal will teach a new graduate course at Duke University – “Hip-Hop in the House of Hall: Critical Readings in Hip-Hop Studies.”
The fall 2017 course will be held Mondays at 6:15 p.m. in Friedl 216.
The course will examine the roots of the field of Hip-Hop Studies in the groundbreaking scholarship of cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
Born in Jamaica, Hall wrote and lectured extensively on race, identity and social change in Great Britain.
“Three months at Oxford persuaded me that it was not my home,” he told the Guardian in 2012. “I’m not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure.”
Hall passed away in February 2014 and by then had come to be known as “the godfather of multiculturalism.”
Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History
by Stuart Hall and Jennifer Daryl Slack
Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy
by Houston A. Baker Jr.
Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
by Tricia Rose
Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema
by S. Craig Watkins
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness
by Kevin Young
Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice
by Krista A. Thompson
Religion in Hip Hop: Mapping the New Terrain in the U.S.
Edited by Monica R. Miller and Anthony B. Pinn
In The Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition
by Fred Moten
Parodies of Ownership: Hip-Hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Law
by Richard L. Schur
Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics
by Lester K. Spence
Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop
Edited by Jeff Chang
When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down
by Joan Morgan
Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology
Edited by Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham and Rachel Raimist
by Linda M. Burton & PhD & Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D.
Ask NBC News. They recently learned what happens when you tweet a story with a headline that erroneously twisted Sally Hemmings’ personal narrative of horrific, repeated rapes at the hands of Thomas Jefferson into a headline about her being Jefferson’s mistress. NBC News learned that in this current climate of close interrogation of history and fact-checking, Twitter, especially Black Twitter, claps back. Mightily.
NBC News now knows not to twist, at least one Black woman’s narrative, Sally Hemmings’, into something it was not. But what about the rest of American society? Do pockets of America continue to twist Black girls’ narratives about who they are and their vulnerability and innocence into tales of willing and complicit precocious sexuality?
In the recently released report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” authored by Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Black, and Thalia Gonzalez, this question is answered with a resounding, “YES!” This report calls into sharp focus adults’ perceptions that dehumanize and both explicitly and implicitly impugn Black girls. The report finds that adult respondents from their study perceive Black girls as young as five to nine years old, in contrast to white girls, as needing less nurturance, protection, support, and comfort, while at the same time being more independent and knowing more about adult topics and sex.
To their credit, the authors chronicle the history of such dehumanization of Black girls and Black boys back to America’s inception and lift up the institution of slavery as further proof that such perceptions are not new. Such dehumanizing perceptions are often used to retell and revise the terror inflicted upon and objectification of Black bodies throughout American history.
Additionally, Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez review several dominant paradigms about Black femininity that emerged during slavery and note that the contemporary manifestations of these paradigms belie the implicit biases and racism (our word not theirs) that result in Black girls being treated more harshly and their developmental behaviors being criminalized.
We agree with the authors’ point about the continued, undeserved dehumanization of Black girls. Unfortunately, while the Girlhood Interrupted report focuses the spotlight on these dehumanizing perceptions of Black girls, the report also equates such perceptions with the term adultification.
As Black female behavioral scientists who have cumulatively studied adultification in the lives of Black girls and boys (see Burton, Winn, Stevenson, & McKinney, 2015) and Black families in different settings for over 50 years, we are concerned that framing the dehumanization of Black girls identified in the report as adultification is deeply problematic. In fact, we disagree altogether with the choice of adultification as a way to situate this very important discourse.
Admittedly, the authors, as a few other authors have done before them, defined adultification as, “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” And from there they argue that their participants’ perceptions of Black girls as being less innocent and in need of less nurturance, guidance, and protection are similar to the dehumanizing stereotypes of Black women.
Using the adultification concept in this way twists the fundamental meaning and incumbent processes as it is discussed in existing social science and family therapy literature. In a 2007 article, Burton provides a standard definition of adultification that is not dehumanizing: “adultification comprises contextual, social, and developmental processes in which youth are prematurely, and often inappropriately, exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family network.”
Several of the Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez interview questions directly interrogate adults’ perceptions about parameters of the adultification process, for example: “How often do Black (or white) females take on adult responsibilities? How knowledgeable are Black (or white) females about sex?” As asked of respondents, however, even the second question is likely to conflate potentially precocious knowledge about sex with Black female children’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexual reproduction resulting from healthy, proactive parent-child conversations in response to the earlier onset of puberty for Black girls.
The other questions asked in the study have nothing to do with adultification. Quite the contrary, clinically, children who take on these roles need a lot of nurturance, comfort, and support to adequately learn and perform such roles. Playing an adult in a child’s body, with a child’s emotional maturity is hard. Full Stop. Black women need nurturance, comfort, and support too. Fuller Stop. In our view, the frame of adultification, in the ways Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez define it, seems to be more accurately and simply be characterized as dehumanization and promoting racist gendered stereotypes about Black females.
To be clear, Black girls’ being more knowledgeable about sex, perhaps sexual reproduction, at earlier ages than white girls does not equate with any definition of what being a Black woman is to us and many others. Furthermore, twisted perceptions about Black girls’ knowledge of sexual risks conjuring up the age-old, American stereotypes of the “jezebel” Black woman which, as Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez note, persist in present day American culture. That stereotype promotes racist notions of Black women as precociously sexualized, morally bankrupt, incapable of regulating their emotions, and unable to deeply feel — loss, love, grief or much of anything else for that matter.
We agree that adult Black women are still considered in the context of this racist, humanity eroding, gender offensive trope. And, we are concerned that viewing little Black girls through the Black female adultification lens, as posited by Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez, risks further imposing such dehumanizing stereotypes onto lives of Black children.
Indeed, conflating adultification with dehumanizing perspectives is intellectually flawed and poses obstacles in discerning alternative framings of what is happening in the lives of young Black girls and how the broader population is complicit in the process. Rather than considering the adult respondents’ perceptions that Black girls behave in adultified ways, shouldn’t we call it what it really is?
There are generic processes that people engage in on a daily basis to reproduce race and gender inequalities among individuals and groups. One such process is emotion management. Because race and gender inequalities foment feelings such as anger, resentment, despair, and sympathy that threaten to destabilize the social order, these emotions must be managed, which means, relative to the study we discuss here, that our perceptions and emotions about Black girls “must be managed.”
One way of managing societal emotions is by regulating the narrative about Black girls using particular language and assigning certain attributes to them. The dominant group in society usually controls the narrative and reinforces it in existing social structures, in this case schools and the judicial system, while more private discourses among ordinary people work to strengthen destructive narratives and stereotypes. Indeed, emotion management by controlling negative narratives on Blacks is thriving in certain pockets in today’s America.
As Black female behavioral scientists whose humanist resolve and intellectual rigor was birthed in the complex cities of Compton, California and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively, we have lived experiences about the damage that twisted narratives and errant frames can visit upon Black and white America, particularly when scientists waywardly compare Blacks to whites. Such twisted frames attempt to strip us Blacks of our humanity and seek to render us as less than or an oddity in that, regardless of gender or class, we are perceived as having no sense of emotional intelligence, proclivity to care for others, or ability to self-regulate, regardless of our ages. Such framings move us no closer to accurately identifying fundamental causes in the persistent strengths inherent in or inequalities hoisted upon Blacks in America for centuries. Less we forget . . . Black women have shown America how to be humane.
We hope that the Girlhood Interrupted report can spark a wider discussion on the uncertainty that some Black girls live with on a daily basis, particularly those Black girls whose families and/or communities are economically impoverished or unsafe. Uncertainty is a state of ambiguity, one in which immediate and future conditions or events are unpredictable or otherwise not clearly determinable by those involved. In some environments, uncertainty, even when buttressed by community strengths and individual connections, can lead to a narrowing of viable options, a hesitancy to act, and a diminished likelihood of acting in ways that support longer-term, positive outcomes.
Under such uncertain conditions, some girls may act with an eye toward the moment because unpredictable resources and the ever-present specter of need require orientation to the here and now. This behavior often emerges from a lack of control girls may experience as they struggle to simply survive in a world where key resources are scarce, there are limited opportunities to thrive, and a broader society dehumanizes them in narratives based on erroneous assumptions and interpretations of their lived experiences.
Untwisting this narrative by, in this instance, uncoupling the frame of adultification and dehumanization is particularly important given the context of recent political rhetoric in America. It has become fairly common for public and political discourses concerning people of color and their communities to be inappropriately cast as having undesirable attributes.
In today’s America, we seem to have once again backslid to the days of the Moynihan Report where national leaders promulgated stereotypes about Black families being “tangles of pathology” and dysfunctional, no matter their social class. As in times past, national leaders foment the wholesale acceptance of such denigrating stereotypes among their followers who have little to no understanding of the profound inaccuracies of the rhetoric and who exercise little discretion or censorship.
We optimistically ask America not to get the findings in this report twisted. The adult perceptions studied in this work reflect the dehumanization of Black girls, not their adultification into Black women. Does America have the capacity to resist the twist, censuring and holding itself accountable for creating accurate narratives, frames, and discourses about Black girls and the Black women they aspire to become? If not, let NBC News’ recent twist serve as a good example of a bad example. There will be a clap back.
Linda M. Burton, Ph.D., is Dean of Social Sciences, Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, and a professor of public policy at Duke University. Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate for the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.