Reflections on “12 years a slave” from a Black Psychologist

For many of us, how and when to talk about the enslavement of African Americans is “the elephant in the room.” In order for people to move forward in harmonious ways “elephants” must be taken out of the room. In my work as a psychologist, I have learned that if the elephant is not talked about two things will happen; 1) people will spend a lot of time bumping into the elephant, and 2) the elephant will spend most of the time trashing the entire room.

I know something about “talking about the elephant in the room” having taught multicultural and diversity topics for the past 20 years. Teaching these topics have presented lots of challenges because in our families we are taught not to talk openly about racial issues. We are taught that race and culture doesn’t really matter. What we learned in our family and society is wrong. Dead wrong. Our social perceptions about race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, and class matters.

Our social perceptions are important because they play a role in what jobs we take, where we live, and who we date. The meaning of categories like race and gender become embedded in our brains from an early age as important categories. The meaning we attribute to these categories form the basis of our race and gender perceptions. For example, if I were to hand you a brand new infant to hold, research suggests that you would hold the infant differently based on whether I told you it was a baby boy or girl. Learned behaviors that are repeated often enough become automatic thought and action processes. Learned behaviors are difficult to unlearn. So for example, if I asked you to unlearn how to ride a bike this would be a difficult task but this could be achieved.

Some Whites are taught to be color blind, to ignore skin color, when interacting with a person who does not share their skin color. These perceptions form the basis of how whites think about race. In other words, whites are taught to ignore their skin color and to ignore the skin colors of others. The problem is that no one really ignores the skin color and other socially meaningful characteristics, and if they did there would not be the general acceptance of the first women to do this and the first African American to do that phenomenon. Many whites believe that people of color hold the same perceptions they have about race based on the way they were taught in childhood to be color blind.

Children of color are taught nearly the opposite about skin color and the social perception of race. Some people of color are taught to be aware of how their skin color may influence personal interactions with whites and other people of color. Both groups have perceptions of race based on how they learned it. These social perceptions about race form the basis of their equally valid but separate realities.

So imagine how these two different social perceptions about race nearly make it impossible for whites and blacks to be understood and respected. The white person persists on not seeing skin color and the associated psychological aspects of being perceived differently whereas the person of color wants to talk about the white persons’ perception of his or her race, not the absence of it. Both groups hold misperceptions about how the other group thinks about race and when people misperceive each other it is very hard to resolve any form of conflicts. In a January 2012 CBS News/NY Time race relations poll, 30% of American adults reported being dissatisfied with the state of race relations. A 2011 USA Today/Gallup poll, which surveyed 1,319 adults found that nearly half of all whites and blacks think that race relations will always be a problem.

Teaching about race, culture, ethnicity, and ultimately how not to engage in prejudice and discriminatory behaviors, means that teachers like me have to remember that we are teaching two different types of students. Students who have developed nearly opposite views about the subject matter of race and race relations. These opposite views about the meaning of race is why most of us feel that race relationships can’t be solved. Movies like 12 years a slave can begin to help us with how are perceptions were formed about race.

12 years a Slave tries to talk about the elephant in the room. The movie tells the gruesome story of Solomon Northup, an African American who lived as a free man in New York in the mid 1800’s who was stolen and sold into slavery. The movie is based on the autobiographical account written by Northup. The film presents several themes that happened during the enslavement period; white supremacy and the justification of violence, the transient nature of African American freedom for those who were free in the United States, and the role of sadism and its function in bolstering white dominance. Even though these psychological and physical assaults occurred more than 200 years ago, what struck me were how these themes exist in current race relations.

While I do not experience the physical aggression experienced by my enslaved ancestors, I do experience micro or smaller aggressions today. In the past several months, for example, there have been minor psychological assaults on aspects of my racial identity; the acquittal of George Zimmerman of the Trayvon Martin murder, Paula Deen and the use of “N” Word, Oprah’s admission of retail racism in Europe, the chopping up of voting rights for African Americans by the U.S. Supreme Court, continued character and personal attacks on President Obama, and reliving aspects of my own personal life growing up in the 1960’s and 70s, watching, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

From a psychological viewpoint, you may be wondering why I describe these events as psychological assaults or minor aggressions. Being black in this country means that there are shared experiences because African Americans as a group share common characteristics; skin color, hair texture, physical traits, and some of us are descendants of enslaved Africans. The reason why Solomon was sold into slavery for 12 years was because he was part of a group, his race was a constant threat to his ability to be a full American citizen. The bottom line is this: what happens to other African Americans can happen to me, irrespective of my economic wealth or social positioning. Sometimes living as an African American feels like I am forced to swim in psychological choppy waters. Media events, movies, politics, and racial profiling play a role in effecting our psyches.

Whites have accrued many social, psychological and economic assets as a direct result of the enslavement of Africans. 12 years a slave shows us in a very blunt and gruesome way how these unequal social positions happened between Whites and Blacks. Here is another analogy that might help you to understand the concept of gaining assets and liabilities. Imagine that you inherit a mansion from a long lost relative that you didn’t know that you had. The mansion has 10 bedrooms and 8 bathrooms, tennis courts, guest houses and a large swimming pool but the basement has a giant 20 x 30 x 8 foot hole in the floor. The property is now yours so as the owner have to fix the hole in the basement floor. Assets come with liabilities, plain and simple. When you are white in this country, you then assume all of the assets afforded to the degradation and humiliation of people of color, irrespective of whether your ancestors participated directly or indirectly in slavery. Most of what we enjoy in this country was created on the backs of people of color, whom we all owe a debt of supreme gratitude for their accomplishments, great feats that were created under extreme inhumane conditions. Some whites have advanced in life because of what they have gained from being white.

Advancement of social groups that are built from the traumatic experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Asians, means that there is a cosmic debt that must be paid in order for healing to begin. Although reconciliatory and reparative in nature, civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs, cannot heal the wounded psyche of African Americans. Because we, Whites, Blacks and other people of color, have not healed these traumatic wounds we remain mired in misconceptions, confusion, and hopelessness.

Before I close, I want to point out another troubling aspect of how we think about the psycho-historical development of black identity. After viewing the 12 years a slave movie we may infer that the core of black identity grew mostly from the African American group reaction to trauma and violence. This is only one aspect of how identity develops from a historical framework. The movie does not accurately show how proactive, creative problem solving, and resistance also develops in black identity. Moviegoers are unfortunately left with one viewpoint on how to understand the historical development of black and white identity. In this film, we are made to believe that white supremacy was born out of white’s sadistic and dehumanization of Blacks strictly for economic gain. Viewing white supremacy as only crazy and illogical does not address how this illogical reasoning became systematized and sustained throughout periods of American history. Therein lies the problem with movies like 12 years that use white supremacy as the broad societal factor that shapes the lives of African Americans, they often present a myopic view of the historical development of blackness. What happened to the rich cultural aspects of Africans? Are we left to assume that violence and white supremacy is so powerful as to completely erase a person’s culture? This did not happen for Jews and other violently oppressed people so it is hard to believe that these similar acts of violence would completely erase various elements of African tribal culture.

White violence toward African Americans is a persistent and repeated visual image in 12 years, but we don’t see images of African Americans who vehemently fought Whites. Depictions of dominant black violence toward white victims, for example, the Nat Turner revolt may not appeal to the average movie goer because this view does not support the dominant view of black passivity. Historically based Black narratives that portray African Americans as subdued resistors, while this form of resistance may have been one coping strategy, it does not show the full range of human response to oppression and violence.

Brian L. Ragsdale is a writer, visual artist, musician, psychologist, and burgeoning TV and Film consultant.

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