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Psychiatrists who want to understand white supremacy should watch this series…
In a chilling scene of the television series, Them, set in rural North Carolina, an unnamed elderly white woman tauntingly sings these lyrics with a wide grin as she trespasses on the Black female protagonist Lucky’s property. This serenade foreshadows the racist violence that ensues after. This song, “Old Black Joe,” written by the “Father of American music,” Stephen Foster, was one of many popular parlor songs.1 Foster also wrote many minstrel songs, a form of entertainment for white audiences in which white performers donned Black face, a facial costume in which white individuals smeared their faces with burnt cork and drew on larger, red lips, with the intent of looking like Black/African-American individuals.2
“Old Black Joe” represents an entire culture of songs, written by white composers, that were dehumanizing to Black individuals. These cringeworthy songs were enmeshed in American society to the detriment of the psychological wellbeing of Black individuals, and their songwriters are still memorialized even to this day. A statue of the renowned Stephen Foster, with an African slave sitting at his feet strumming a banjo, was only recently removed.
The Horror of White Violence
Them is a horror/thriller series recently released on Amazon Prime. The series joins a growing collection of movies and television shows, like Lovecraft Country and Get Out, that graphically illustrate 1 key point: the violence of white individuals towards Black individuals, simply due to the color of their skin, is scarier than any horror movie monster.
Them expertly combines elements of reality and the supernatural to illustrate the horrors of racism and white supremacy to its audience. The series centers on a Black family who moves from the south to California in the 1950s, during a time in history known as the Great Migration, in which Black families moved north to flee the racial violence of the South.3
In fact, my mother’s family was one of them, having left the brutal environment of Mississippi for Ohio, hoping for a better life. I have cousins who were murdered by white individuals for attempting to register Black voters. My father’s family, from Macon, Georgia, remained in the South. My uncle, alive and well today, remembers seeing a Black man who had been lynched, swinging from a tree. He was just a child. His father, my grandfather, took pictures of the lynching and published it in a Black-owned Macon newspaper he led. White individuals in the area were furious—not because a Black man had been murdered, but because it had been publicized in the newspaper.
Black children have never had the luxury of being shielded from racism, and Them highlights this. Ruby, the adolescent protagonist, is sent to the principal’s office for disrupting her class (the disruption being when she raises her hand to answer a question, her white classmates begin making sounds like a monkey). Gracie, the youngest in the family, is forced to see a myriad of Black dolls hanging from ropes in front of her house as she leaves for school. The dolls were placed there by her white neighbors to intimidate Gracie’s family into leaving the neighborhood.
The Silenced Truths of American History
Them does not just give the audience a window into the lives of Black Americans, but it also gives a powerful account of the silenced truths of American history, the facts that are largely erased from history books in favor of a narrative that places white Americans in a more positive, nonviolent, light. The series illustrates the harassment and violence that Black Americans endured across the United States upon moving into predominantly white neighborhoods.
White families did not want to live next to Black families due to a host of fears, such as Black men raping white women, a common racist idea that was used to support the removal of cocaine from Coca-Cola in the early 1900s.4 This becomes especially ironic, given that rape of Black women by white men was a widely used method of dehumanization and violence during slavery and after.5 The series follows a group of housewives in the area who will stop at nothing to remove the Black family from their neighborhood. The series also delves deeper to show how realtors denied home loans or intentionally offered predatory loans to Black families with the goal of disadvantaging them. Viewers get the opportunity to watch how the color grading system, known as redlining, developed by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to place value on property values in a given area, plays out in the lives of Black American families.6,7 The series follows a female realtor who participates in this heinous system, and partners with a policeman, who only protects Black families from being murdered by white neighbors in return for a profit gained from the predatory home loan given to the Black family.
Although redlining is no longer technically legal today, homeowner racism is still very real, with Black homeowners still given lower property values for the same property as their white peers.8 Housing segregation, while no longer legal, is also still very much in effect.9
Psychiatrists Need to Learn About White Supremacy
When some hear the words “white supremacy,” they think of extremist groups on the fringe of society. Indeed, this terminology was used to describe such groups in the past. But today, white supremacy is often used to describe a political and socioeconomic system in which those racialized as “white” enjoy structural advantages and rights that other racial groups do not. In this way, white supremacy is woven throughout American society. Psychiatrists must learn about the effects of white supremacy on Black Americans if they are to even begin to understand the plight of Black Americans and help them navigate it. Although a horror/thriller show with its share of supernatural monsters, Them highlights the very real thoughts and behaviors of white Americans in a white supremacist system, many of which persist today.
Racism and white supremacy incorporate many behaviors that one might deem antisocial, being executed seemingly without compassion or empathy for the lives of Black Americans. Them shows us how white Americans murdered Black Americans with smiles on their faces, and as one character reports, “lynch Black people just for shade.” Thousands of Black Americans were lynched, but these widespread, racially terrorizing behaviors of white Americans are largely left out of history accounts.10 Yet, one can easily turn to the internet to read about the historical realities of white Americans having picnics with their families while they watched Black Americans be lynched.11 The ease with which white Americans justified their hateful behaviors towards Black individuals is upsetting, and disturbing to say the least.
Although Black Americans are no longer (openly) hung from trees (although, activists in the Black community still continue to be mysteriously lynched, deemed suicides12), the continued murder of unarmed Black men by the police and the mass incarceration of a disproportionate number of Black men for nonviolent crimes is but a manifestation of the same story.13 The murder of George Floyd has come to be known by many as a modernized lynching, and he the modern Emmett Till.14 Those who engage in racist acts are often everyday citizens rather than extremists, and this series shows this with gut-wrenching clarity.
Psychiatrists need to understand how damaging racism and white supremacy have been, and continue to be, for Black Americans. How can psychiatrists help Black Americans heal from the generational trauma of racism if they themselves do not even know what that trauma entailed? How can psychiatrists help Black Americans to navigate the white supremacy of today if they themselves have not learned about it?
Movies and television can be a powerful, visual way of learning about the plight of Black Americans. The media can be a gateway for psychiatrists to do further research, leading them to the mounting empirical evidence documenting the devastating effects of racism on the mental and physical health of Black Americans today.15 It is imperative that psychiatrists learn about white supremacy and racism if they are to rectify its traumatic and violent effects on Black Americans. Start by watching Them.
Dr Calhoun is a second year psychiatry resident at Yale School of Medicine/Yale Child Study Center in the Adult/Child Albert J. Solnit integrated program. Dr Calhoun’s research centers on the improvement of mental and physical health outcomes in Black Americans by targeting the trauma of racism. Dr Calhoun calls herself an “activist trainee” and through public speaking and writing, exposes current and historical racism in the medical system. She firmly believes that all doctors should be activists and promotes the integration of social justice teaching with medical education.
1. Friedman M. Can’t escape Stephen Foster. The New Yorker. March 10, 2014.https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cant-escape-stephen-foster
2. Yardley J. In tune with America. The Washington Post. May 11, 1997. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1997/05/11/in-tune-with-america/58e48ba7-361b-49a2-a98a-4b187e864ce2/
3. History.com editors. The Great Migration. History. Updated January 26, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration
4. Hamblin J. Why we took cocaine out of soda. The Atlantic. January 31, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/why-we-took-cocaine-out-of-soda/272694/
5. Hale C, Matt M. The intersection of race and rape viewed through the prism of a modern-day Emmett Till. The American Bar Association. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/diversity-inclusion/articles/2019/summer2019-intersection-of-race-and-rape/
6. Mitchell B. HOLC “redlining” maps: the persistent structure of segregation and economic inequality. National Community Reinvestment Coalition. March 20, 2018. https://ncrc.org/holc/
7. Richardson B. Redlining’s legacy of inequality: low homeownership rates, less equity for black households. Forbes. June 11, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brendarichardson/2020/06/11/redlinings-legacy-of-inequality-low-homeownership-rates-less-equity-for-black-households/?sh=2dfec9402a7c
8. Olick D. A troubling tale of a Black man trying to refinance his mortgage. CNBC. August 19, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/19/lenders-deny-mortgages-for-blacks-at-a-rate-80percent-higher-than-whites.html
9. Williams JP. Segregation’s legacy. April 20, 2018. US News. https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-04-20/us-is-still-segregated-even-after-fair-housing-act
10. Lartey J, Morris S. How white Americans used lynchings to terrorize and control black people. The Guardian. April 26, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/26/lynchings-memorial-us-south-montgomery-alabama
11. Gross T. As new lynching memorial opens, a look back on America’s history of racial terrorism. NPR. May 4, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/05/04/608477810/as-new-lynching-memorial-opens-a-look-back-on-americas-history-of-racial-terrori
12. Farzan AN. Police are investigating the death of a Ferguson protester’s son as a suicide. His mother insists he was lynched. The Washington Post. November 1, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/11/01/police-believe-ferguson-protesters-son-killed-himself-his-mother-insists-he-was-lynched/
13. Stevenson B. Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system. The New York Times. August 14, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/prison-industrial-complex-slavery-racism.html
14. History.com editors. Emmett Till. History. Updated January 26, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/emmett-till-1
15. Williams DR. How racism makes us sick. Ted Talks. November 2016. https://www.ted.com/talks/david_r_williams_how_racism_makes_us_sick?language=en