Upon graduating from American University—a small liberal predominantly white college in Northwest Washington DC—in 2015, I had become accustomed to being the sole Black man in the room. My journalism classes, where I spent most of my time, were dominated by white faces, both in my fellow classmates and professors.
So, I was only slightly bothered to learn I was the only Black man at my first job out of college at a progressive digital and communications firm that worked with nonprofits and foundations. About three months into the job, I had stepped out to grab food from a food truck, as most people working in downtown Washington DC do, and was walking back into the building, only to be stopped by the white security guard who I had seen every day for the past three months. The conversation went like this:
Security guard: “Can I help you?”
Trevor: “No… I work here.”
Security guard: “Really, I’ve never seen you before.”
Trevor: “Well I do. At [name of job]”
Security guard: “What floor?”
It was at this moment that I realized that he did not believe me, and was in fact, quizzing me to try and catch me in a lie. I have since forgotten what floor my first job was on, but I will never forget how I felt at that moment. Having navigated predominately white spaces my entire life, I had faced and overcome microaggressions on what seems like a daily basis, but at that moment I felt completely unprepared.
One critical element in the production and reproduction of racism and anti-Blackness is the presence and utilization of stereotypes, which form from the harmful narratives that surround Black people.
These narratives have solidified through the constant retelling of harmful stories until they have created our common understanding of Blackness. Stories of the “urban thug with superhuman strength” or the “lazy welfare queen” have come to dominate our racial mental models. Stories offered about Black people in the US have always served to degrade, dehumanize, or exploit Blackness while framing whiteness as the default superior. When aggregated, these harmful narratives coalesce into stereotypes that are not only damaging to the character of Black people; they lead to our deaths.
This type of racism—the covert, stealthy, closeted racism, cloaked in undertones, lingering gazes, clutched purses, and unprompted 911 calls—is the building block of anti-Black stereotypes that so often put us in danger.
It is this type of racism that allowed two Black men to be arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018 for simply sitting there. It is this type of racism that led to the stopping and questioning of fashion designer Salehe Bembury in 2020 for having Versace bags in his hand. It is the type of racism that empowers white people to feel as if they have the authority to ask Black people if “they belong here?”
It shows up casually in various parts of our culture—from the daily news we consume to the public art that we see out of the corner of our eye. Anti-Black narratives are subtly (and sometimes overtly) inserted into our daily happenings. After LeBron James spoke out after someone spray-painted a racial slur on his Los Angeles home, Fox News host Laura Ingraham told her viewers that James should keep his political comments to himself and “shut up and dribble.”
A few weeks after the murder of George Floyd, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a piece with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” covering damages done to property in the wake of the protests. The paper would go on to apologize but the damage had already been done. Both reporters and the broader Black Philadelphia community could not fathom how the outlet could make a comparison between buildings and actual Black people.
In 2015, Color of Change released a report titled Not to be Trusted: Dangerous Levels of Inaccuracy in T.V. Crime Reporting in NYC, which found that news stations overrepresented Black people, particularly Black men, as criminals in their coverage of crime.
It is this type of racism, that best-selling white and “anti-racist” author, Robin DiAngelo, incorrectly calls “nice racism.” In her most recent book, she quotes a Gallup poll that surveyed people on microaggressions that found that “for many Black Americans, their experiences with mistreatment and discrimination are much subtler and are woven into the routines of their normal, daily lives.”
There is, however, fundamentally nothing “nice” about these displays of racism—they have in fact been so dangerous and effective that they penetrated the psyche of many Black Americans, leading some of us to adopt and uplift these racist narratives.
We see this most prominently from those with platforms such as Ben Carson or Candance Owens who have said that centering equity is a form of racism or that white supremacy and white nationalism are “not a problem that is harming Black America,” respectively.
More so, when Harvard conducted an implicit association test in 2001, more than half of respondents thought Black people were less intelligent than white people. What was particularly surprising was that 30 percent of Black respondents thought the same, signifying just how powerful these anti-Black narratives can be, where it can convince the person being negatively stereotyped that the generalization is, in fact, true.
These types of stealthy racism are grounded in hateful and anti-Black mental frames, and often precede the lethal encounters we have seen over the years. They are behind the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Jordan Davis, and so many others.
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The Reproduction of Lethal Stereotypes
Such was the case in the murder of George Floyd, who spent his last moments on the ground, pleading for his mother, with the knee of a white police officer digging into his neck—stealing his last breaths. The dominant narrative encircling this moment was that of the “big dangerous urban thug,” referenced earlier.
Let’s contrast this against the tragic case of Gabby Petito, whose body was found near a campground in Wyoming after a months-long trek with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, earlier this year. Laundrie returned to his parent’s house in Florida, without Petito, in her camper, and refused to speak with law enforcement while they searched for her. He roamed freely during this time, informed his parents he planned to go hiking, and now presumably is on the run.
White men are so often given the benefit of the doubt, even in a potential murder case, while Black men are treated as murderers in a potential counterfeit bill case. This is a direct result of the stories that we have always been told about race, which can be simply boiled down to “white is good and pure, and Black is bad and dangerous.”
This sad and tired trope was used by the defense of Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd. In his opening statements, Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, stated that “you will see that three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of Mr. Floyd. Mr. Chauvin stands five foot, nine inches, and 140 pounds. Mr. Floyd is six-three and weighs 233 pounds.”
Nelson was relying on a tactic that has so often worked in the legal system—preying on the narrative that Black men have animal-like strength in the hope of absolving Chauvin of his actions and hoping to tap into the racialized perceptions of Black men that jury members may have held.
Thankfully, the tactic did not work as Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. But this does not bring George Floyd back to his family nor erase the harmful narratives that Black men and boys battle every day.
Empowering Black Boys to Tell Their Own Stories
A 2014 study found that, beginning at the age of 10, Black children are perceived to be less innocent than other children in every age group, and that Black children’s ages are overestimated by an average of 4.5 years, meaning that a Black child as young as 14 could be viewed as an 18-year-old.
Further, research from economist Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights found that in 99 percent of US neighborhoods, Black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys who grow up in families with a comparable income. Meaning that whether you are the son of LeBron James or the son of a restaurant worker relying on tips, you will almost always earn less than the white boy who you grew up next to.
This finding accentuates what many of us feel—no matter where we go to school, work, or how “well” we might dress, there remains an underlying presence in the atmosphere that we cannot touch but can certainly feel. Of the many pillars that structural racism is built upon, the entrenched racial narratives often feel insurmountable.
To change this, we must empower Black boys, long before they become men, to create new transformative narratives about themselves.
As a country, we have failed to center the lived experiences of Black men and boys to solve the problems they face in their own communities every day. In eight years, I have worked for numerous progressive advocacy and philanthropic organizations that were either very well-funded or endowed but have yet to have another Black male work alongside me on my team.
The organizations that give Black boys the space to radically reimagine a new world for themselves are woefully underfunded. A 2017 joint report from the Foundation Center and Campaign for Black Male Achievement found that funding for Black males peaked in 2012, with too little of the limited funding that does exist reaching the community organizations that work with Black boys every day.
This youth development work, and more specifically, youth narrative power-building work, is of the utmost importance. It is why I work with organizations like LifePieces to Master Pieces (LPTM), based in Washington, DC; Getting Out Staying Out (GOSO), based in New York City; and Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national network.
LPTM is a comprehensive youth development and mentoring organization in Washington DC that empowers Black boys and young men to transform their lives and communities through creative expression. I have seen these boys and young men gather on a Saturday morning for what they call a Saturday academy to think critically about the world that surrounds them and discuss the role they can play in changing it.
GOSO is a New York-based youth re-entry organization that works with 16-24-year-old justice-involved boys and men, predominantly of color, to reenter society in a dignified way post-incarceration. I have had the privilege of having conversations with some of these young men about how our systems have consistently failed them and what they would like to see change.
Big Brother Big Sister is a 118-year-old organization that matches adult volunteers with “little brothers” or “little sisters” for one-on-one mentoring. My little brother, who I have watched grow from a young Black boy into a Black teenager, has been as much of a mentor to me as I to him. He has taught me to be more curious and to stop and really answer some of the simpler questions in life.
In a world where Black men and boys are inundated with anti-Black narratives, these organizations give youth the opportunity to push back and be catalysts for change.
The phrase “narrative change” has become a buzzword within foundation boardrooms, as more funders begin to understand how critical narratives are in changing policy. But where do organizations that work directly with young Black people fall within these strategies? Foundations must realize that investment in narrative research, messaging, and organizing is just as important as direct service work, and those who work with Black boys are building narrative power too.
So, what are the transformative narratives needed to replace the current harmful ones that Black boys and men face? That is not a question that I or any single Black person can answer alone. It is also not the right question to ask. The most critical question is whether we can develop cohesive narrative infrastructure—which Rashad Robinson describes as the ability to learn, create, broadcast, and immerse narrative strategies alongside each other—to build collective storytelling power. Without this, our individual narratives will fall short of the cultural change we seek.
What I do know is that these new narratives must decenter whiteness and center Blackness instead. Centering Blackness, as the folks at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development state, “demands that we create and design policies and practices that intentionally lift up and protect Black people. It requires that Black people lead the creation of these policies and practices.”
Centering this Blackness must come from the ground up and empower those most harmed by dominant narratives. As bell hooks said, “unless we transform the images of Blackness, of Black people, our ways of looking, and our ways of being seen, we cannot make radical interventions that will fundamentally alter our situation.”