human rights, music, psychology

How Not to Talk About “Black Self-Hatred”

I have been studying abroad at the University of Cape Town for five months now, but lectures have been cancelled for over two months due to #FeesMustFall protests. In the past two months, though, I’ve definitely learned more about South Africa and its racist education system than I did in the other three. The situation is very complex and I won’t try to explain it fully here, but I will say one of the things that pisses me off most is the narrative fed to the outside world by South African universities and the ANC government. They paint the protesting students–who are predominantly black–as childish, violent, and inhuman. And people don’t often question it. Even the New York Times regurgitated President Zuma’s propaganda twice before finally posting an opinion piece from a Wits professor who tried to portray the complexity of the situation.

I tell you all this because the racial tensions here in Cape Town informed the following essay. It is my final paper for an English class I’m taking; I chose to write about the black self-hatred theory, racist arguments about “black-on-black crime” in the United States, and flawed critiques of Kendrick Lamar, Ralph Ellison, and Black Lives Matter. But my main points carry over all too easily into South Africa, where the phrase “black-on-black” originated in 1986 and where students of color are still blamed for a racist education system that continuously denigrates them and tries to spit them out.

So here’s what I wrote:

How Not to Talk About “Black Self-Hatred”

The theory of black self-hatred has been around for nearly as long as colonization, and it can be traced back to racist white men such as Rudyard Kipling, who believed that black people and other people of color viewed themselves as deficient and could never survive without the help of white “civilized” societies. In more recent decades beginning with Brown v. Board of Education, black self-hatred has been cited in anti-racist work to highlight the denigrating effects of institutionalized racism on the black psyche, but it is not always cited respectfully. In this paper I will discuss how the theory of black self-hatred is misapplied in anti-racist and racist scholarship by examining supposedly anti-racist critiques of Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as well as racist critiques of the Black Lives Matter Movement, all of which have been criticized with flawed arguments about “black-on-black crime.” The misapplication of the concept of black self-hatred can be attributed to cognitive biases in the minds of critics, namely the Fundamental Attribution Error and System Justification. And given the fact that these misattributions of the self-hatred theory appear in such a broad, biased manner even in supposedly anti-racist scholarship, it is essential that writers who wish to discuss the topic of “black self-hatred” in any capacity do so on an individual basis, and only after considering the context and collecting ample evidence.

In the famous 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court declared legal segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. One of the key pieces of evidence cited in support of this ruling was Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s “doll test” study, which found that black schoolchildren tend to prefer white dolls over black dolls. If the children in question defended their choices at all, they would use simple defenses—e.g. calling the white dolls “pretty” and the black dolls “ugly” (“Racial Identification” 177-8). Some of these children even went so far as to reject their own dark skin color, making statements such as “I burned my face and made it spoil” and “I look brown because I got a suntan in the summer” (“Racial Identification” 178). In this case, evidence of “black self-hatred” (among other evidence) convinced all nine of the white male judges that the segregated American education system was unfair, leading to a landmark decision for social justice.

This is not the only example of a time when the idea of black self-hatred has had significant weight in fights for racial equality. The results of Brown v. Board of Education were echoed years later in South Africa, when Steve Biko pointed out the detrimental effects of white racist education systems on the black student’s self-concept:

“How can an African avoid losing respect for his tradition when in school his whole cultural background is summed up in one word: barbarism?” (9).

Other significant scholarship on race and racism has also cited black self-hatred as an example of white supremacy’s pervasive effects. For instance, the Afro-Caribbean theorist Frantz Fanon rejected Sartre’s claim that black consciousness (or “negritude”) is just a “weak stage” on the path to colorblindness: “Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness…Jean-Paul Sartre forgets that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (117). In this way Fanon defined negritude as the polar opposite of black self-hatred and an end goal in itself for black people.

Biko, Fanon and the Clarks all presented the idea of “black self-hatred” as a result of racism and not as a trait linked to any real deficiencies in black people or black communities. They also mentioned self-hatred as one part of a set of obstacles to be overcome in fights for racial equality as well as black consciousness and solidarity. In this way these analyses of black self-hatred seemed to eventually prove beneficial to black communities because their authors were advocating for black psychological wellness and self-esteem. But not all scholarship that discusses “black self-hatred” has had the same intention or apparent effect. Many theorists have described black self-loathing as if it is a fault of black people themselves, including writers such as Eldridge Cleaver, whose searing critique of James Baldwin became infamous.

Cleaver’s reading of Baldwin is so bland and direct that it leaves no room for imagination or interpretation. For instance, he quotes a passage from Baldwin—“This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them” (Cleaver 52)—and proposes that this and any passage in which Baldwin acknowledges internalized racism is proof that he holds “the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites” (Cleaver 52). To the contrary, it is clear that Baldwin’s words are meant to be ironic critiques of white supremacy, certainly not to be read in a vacuum. Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in the work of Alvin Poussaint, who makes largely unfounded statements about black self-hatred in his paper “The Negro American: His Self-Image and Integration.” Although Poussaint begins with the context of institutionalized racism, he still blames “the Negro” for supposedly “form[ing] his self-image and self-concept on the basis of what white racists have prescribed” (420), a claim for which he proposes little to no evidence even as he applies it to all black Americans.

So why do Cleaver and Poussaint differ from Biko and Fanon even though they all acknowledge the role of racism in their critiques? I propose that the answer lies in the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). The FAE was first proposed in the 1970s based on an experiment called “The Attriution of Attitudes,” which found that participants viewed writers as having the attitudes indicated by their writing behaviors, even when they were told the writers did not have a choice to write in a certain way (Jones & Harris). The FAE thus describes the tendency of people to over-attribute the actions of others to personality traits while underemphasizing situational factors.

This is very relevant to discussions of black self-hatred because in its worst incarnations, the idea of black self-hatred is used to blame black communities for their own suffering, while ignoring situational factors that caused this suffering—that is, racial oppression.

In this case, writers like Cleaver and Poussaint do acknowledge racial oppression, but they underestimate and eventually completely undermine the agency of black people in their analyses. Neither Cleaver nor Poussaint ever concede that their claims do not apply to all circumstances. Cleaver interprets all of Baldwin’s statements related to self-hatred—and even some statements related to white privilege—at face value as self-hatred, and Poussaint makes countless statements that imply that he has met every black American in the United States. In this way they both attribute isolated examples to supposedly widespread black pathology even as they acknowledge the context, and this makes their statements even more insidious because they can be passed off as legitimate anti-racist criticism.

Although black scholars wrote all of the aforementioned theory on “black self-hatred,” white writers have also addressed similar themes, but with far less regard for history. For years it has been a common theme in (most often politically conservative) white American media outlets to refer to “black-on-black crime” as if it is a terrible illness plaguing the country. In reality there are actually comparable rates of white-on-white and black-on-black crime in poor areas (Harriot), but no one is critiquing that statistic as if white Americans hate themselves and are constantly plotting the end of their own race. The problem at hand is not black self-hatred but black poverty, which is caused by institutionalized racism and its ramifications in the education, housing, and employment sectors, among other things. And by trying to attribute all of these problems to black American deficiencies, media outlets reveal that they, too, are complicit in white supremacy.

There is more proof of this fact in Patricia Hill-Collins’ book Black Sexual Politics. She points out that statements about black-on-black crime originated in apartheid South Africa, when then-president Botha used the phrase to distract from white racism in 1986. In describing violence, South African news outlets did not mention politics or economics; instead they used a frame of “interethnic violence” between Zulus and Xhosas (Hill-Collins 164). The phrase “black-on-black” was quickly and eagerly picked up by American news outlets; as Hill-Collins explains, “‘black-on-black’ violence is the site at which the U.S. news media reconstruct Black Africa as “tribal,” threatening, savage, and incapable of self-government and democracy” (165). White America’s ongoing obsession with “black-on-black crime” is just a continuation of a legacy that unfairly blames poor black communities for their own racial oppression and poverty in the post-slavery and post-Civil Rights era while propagating the myth of black male hyper-criminality and hyper-violence. This is a prime example of System Justification, a kind of status quo bias set out by John T. Jost in “Outgroup Favoritism and the Theory of System Justification,” where he describes humankind’s tendency to justify the status quo, even when it damages certain groups. Among other things, System Justification holds that people use stereotypes to justify pre-existing systems of power (Jost 95)—for example, using the myth of the hyper-violent black male to justify racist murders by police.

System Justification also explains why certain critics of the Black Lives Matter movement claim that Black Lives Matter should address black-on-black crime. These critics point to crime within the black community as if the community itself is partially to blame for police brutality, rather than the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States. In this way they effectively use the self-hatred argument as a blockade against social justice, justifying the existing system by blaming alleged black-on-black hyper-violence. Furthermore, expecting Black Lives Matter members to address crime as well belittles the work of the many groups across the United States that are already working to stop and prevent gang violence—for example, A Better LA and V2K H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation.

The Black Lives Matter movement cannot be expected to critique crime that is illegal and enforced as such when their main aim is to address the very pressing issue of racist murder that is sanctified by American law.

And as Conor Friedersdorf points out, “less abusive police departments [might] make people in poor black communities…more inclined to involve law enforcement in disputes before they turn deadly”—that is, if the work of Black Lives Matter is accomplished, lower crime rates could easily follow.

Unfortunately, System Justification is not limited to the group in power; “the black community itself (including the black press) has helped promulgate” the myth of black-on-black crime (Headley 51), including writers like Poussaint. However, it is worth noting that critics tend to greatly overestimate the frequency of these incidents of betrayal. A perfect example can be found in criticism of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “The Blacker the Berry,” which is from his third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly. In the third verse of the song, Lamar repeatedly calls himself a hypocrite for being upset about police brutality when he once killed a black man:

“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street / when gang banging made me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

After the song was released, many music buffs, particularly black men, criticized Lamar for making this statement. Journalist Stereo Williams had one of the stronger responses: “If there is a hypocrisy, doesn’t it fall on those who would use gang violence to silence public outrage against oppression while ignoring the fact that the gang violence is also a product of that same racist oppression?” The academic Shay Akil even went so far as to call the song “a black pathology anthem” on his blog. These critiques, while well intentioned, are another clear example of the Fundamental Attribution Error. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be expected to critique illegal crime when their main aim is to address legalized racist murder, it makes no sense for Kendrick Lamar to be expected to represent all of black America. By ignoring the fact that Lamar is representing himself as an individual, critics like Williams and Akil placed the impossible expectation on him that all of his views always reflect on all black American men. In an interview, Lamar made this exact point: “I’m not speaking to the community, I’m not speaking of the comm—I am the community…this is therapeutic for myself” (MTV News). The song isn’t so much a “black pathology anthem” as it is a Kendrick Lamar pathology anthem. Moreover, when Williams claimed that Lamar ignored the link between gang violence and racial oppression, he must have forgotten the first verse of “The Blacker the Berry,” where Lamar raps at white America:

“You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture…You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’ / You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga.”

This makes it clear enough that Lamar is aware of the links between racism, poverty and gang violence, and yet he still feels like a hypocrite for killing another black man. Critics who claimed Lamar was making an argument about black-on-black violence essentially tried to deny the complexity of his black experience, not to mention his agency and individuality as an artist.

People have also made arguments about “black-on-black violence” in relation to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, particularly the battle royal scenes, when a group of black men are forced into a ring and made to fight each other for the amusement of white onlookers. Tom Burell claims in his book Brainwashed that the battle royal scenes are an example of black Americans “maintain[ing] attitudes that helped [them] tolerate and endure slavery” (96), and he links these supposedly adapted attitudes to the 21st century and what he calls “black-on-black violence and stubborn, nihilistic posturing” (96). Not once, however, does Burell address the fact that the black men in the battle royal scene are forced to fight one another by white supremacists. This kind of argument is also an example of System Justification because it completely ignores the fact that the battle royal scene, and most scenes in Invisible Man, would and could not have happened without a history of institutional racism. Nearly all of the enmity between black people in Invisible Man is propelled by white people manipulating these groups, not by any self-hatred or self-sabotage within the black community. The entire plot of the Invisible Man’s adult life in the book follows his involvement with black activist groups fighting one another, and these fights turn out to be orchestrated by white people, notably Brother Jack and his affiliates. When Burell uses the stereotype of violent black masculinity to justify ongoing inequalities and to “explain” the racialized violence in Invisible Man, he is nearly as bad as white conservative American media sources. And when critics attribute the Invisible Man’s actions to his race as if he is a “typical” example of a black man, they fall prey to the Fundamental Attribution Error, removing his agency and not fully understanding Ellison’s point about the importance of individual voice in movements for social justice.

I think it is essential to look at statements about black self-hatred in this light, because few critics have addressed the fact that black artists and writers seem to be held to an impossible standard, or related this to the popularity of the self-hatred theory and to the obsession with “black-on-black crime.” There is also a curious disparity between critiques of black and white media with regard to the Fundamental Attribution Error. Critics frequently fall victim to the FAE in discussions of black artists like Lamar and Ellison by expecting them to represent all black men, but they never critique white artists—such as Macklemore and Ray Bradbury—for failing to represent all white men. This is because white artists are allotted a greater degree of individuality than black artists, who are still often confined to stereotypes by critics even as they attempt to break them down in the content of their work. Given the propensity of “black self-hatred” to become a confining stereotype that deprives black people of their individuality, critics engaging with the topic in the future should make sure to write about it only on an individual—and not collective—scale. If this new paradigm of black self-hatred is applied in future criticism of different media, there will certainly be a more thorough engagement with issues of mental health in the black community. And more importantly, “black self-hatred” and “black-on-black crime” would no longer be used as buzzwords to distract from the very real legacies of white supremacy and institutionalized murder in the United States and around the world.

Works Cited

Akil, Shay. “’The Blacker the Berry’ is a Black Pathology Anthem.”

Biko, Steve. “White Racism and Black Consciousness” (1972).,+Steve+Biko,+January+1971.pdf

Burrell, Tom. Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.

Clarke & Clarke. “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children.”

Cleaver, Eldridge. “Notes on a Native Son.”

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man (1952).

Fanon, Frantz. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” In Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

Friedersdorf, Conor. “Should Black Lives Matter Focus on ‘Black-on-Black’ Murders?”

Harriot, Michael. “Open Letter to White People Who Are Obsessed With Black-on-Black Crime.”

Headley, Bernard D. “‘Black on Black’ Crime: The Myth and the Reality.”

Hill-Collins, Patricia. “Booty Call.” In Black Sexual Politics (2005).

Jones, Edward E. and Victor A. Harris. “The Attribution of Attitudes.”

Jost, John T. “Outgroup Favoritism and the Theory of System Justification: A Paradigm for Investigating the Effects of Socioeconomic Success on Stereotype Content.”

“Kendrick Lamar Still Feels Anger & Hatred On ‘The Blacker The Berry’ (Pt. 3) | MTV News.”

Lamar, Kendrick. “The Blacker the Berry.”

Poussaint, Alvin F. “The Negro American: His Self-Image and Integration.”

Williams, Stereo. “Who Exactly Is Kendrick Lamar Raging Against in ‘The Blacker the Berry?’”


2 thoughts on “How Not to Talk About “Black Self-Hatred”

  1. In the first paragraph you say ‘the narrative fed to the outside world’. I think you should just use ‘story’ instead of narrative. ‘The story fed to the outside world’. ‘Narrative’ where ‘story’ is totally fine is pretentious.

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