On the cover of Black stands a lone Black man in red, hood up, hands to the sky, while cops aim their guns for his head. Surprisingly, there is a smirk on his face. I flipped through the pages so fast to see why this man could smile in the face of a modern day lynching. In this fictional world, he can smile because people like him have superpowers. He, like all Black people in his world, can take multiple bullets to the chest and live — unlike our world where those same bullets killed Tamir Rice, Charleene Lyles, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. Even though we endlessly retweet hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic, the reality for African Americans is that we do not have superpowers. Black people know this, of course, but a recent study found that white Americans believe that we are supernatural, extrasensory, and magical. While it sounds superb to be viewed as magical, the reality is that with great powers comes extreme retaliation.
Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter, authors of “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” understand the history of American society dehumanizing African Americans. The aim of their study was to understand if dehumanization could also include superhumanizing. Dehumanization is “perceiving a person or group as lacking humanness,” which was an idea used by white Americans to justify enslaving Black Americans and reducing them to property.1 Waytz, Hoffman, and Trawalter attempt to expand this phenomenon to superhumanization, which is defined as:
Using five different studies, they are able to prove that this phenomenon does exist, but one problem of their study is its comparative nature. While this study waits for others to expand upon superhumanization biases, historians can take a look back in the past to see that this bias does occur without those comparisons.
America has a terrible past in which Africans were enslaved and treated like chattel. By 1850 one fifth of the national economy was enslaved people, totaling $1.3 billion dollars. With no sign of slowing or stopping, the consumption of cotton grew from 1.5 billion pounds to 2.5 billion by the end of the 1850’s.3
Most of that was going to Western European nations, which were dependent on cotton for their textile factories. Germany, for instance, wanted the expertise of Booker T. Washington in creating cotton plantations in order to be less reliant on American crops. They believed in the magical affinity of African Americans for growing cotton, which was a prevalent belief at the time. Even Martin R. Delany, an African American abolitionist and physician, stated, “Cotton cannot be produced without negro labor and skill in raising it.”4
Superhumanization is also evident in recent years. In 2014 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer, and the prosecuting attorney of the case described him as “big for his age … and could have easily passed for someone much older.”5 Similar in nature, when Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer, Darren Wilson, Wilson described him as “bulking up.” He claimed it was like holding onto “Hulk Hogan.”6
Black boys aren’t the only ones who are viewed as bigger, stronger, and more mature. The study “Girlhood Interrupted” found that people view Black girls as less likely to need support or comfort, and more independent at earlier ages than their white peers.7 Together these historical instances and contemporary studies prove that superhumanization does occur.
What attracted me and others to superhero comics was the ability of these fictional people, who displayed extraordinary powers, to save the planet. I read comics about superheroes who could teleport instantly, mutants who could lift objects with their minds, and people who gained their super senses through radioactive spiders. A major difference between these superheroes and superhumanization is that African Americans do not have super powers. The idea of Black Americans having magical abilities has been handed down since Antebellum America, and it kills Black Americans. We cannot don a hoodie, be shot 16 times like Luke Cage, and walk away unscathed; instead when we are perceived as a bulked out Hulk it can mean our death.
The origins and proliferation of superhumanization are unclear, but what is obvious is that any form of dehumanization of others must be stopped. Each one of us may not have a super power, but when we come together we can overcome the most improbable of obstacles. With Black Panther coming out in a couple months on the big screen, it falls on all of us to remind ourselves there is a difference between fiction and reality. My body is indeed magical because I am able to survive in America against overwhelming odds, but an illegal chokehold will snuff me out as quickly as it did Eric Garner. Let us together enjoy the upcoming superhero films, let’s watch in awe as our favorite Black athletes fly, but let us not forget their humanity.
- Haslam, Nick & Loughnan, Steve, “Dehumanization and Infrahumanization,” Annual Review of Psychology, 65 (2014): 401. Return to text.
- Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter, “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (2015): 352. Return to text.
- Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014). Return to text.
- Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, The German Empire, And The Globalization Of The New South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) 12. Return to text.
- Christopher Ingraham, “Why White People See Black Boys Like Tamir Rice as Older, Bigger and Guiltier Than They Really Are” The Washington Post (December 28, 2015). Return to text.
- Josh Sanburn, “All the Ways Darren Wilson Described Being Afraid of Michael Brown” Time (November 25, 2014). Return to text.
- Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalia González, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood (Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017). Return to text.