In middle school gym a classmate once asked to see my stomach. She said it was cool that I could just do sit-ups so easily given my “genetic makeup.” She believed that this was simply one of my magical abilities as a Black person, that I did not have to put in any effort to complete the drills that our teacher had assigned.
It didn’t occur to her that I was a 12-year-old girl with serious hoop dreams who was on three basketball teams.
I did not show her my stomach. Instead, I smiled awkwardly while slowly turning away from her to face the rest of my class. I am pretty sure this encounter did not register for her beyond that class but it has been with me since then.
With a simple comment she normalized herself and othered me.
Jordan Peele masterfully captures the dehumanizing effects of microaggressions like these in Get Out, which is now the second highest grossing horror film in North American history.
After seeing the movie, my friends and I went to a diner to debrief the parallels between certain scenes and our actual experiences. While we were a mixed group, African, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Danish, and Indo-Guyanese, our stories were shockingly similar. Like Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) we had all heard something about our “genetic makeup” at some point.
Our discussion centered around a scene during the party at the Armitage house when one of the guests grabbed and fondled Chris’s arm, commenting on his physique in the middle of a conversation.
One friend recalled multiple comments made about her arms throughout the years. White classmates observed that her arms were “amazing” and “crazy” and complained about the fact that Black people just have better muscle definition without having to work out. Another friend remembered his white classmates’ remarks about his “natural” strength during a sporting event. These comments reflected the prevailing messages that our peers had absorbed as a result of living in a society bisected by the color line and aren’t surprising considering existing research on the way that many white people view Black people.
Underlying each of these seemingly benign observations about our physical capabilities is the deeply embedded centuries-old, racist belief in our society that Black people are superhuman. It is easy to forget that to be superhuman means that you are not human.
The fatal consequences of this idea are apparent in cases involving police brutality. It was not too long ago that Darren Wilson compared Michael Brown to “Hulk Hogan” in his grand jury testimony. Twenty-two years earlier, Rodney King was described similarly. He was said to have “hulk-like strength.”
In 2014, Waytz, Hoffman, and Trawalter designed the first empirical study that captured this phenomenon. The authors conclude that superhumanization is an aspect of dehumanization.
Participants were shown a white face and a black face and asked, among other questions, to decide who would be able to run faster than a jet and who was more likely to have skin that could withstand the pain of burning coals. Black people were chosen 63.5 percent of the time.
It is tiring having to convince people that you are a regular human just like them. Each one of us vividly described the fatigue that comes with being on the receiving end of these everyday assaults on our humanity, which have been linked to poor health outcomes for people of color, including physical pain, depression, and fatigue.
Simply put, these words and behaviors put us in the sunken place, denying us our humanity and agency.
I was surprised to learn that there is a #GetOutChallenge. The challenge focuses on reenacting a scene from the movie where Walter (Marcus Henderson), the Armitage family’s handyman runs towards Chris.
Everyone, including celebrities, seems to be taking part in this latest viral internet trend. Shortly after the film’s release, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors posted a video of himself, on social media, doing the #GetOutChallenge. Underneath his video he wrote, “trying to escape the sunken place #getout.”
Recently, Lupita Nyong’o uploaded a video to Instagram of the cast and crew of the upcoming film Black Panther doing their best #GetOutChallenge.
But this challenge misses the mark. We have forgotten why Walter runs the way that he does. Walter has been permanently relegated to the sunken place and reduced to something not quite human through a nightmarish procedure, pioneered by the Armitages, that reflects a belief about his “genetic makeup.”
We are not that different from the Armitages. By virtue of living in a society awash in damaging narratives about certain groups, we have all engaged in practices that deny people their full humanity.
What if the #GetOutChallenge was truly about destroying the sunken places we create for each other when we accept those narratives as truth? Humanizing each other is challenge that needs to go viral.