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The Real-Life Chills of Oppressive Culture

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

In honor of Black History Month (i.e., February), I decided it would be a great time to write about a recently released show that was grotesque in the ways that truly keep me up at night. Normally, the scary shit that gets under my skin, is the shit I know actually happened, could actually, or is currently happening. The show I’m referring to is an Amazon Prime series called Them. If you haven’t watched it, I strongly recommend you set aside some time to binge-watch (assuming horror is your thing). I will give a trigger warning that the show does have sexual assault, physical assault, assault of children, and people being disgustingly shitty to people of color.

Before I get too far into discussing the show, this is the part where I acknowledge that as a white viewer, I have the privilege of only empathizing to the best of my ability. Even with counselor-level empathy, I know that I will still never feel the full extent of what Black individuals feel, even in just the viewership of tv shows. Because I don’t have the intergenerational traumas and because I am not actively being oppressed by the society around me.

Also, this is your spoiler alert. I’ll try not to give too much away, but also, I’ll be talking about the aspects of the show that were moving to me which might inherently spoil some things.

More important than spoilers, this is your trigger warning. If you have experienced racism, this blog and this show may be triggering for you. Proceed with caution. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us directly if we inadvertently said something racist, or upsetting. We do care and do not wish to perpetuate racism any further. Please help educate us so we can become better advocates.

The first season of Them is set in the 1950s and follows a Black family of four, the Emory’s, as they move across the country to a predominantly white community located in Compton, CA. The move across the country required them to move away from the majority of their support system to a place they’ve never been and surrounded by *shitty* white people. The family was hoping for more safety and equality by moving across the country, away from the South. The terrible thing about this is the historical accuracy of the situation. To feel like your personal power was taken away so much that you feel like you have to completely relocate and uproot your entire life to feel like you can regain the right to be treated with human decency.

This is the part where I say my first, “Holy fucking resilience Batman.” The amount of resiliency this family shows over the course of the series is so powerful, but it also hurts in the deepest parts of my heart. To think about anyone having to be that resilient day in and day out that even after spending their lives in the South, being treated as less than human, they still have some semblance of hope and the will to persevere. My heart aches thinking about that resilience just because I wish people weren’t put in circumstances that demanded that level of resilience from them.

Just one more digression, and then I’ll continue about the real-life horrors that exist in the show. The digression is this: the cast of the show, predominantly Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Melody Hurd (the four individuals that depict the Emory family) deserve all of the awards. Everything about their acting was on point. Each of them made me feel all of the feels throughout the entire show. I think their depiction of the characters and the experiences was part of what made this so powerful. I felt their hope, their excitement, the moments of fear, disappointment, defeat, depression, and the anger. Again, I can acknowledge that I’m privileged by having a degree of separation and that what I felt empathizing with was only a margin of what individuals in the BIPOC community experience emotionally.

So back to the action, the Emory family moved across the country for a new beginning. Before they arrive at their new house, you see the lightheartedness of just a family excited about being together and embarking on a new journey together. Shortly after arriving at the new house, we see the first sliver of reality. This reality: the pervasiveness of oppression. How it can be inescapable. The paperwork for their new house outright says it can’t be rented, leased, or sold to anyone who isn’t Caucasian. It goes on to specify that “no persons of Negro blood or heritage shall occupy the premises.” Naturally, the wife and our leading lady, Lucky, who is being informed of this for the first time after moving across the country is upset.

Her husband, Henry, tries to soothe her and the real estate agent tries to tell her that racial covenants are no longer legal. Even as a white viewer, I was like “Nope, don’t trust her. They are going to take your property away from you as soon as it's convenient for them.” I was Team Lucky. I was cheering for her self-respect and her knowledge of her own worth. When I sat in Henry’s shoes (which being honest probably didn’t come until further into the show), I started to see that they were in an impossible situation and that he chose what felt like the lesser of two evils. This is again, where the horror gets me because to think about the reality where a person has to pick between two options, both of which will treat them as less than human. Both of which they not only experience rejection interpersonally but are denied rights. The rights to the American fucking dream of owning your own house/land, of making yourself something.

The other right that is denied to the Emory family in the show, is the right to feel safe in your own house. Before they even signed the papers for their house, Henry commented, “you can see the whole place from here, which is good.” Now, maybe to some people this wouldn’t have stood out as something horrific, but to me it did. As a person who has experienced multiple traumas throughout my life, I can’t help but assess the safety of a place I enter based on the visibility and exits of the space. It is a rather subconscious appraisal that I do without even intending to most of the time. So when I heard that, my first thought was “damn, they just moved to white suburbia and are making sure that their environment allows them to see any threats quickly.”

As I thought about it more, I thought about the people I would expect that appraisal from and it was predominantly single females living alone. I asked myself if single females living alone would have felt that way in the 1950s. I don’t know if they would have because sexual assault wasn’t a widely discussed topic back then, but I still think they would have felt safer than the Emory family did. As a person who has recently entered parenthood, I also can’t imagine moving to a place where I had to worry about whether or not I could see my kids from various spots of my house.

That’s a privilege though. When I think about how many BIPOC families still have to do this assessment of risk moving into a new place, the automatic answer in my head was probably most of them. Despite 70 years of time and numerous movements toward racial equality, this assessment of risk still needs to occur. Because we haven’t done things that facilitate safety in neighborhoods and because everyone is moving with a history of racial trauma. If you think about the characters in the show, they align with the ages of our parents and grandparents (assuming you’re a millennial like me). To think of my parents and grandparents living through the atrocities that their BIPOC counterparts had to live through is unthinkable. My parents definitely would have indirectly or directly passed down that knowledge of assessing my safety based on how visible things were in my environment. This is where we get into the complexity of intergenerational traumas because those learned behaviors, especially those geared towards safety, are some of the most powerful learned behaviors. They become reflexive because your mind convinces you that your survival is dependent on those learned behaviors.

That isn’t the only learned behavior that we see developed or manifested throughout the show either. That is the tip of the iceberg. Even starting on Day 1 of the Emory's living in their new house, something that should be a joyous occasion, they have to deal with their white neighbors gawking at them, blatantly talking negatively and prejudicially about them, and just standing outside of their house at all hours of the day. How the fuck do you celebrate or even just relax when your whole neighborhood is just plotting your failure?

During the first night in their new house, we as an audience see Lucky loading a gun. Now, we don’t have a lot of backstory on the family, but we don’t need one. Even not knowing what else the family had experienced, I was validating her loading the gun in my head. I totally understand why she felt like she needed to in order to be safe. If all of my neighbors gawked at me and stood outside of my house in an effort to intimidate me, I would have been doing the same thing. I would have felt the need to protect myself somehow. The directors of the show do a fabulous job of making you feel the suspense of something going wrong at any minute and of an unpredictable, uncontrollable world where the family does their best to survive. This isn’t just one family’s story though. This is most, if not every, Black family’s story of surviving in the 1950s (and hell, even today). That is the gut-wrenching, horrific nature of this show.

Another abhorrent truth to the experiences of individuals in the BIPOC community: is social rejection. Do you know what a common fear is for most people? Social rejection. From an evolutionary standpoint, the survival of any one person is based on a group supporting them. So naturally, a common fear is not having a group of people to support you. Social rejection gets under most people’s skin. We want to be liked by everyone. As we age, we gain the ability to take it less personally if we are rejected by someone, but if that someone spreads the rejection to a group of people because they are an influential person, we are mortified. We all have heard the “don’t piss off so-so” as a warning of the influential person that could ruin some aspect of our lives.

This fear of social rejection leads a lot of people with anxiety and depression to misread or misinterpret social cues and interactions. It's natural for people with depression or anxiety to feel outcasted by those around them. Normally as a counselor, I challenge people to review the facts and try to look at them more logically. We examine the evidence of the situation, we examine whether others would have interpreted the situation the same way, and look for any cognitive distortions that are leading them to think they are being rejected. The problem with this is that the Emory family was facing social rejection in a very blatant way. As a counselor, I would have no tools to help them besides validation and empathy.

Think about it, most of our worst fears of rejection are in living color through the experiences of the Emory family (and most BIPOC families). When you watch the show, you see that for Black people, there is no “maybe you just think they were staring at you when they weren’t,” because they were downright gawking at them. We all worry about people looking at us like we have something on our face or like we are doing this major social faux pas that we haven’t been clued into. For Black people, not just in the 1950s, they are treated like the social faux pas is the color of their skin. I can’t fathom going somewhere and having people gawk at me like that and gossip about me (while not knowing a damn thing about me) and keeping my head held high as many Black people do.

The gawking and gossiping were one thing. The white people living on the street take it even further. A group of white women “rally” together with radios and blast music to try to chase them out. They band together and weaponize a torture tactic. Shit you not, they use a torture tactic to chase them out of their own house. How messed up is that? They knew what they were doing too. They were trying to drive the family crazy and trying to drive them out of their own house.

That same day (only day two of the Emory family living in their new house), the white women get together for what looks like a normal hang-out ritual. The woman who is depicted as the leader of the hostility towards the Emory family, Betty says “they’re exhausted because they came from someplace worse. They always come from someplace worse. This means they really want to be here so getting them out won’t be easy. We’ll have to make this place worse.”

“They came from someplace worse, so we have to make this place worse.” Could you imagine moving to a neighborhood where they used military torture tactics to attempt to drive you out of your own house? Could you imagine moving away from an extremely hostile place, just to have the new community match that hostility because they don’t like you, even though they don’t fucking know you? I was appalled when I heard Betty’s character say she was going to make her neighborhood worse than the south to try to drive that family out. None of them even flinched that this was a family that they were treating like this. It wasn’t war criminals, it wasn’t anyone who personally did anything wrong or harmful to them. What made my blood boil the most was that the white people felt justified in how they treated Black people. Those same white people plead ignorance as to why Black people can’t just “get over” the racial injustices or systemic oppression they experience today.

Again, going back to the passage of intergenerational traumas, what if your parents or your grandparents had to live through those torture tactics? Just because they wanted a fresh start. It would make you pretty distrusting of any system or even just a group of white people. We have stories upon stories throughout history of families holding grudges across generations for much less than torture tactics. It is safe to say that any individual of the BIPOC community who has a distrust and feelings of being unsafe in systems primarily operated by white people is justified in having those feelings.

The amount of effort the white neighbors put into sabotaging the Emory family in Them is just downright insane. I can’t tell you how many during the show I thought, “why can’t they just get a life instead of torturing this family.” I was appalled by the amount of time and energy the neighborhood put into destroying this family. This is the part where my mind zooms out and thinks about all of the Black families that were met with that hostility, aggression, and oppression just because they were trying to move to a neighborhood where they could be treated like humans. All of those families that had their hope robbed from them and were psychologically beaten into submission because white people couldn’t get over themselves.

I think of all of the white people who thought they were better than BIPOC individuals, but also better than the primary oppressors in the South, who resorted to heinous tactics to ruin lives. I don’t honestly see how they thought they were better when they became monsters to destroy people. White people were delusional to think that they were the victims of someone moving to their neighborhood.

When we look at how much white people believe their own bullshit, there is a point in Them when Lucky feels driven to the point of threatening the white people with a gun, and they gaslight them (and the rest of the community). The white neighbors, just like any psychologically abusive person, goaded her into a reaction where they then got to play victims. When I watched the scene play out, I’m pretty sure I audibly yelled, “aw, that’s a bunch of bullshit.” They dismissed and minimized all of their own torture tactics against the Emory family and acted like Lucky was being crazy for her reaction. They completely left out how they had been disrespecting boundaries and Lucky’s response was her attempt to re-assert her boundaries in an unsafe environment.

I see this play out with true victims frequently. Where their abuser pushes them over the proverbial edge and then gaslights them by asking why they are overreacting. A whole community of people has experienced this type of treatment and psychological abuse and some white people wonder why it's still an issue for them. Well, maybe because psychological abuse is the most psychologically and emotionally detrimental form of abuse, and the BIPOC community has had to deal with it for centuries now.

The sad thing is, this type of gaslighting and minimization is still very much alive today. I don’t even know if I can say it has gotten better, because it has just become more discreet. In some ways that makes it worse because it allows those who like to “give the benefit of the doubt” more complacent when they see microaggressions or racial injustice. It is easy to stand up next to someone when you watch them be physically assaulted or you know if you’ve seen their yard burned. It is harder to stand up next to someone when gaslighting is occurring and the perpetrator is trying to play the victim. That person (or community of people) needs us to affirm them and stand up with them more instead of allowing others to gaslight them into submission. The BIPOC community needs affirmation and validation that they aren’t crazy about seeing and experiencing what they are experiencing.

The show Them isn’t just history for me because there were plenty of atrocities that were portrayed in the show that still happen today. It is a depiction of how we are not that far away from that past and how it still affects us today. I really only reviewed events that happened in the first episode of the show. I could probably write another 3-4 blogs on all of the horrors portrayed in that show and how horrified and enraged I get watching it.

Even knowing the horrors portrayed in the show and how they make me feel, I’d much rather watch it and experience this discomfort knowing that my discomfort is still only a fraction of the discomfort my BIPOC peers experience. We need this discomfort to not be complacent. So if you’re ready to not be complacent and ready to embrace the discomfort of facing systemic oppression, here are some ideas on how you can do that:

  1. Expose yourself to the experiences of the BIPOC population. Don’t just take this white girl’s take on it. Blah blah blah

    1. Read Black Authors

    2. Follow Black Leaders

    3. Stick up for the Black community on Social Media when you see injustices.

      1. We’re all taught as kids to stick up for people when they’re being bullied. If you remain silent while a Black person is experiencing racism, you are just as bad as the bully saying the hateful things. Your silence communicates agreeance and makes the racist feel justified in their behavior. Help end the injustice by using your voice.

    4. Acknowledge when you do/say racist things. It happens to everyone. Whether it be about race, gender, or sexual identity, we’ve all said things we didn’t know were hurtful. If you say something and someone is hurt by it, sit in that. Take yourself back to the middle school era. What were you bullied for? How different would the situation have been for you if the person who said something hurtful to you, acknowledged how you felt and offered to work on it in the future?

  2. Support Black (and other minority) owned businesses.

    1. Leave them good reviews. How many times have you decided to go to one place over another just because they had an abundance of good reviews? Help Black-owned businesses overcome some of the oppression they experience with your voice as their customer.

    2. Comment on their posts. Comments are always highly valued in ranking algorithms. Hashtags help, too. #BlackOwnedBusiness #SupportBlackOwnedBusiness #SupportBlackOwned #BlackoutTuesday #bipoc #bipocawareness #bipocownebusiness #supportbipoc

    3. Actually, spend money at their stores. You can’t buy groceries with likes.

    4. Share with your friends. Rant and rave about the positive aspects and leave race out of your word-of-mouth review.

  3. Don’t talk to Black people about their race unless they want to. Race shouldn't be an identifier or a place to find common ground - unless you share the same race.

    1. Treat everyone equally. Don’t treat anyone better or worse than another.

    2. Don’t say things like “I have a Black friend,” or “I don’t see color.” These are micro-aggressions. They’re usually used by White people to justify whatever they did to be called out for doing something racist.

    3. Find common ground that isn’t race related. That hot-ass Black chick that walked into the bar doesn’t give a fuck that you once dated a Black girl. The last thing she wants to talk about is her race. Imagine someone picked something unchangeable about you, like your eye color. “I once had a friend with blue eyes.” How do you even respond to that?

BIPOC community: Please post your businesses in the comments for free exposure.

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Counselor Suggestion Culture/Race Reading list

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