You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 69: How Do We End "Lies about Black People"?

How Do We End "Lies about Black People"?

Can you think of a stereotype or lie you’ve heard about Black people? Do you know how or when that stereotype came to be? In this episode, SIS professor Omekongo Dibinga joins Big World to discuss his new book, Lies About Black People: How to Combat Racist Stereotypes and Why it Matters, and explain how we can improve on our antiracist journeys.

Dibinga begins our conversation by explaining the original idea and his research and writing process for the book (2:14), then moves to discussing how lies and stereotypes gain power in people's minds (4:28). Dibinga also explains why he doesn’t use the term “BIPOC” (7:55) and why reexamining our vocabulary is so important (9:44).

Where did the ‘Black people can’t swim’ stereotype come from (12:19)? How have whitewashed, revisionist versions of history detracted from our knowledge of our authentic history and experiences as Americans (20:02)? Dibinga answers these questions and more. To close out the discussion, Dibinga shares why celebrating and acknowledging Black history and achievements is so important (28:45). 

In the “Take 5” segment (17:55) of this episode, Dibinga answers this question: What are five ways that people can identify preconceived notions and work to improve on their anti-racist journey?

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.

0:16      KS: Racial or ethnic stereotypes seem to exist wherever more than one race or ethnicity exists together. And these have taken numerous forms over the years. They're all obnoxious. For example, the Irish drink too much. Italians fool around too much. Latins are fiery. White people can't dance. Are these funny? If a comedian is riffing on them from a stage and that comedian is good, maybe. Are they true? No. Let us stipulate. They are not true. But none of the stereotypes I just listed endangers anyone or calls to mind a legacy of oppression and racism to the extent of those stereotypes that exist about Black Americans. Those stereotypes can get people hurt or killed, which isn't funny at all.

1:03      KS: So today we're talking about racist stereotypes and lies, largely about Black Americans. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Omekongo Dibinga. Omekongo is a professor of cross-cultural communication here at the School of International Service, and he's a motivational speaker, a trilingual poet, a TV talk show host, and a rapper. He has lectured nationwide in venues, from TEDx and Harvard to Russell Simmons Hip-Hop Summit and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Omekongo has published seven books, the most recent of which is Lies About Black People: How to Combat Racist Stereotypes and Why it Matters. Omekongo, thank you for joining Big World.

1:43      Omekongo Dibinga: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

1:46      KS: Omekongo, your new book, Lies About Black People, discusses racist stereotypes and how to combat them. It's a little bit different from the typical academic book that's based on a giant data set or a series of carefully calibrated qualitative interviews. And the simple fact that you're addressing lies, I think, can make it hard to quantify. My first question is, how do you characterize your book? Is it a how-to self-improvement guide? Is it a cultural commentary? Or is it something else entirely?

2:14      OD: Yeah, it's a great question, and thank you for that. It's a how-to book as it relates to how to be an anti-racist, and how to be an activist for social justice causes. I make the argument in the book that if you want to be an activist, you have to arm yourself with information. There's nothing worse to the struggle than somebody who has the passion but doesn't have the information to go out and fight. So in the book, I interview people of different backgrounds who are on their anti-racist journey. I have activities that people can do at the end of many of the chapters. I infuse it with some of my original poetry. And I challenge people within the book to really look into themselves, to really figure out what it is that they want to do by understanding who they are first before they get out into the movement. So, it's a how-to-be-an-activist type of book.

3:01      KS: What did your research and writing process look like and how did you decide which stereotypes to address and focus on when you were writing this book?

3:10      OD: It's very interesting. When I first started with the book, the idea was that I wanted to write this for white suburbanites coming out of the summer of 2020 and 2021 and the like. They're like, "I'm chanting Black Lives Matter, but I want to know more. I want to go to a deeper level." So when I was thinking of the chapters, I went online to social media and I asked people, " What lies were you told about Black people?" And here's the thing, Kay. More Black people responded than white people. They were talking about all of these lies and how it affected them and their lives. That's when it made me really realize that these lies about Black people, it was a reminder that they don't just apply to white people, or Asian people, or Hispanic. They affect us as well. So the lies that they were told became the chapters of my book.

4:02      KS: Omekongo, we know that false stereotypes and lies have been part of the basis for prejudice and violence against specific groups for millennia. You just mentioned that you were asking about lies and you were actually getting the responses from the people who had lies told about them, and they had internalized those almost. So how do lies and false stereotypes gain traction and power in people's minds?

4:28      OD: It's amazing. What happens is the lies start to manifest themselves everywhere. The late Julian Bond said, "If you look at America and flip the letters around, change them around a little bit, it spells out I am race." And what it means to me is that race is at the foundation of everything we do in this country.

4:44      OD: I start the book talking about the biggest lie, which is the concept and construct of race itself. The method of race that we use nowadays was created to justify slavery. You don't find race as it exists now prior to that time. Yes, there were descriptions of color and all of these other types of things, but not the systems. And in order to do that, you had to create a lie. And the lie was that African people did not know the one true God. They were savages. And once you're able to demean a group, you're able to do anything to them.

5:14      OD: Look at the conversations we're having about now. Donald Trump has gotten into a lot of controversy because of his use of terms like vermin and poisoning the blood. And alone, standing alone, people may think that's not a problem, but when you look at the history, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Congo, this is the language that is used to dehumanize people. Rodents, vermin, scum. When you use that language, you feel like you can do anything to them. So that's part of it.

5:41      OD: And then another way the lie spreads is that you have to implant the lie into every aspect of society. So you start with the little cartoons that the kids watch. Go up on YouTube and look up Bugs Bunny's racist past, or Disney's racist past, and the movies and TV shows that were used to program our children. Then that comes into the curriculum. After that, it goes into policy. So we start in different places, but if everywhere you turn, you see the lie that you were told, manifested... Look at how Jewish people were stereotyped in some of these earlier cartoons with the big noses and all of these other types of things. Then you start to see it in the TV show, and someone puts a prop on their nose. It manifests in little ways and then it starts to become policy. That's how the lies spread across the country and across the globe. I have a chapter in here about anti-racism and about anti-Blackness being global as well.

6:38      KS: These tropes, these stereotypes, these lies, they become part of just the culture, and before you know it, they are taking up all this space in your brain, rent-free. They just exist there.

6:52      OD: That's right. That's right. Look at what's happening right now. I have a whole chapter in here on critical race theory. Critical race theory is something that is not taught in K to 12 schools. It's not even taught in undergrad. It's a law school course. But because of the lies that people have spread about Black people, oh, they want you to know this about Black people and think Black people are better, and white kids are not as good as Black kids. It has actually become law in states like Florida and Oklahoma literally banning critical race theory. The lie that was told manifested into policy. And we have seen that throughout history.

7:26      KS: Oh my gosh. In the book you discussed the need to examine the words we use to describe Black people and other groups of people. You state that you no longer use the term people of color, and you disagree with the rise and the popularity of the term BIPOC. Which, for anybody unfamiliar with it, stands for Black, Indigenous, people of color. Why do you believe these terms are inaccurate, or just not good? And why is it important to reexamine our vernacular?

7:55      OD: Well, I wrote a poem about it that's in the book. If you'd like to hear it, just let me know. It's a

8:00      OD: ... short one.

8:01      KS: I would, so you know...

8:03      OD: Let's start that one. Then I'll answer your question directly. What makes me BIPOC? Is it my locs, the way I talk, the way I rock my socks? What makes you White? Is it because you're always right? Is it the privilege is assigned as a birthright? What makes you Asian, bro? Is it your soul? What does a Korean have in common with a Pakistani? And why did we thankfully stop using Oriental? What makes you Latino? Or is it Latinx? Who decided which term was the best?

8:30      OD: Are you Native American or are you Indian? Maybe it just depends on the city I'm in. Are you a Jew or are you Jewish? Is it about your collective history or because people assume you're all rich? I looked at my dark pants and I definitely don't look like that. So who decided that with my brown skin that I'm Black? Seems pretty whack. When you call someone a term, is it because you mean it, or is it because you don't want to offend and it's convenient? At the end of the day, descriptors we use matter, and are often based on racist stereotypes that we must shatter.

9:01      KS: Thank you.

9:03      OD: No doubt. The reason why that chapter talks about your racial vocabulary is because many of us are either using antiquated terms to describe people, or we're using terms that are kind of made up and come out of nowhere, and we feel like we want to just check a box off and not get in trouble. The term BIPOC itself, Black, Indigenous, people of color, it started to become prominent on social media. And then I started to see companies and organizations and schools I'm speaking at who called me Black for years, African American, all of a sudden they're calling me BIPOC. And I didn't even know what the term was. And so one of the questions that we have to ask is who's involved in the conversations about describing a group of people?

9:44      KS: Right.

9:44      OD: Who are the gatekeepers? Another issue with it is that Black and Native American people don't have that much in common to be labeled as an entire group. Indigenous people, there were some who owned Black people as slaves. So do we create a WIPOC category, white and Indigenous, people of color? And speaking of that, white is a color. I don't use the term people of color anymore because it centers whiteness in ways that we should not, and it groups all these people together who don't have that much in common.

10:12      OD: Black people, Buffalo Soldiers were part of the slaughter of Native Americans. So why is it that we have to create this random category? And then it's prominent everywhere. So I just believe we have to ask those questions about everything. Latino, Latinx, the list goes on and on. It's not about I'm the decider, it's about are we giving real thought to the language we're using and where it's coming from? And is it really appropriate or are we just trying to check a box off and not get in trouble?

10:41      KS: Right. And it's troubling if you think that, especially if it started on social media and particularly character-limited social media, you don't want to be conflating the historic experiences of various groups of people just because it takes fewer characters.

10:59      OD: That's right.

10:59      KS: As you mentioned, these groups of people, the historic harms and trauma that have been done to Indigenous people worldwide are different from those of Black Americans whose ancestors were brought here.

11:13      OD: Exactly.

11:13      KS: Yeah, it's a very different problem.

11:13      OD: It's intellectually lazy. When we look at Covid-related hate crimes, I saw some people call that a people of color issue. No, it wasn't. That was specifically for the Asian American community. Now sure, there were some other groups, some Black groups who got attacked here and there, but generally that was the Asian community that faced that. When we talk about unarmed shootings of people, that's not a people of color issue. It's Black people. Anti-immigrant sentiment that started to grow in 2016, it wasn't a people of color issue, it was primarily directed against the Latino community. Why can't we be specific about that? Why can't we break that down and give each group the attention that they deserve? That's what I'm arguing for.

11:56      KS: Mm-hmm. Omekongo, back to your book, some of the false stereotypes discussed in the book, such as Black people can't swim, might seem at a glance to be more innocuous than other stereotypes, but in fact have a much deeper and more complex history. Can you explain where this stereotype evolves from, this idea that Black people can't swim?

12:19      OD: I'll go far back and then I'll bring it a little current, like last century or so. First of all, there was this idea when African people were brought here as slaves, there was the idea of, "Don't let them swim because they might try to swim to their freedom, might try to leave the continent." So that was one thing. So that's always been ingrained in our society. But then you fast-forward, you come to the 1800s and 1900s, this idea that Black people were not allowed to swim in the same pools as white people.

12:46      OD: And so when we get to the 1950s and '60s when legislation started to come out, which I talk about in the book, about desegregating pools and the like, you saw white communities that would rather let their community swimming pools close and not even let their own children swim in them than let Black people integrate into those swimming pools. There are stories of little kids crying as they're watching their community pools go away. You would have celebrities like Josephine Baker or Sammy Davis who would swim in a pool, and then that pool, they would take all of the water out and clean the pool before they let another white person swim in it.

13:19      OD: And so this became policy, but what did this lead to, Kay? This also led to the rise of things like country clubs, because it's like, "Oh, okay, we can't have the government pool in our neighborhood, so we're just going to start private clubs, and then it's going to be exclusive." And so living here in this area, when I bring my kids to some of these neighborhoods for private parties and stuff, they're talking about, "Oh yeah, we have these private pool leagues and all of these things." And I'm like, "Oh, this is interesting. I'd like my son to be a part of it." "Oh, well, you got to be in our zip code."

13:49      OD: And so then access becomes the issue. How is it that we can understand now why Black children are three times more likely to die from drowning versus white kids? Because of the access. And so that's why you have Black Olympian swimmers who have fought for access. Government programs have started to come in and help communities with getting access to swimming and the like.

14:10      OD: But here's another thing that we have to understand. Racism doesn't just affect the group that's being oppressed the most. I talk about a high school student in my book who was at a party. And he left the party, the Black student, and he went to this area to hang out where he knew the cops weren't going to come. And these three girls went to go swim in the water and started drowning. Police officers came and tried to save them, and they jumped in to try, and panicked. He started drowning. This Black high school student saved all four of them. And they were like, "How did you?" He was like, "Well, I've been swimming since I was three."

14:46      OD: My point is that when we're denied the opportunities to be able to participate in everything the American experiment has to offer, other people can suffer as well. A quick example, going out of swimming, I talk about in the book about a man having a medical event on a plane and the flight attendants wouldn't let a Black doctor service him, but a white man came up and didn't even give his credentials, and they let him service the person. So a Black person can't save somebody's life on a plane?

15:15      OD: Those types of issues are why those things are a problem. So when we bring it back to swimming, we have to understand that these are policies on the books that were written by governments, state governments, local governments that prevented us from being able to swim. So when I labeled that chapter, Black People Can't Swim, the Great Double Entendre, it's not that we can't physically swim, it's that we're not allowed to swim. That's the type of things that we're talking about in that chapter.

15:46      KS: And that particular lie, I think it exemplifies also the burden that these types of lies and stereotypes place on people for

16:00      KS: Generations. So I'm thinking as a parent, if I have my small children, they're not small anymore, but if I'm going to take them to a pool, I don't want to take them to a place where people are going to be looking at them and acting like they don't belong and treating them badly or making them feel badly because it's supposed to be fun. So in trying to think about what that would be like for a Black parent, particularly in times gone by, it almost shows you how it perpetuates itself. Because if you don't feel good about taking your children there, then they're not going to be able to learn to swim. But you're also trying to protect them from this environment that's harmful. So the ways in which these lies seep into people's marrow, I think is insidious. And it's one of the things that struck me when I was reading that and thinking about that particular lie.

17:05      OD: And it's still happening today. If you look at all of those while black hashtags, they're swimming while Black, where you see kids who are at community pools or going to pool parties and people are calling the police on them. There's one video in Florida, which is just terrible, where the police come and break up a pool party, it's a multiracial party and specifically goes after the Black kids, particularly a Black girl in her bathing suit and throws her down and puts his knee on her back. She's like 13, 14 years old. So a lot of these lies are still manifesting themselves in many ways today.

17:41      KS: Omekongo Dibinga, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guests, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. What are five ways that people can identify preconceived notions and work to improve on their anti-racist journey?

18:03      OD: Well, number one, you have to consider the source. If all of the information that you're reading is from a particular source or particular type of people, whether it's old people, younger people, one particular racial group, whatever it is, anybody who comes from one university, then you're getting a biased take and you have to go and learn more and do more and get more information on that. Number two, you have to look at the people you're surrounding yourself with. If you're surrounding yourself with five people who have racist ideas, you're a racist number six, antisemitic ideas, you're antisemitic, antisemite number six. Or Islamophobic ideas, you're in that group as well. So start asking yourself, I have this thing called the rule of seven. What are the authors of the last seven books that you read, the last seven podcasts that you listened to? And you got to go and start to diversify that.

18:51      OD: Number three, if you're involved in any educational type of system, whether it's you are a parent, whether you are in school yourself, whatever it is, you have to do a redesign, look at the curriculum and really start to understand what it is that is and is not there. And it's very easy if you ask yourself, is there a great representation here of Asian people, of Native American people, of Hispanic people, of Black people? And the list goes on and on. If you're not seeing that, then that's something that you have to go out and actively question. Number four, you have to get out of your comfort zone in your communities. When I talk about the rule of seven, what are the last seven shows and plays that you watched? If you watched the Nutcracker every year, are you making room for something like Step Africa or vice versa?

19:36      OD: Are you only limiting yourself to certain types of performances and things that you go to and television shows that you watch? You have the ability to diversify that. And lastly, ask yourself, when was the first time race made a difference in your life or the first time you started to notice race? Because I can guarantee you the first time you started to notice it was a negative experience regardless of who you are. Maybe you were the perpetrator of something racist, or maybe you were the victim of it.

20:02      OD: So you have to go back and look and start to understand in your own history, what biases were you taught at five years old, at 10 years old, at 12 years old, at 20 years old by people in your family that you started to accept yourself. One of my students in intercultural communication said, "On my first day of class, I asked myself, why did I get the angry Black male professor?" And he knew nothing about me, but he went through the stories he was told about Black people from his family. So you got to do a check of your own history and start to counter those lies that you may have gotten from your own family and that's going to help you on your anti-racist journey as well.

20:38      KS: Thank you. Omekongo, you write that throughout history in the US and around the world, the contributions and inventions of Black people have been overshadowed, minimized, or entirely erased. How has this revisionist history contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes in today's society? What do we not know that we're supposed to know that's holding us back?

21:06      OD: Well, it's like Malcolm X said, "If you teach a people that they never did anything, they're going to think they can never do anything." And when I was growing up, we learn about Edison, we learn about this inventor and that inventor and all of these people and the stories of what Black people were doing were never told to us. And so if we're not getting that story and we're not getting other history in the books, we're walking around this country asking ourselves, where do I belong here? I have no ownership over anything here. But then when you start learning that Black people were behind the traffic light and the gas mask or the first open heart surgery or the technology that was behind the cell phone or things like the Super Soaker or the golf tee. Or the folding bed that used to come out of walls or the elevator thing that closes the elevator doors for safety and then the scientific inventions. When you start to be able to look at something and say, "Oh, I can see me in there," then there's a sense of accomplishment that you have.

22:07      OD: There's a sense of feeling that you belong here. And now I've gone from thinking that black people created little to nothing in this country. They're thinking that most things that I see have probably had a black influence in some way, shape or form. It gives me a sense of pride. It gives me a sense of fulfillment in a society. Just think about being white in this society. You walk around and you don't even have to think that you might've invented something. You automatically assume that you did. That we did this. It's what I talk about in the book when I quote Joe Madison about cultural conditioning. In America we're culturally convinced to believe that white is superior and that Black is inferior. And the manifestation of that are these types of things, of Black people being underestimated and marginalized. And when I go into these schools and talk to kids about these inventions, and they're like, "Are you serious? Are you kidding me? This desk or this chair that I'm using, or whatever that I'm..."

23:01      OD: And it just puts them in a particular sense of self-esteem. And on top of that, for non-Black people, it also convinced them that black people were not just civilized when we got brought here. We were always inventors. And then let's take it out of inventions. Let's talk about Jack Daniels, the liquor. There's another issue where so many black inventions, because of slavery, we could not file patents. Many of the things that we created got taken by white people. And those families got rich and profited off of those for decades, if not centuries. Jack Daniels did not create the formula. It was Uncle Green, Nathan "Nearest" Green, who created the formula. And Jack Daniels was more of a salesman. That family got wealthy for years. And now we're seeing in recent years, the descendants of Uncle Nearest that they call them now have their own whiskey brand and are starting to see some success for that. But that was set up for that family of the Jack Daniels brand for centuries. And that's been the case with many inventions

24:00      OD: ... That have been credited to white people that were actually created by their enslaved individuals who couldn't file the patent for it.

24:07      KS: And it impoverishes our culture to not know these things. I did not learn about Phillis Wheatley until my daughter was entering fifth grade, and it was her fifth grade teacher who had... I didn't know that there was a Black female poet living in, was it the late 1700s? I'm going to get the dates wrong, but this was... Why didn't I know that?

24:38      OD: Right.

24:38      KS: Why is that not something that I'm taught? And this was a couple of years ago. I think a lot of these types of lies and the way that we hinder ourselves comes to... It becomes really clear when you have children. I had taken mine to Montpelier, James Madison's, that residence, and we did a tour, and I think that some of these historical sites have tried. And I think some of them are doing a pretty good job of trying to bring the contributions of people who were enslaved at the time into the story of what was happening on these estates.

25:16      KS: That it wasn't just the guy in the suit. But after the tour, which the guide had done I thought, "A really good job of trying to make sure that we understood how this place really ran and on whose labor it ran and who kept it going." And we had also had the normal like, "And here is the dining room and this was the silver service and blah, blah, blah." And we got to the end of the tour, which I thought was really good because it's a small house. If you've never been, it's actually kind of small. And a gentleman, I was walking away with my kids from to keep doing a walking thing and he said, "So that sounds like it was the slave tour. Is there a tour where we could just learn about Madison?"

26:05      OD: Oh, wow.

26:05      KS: I know. I was walking away with my kids, and I stopped, and I really thought in my head, "Did you really want more about Dolly Madison’s Silver? I mean, what did you want?" I mean, we got all of that and we also got a more balanced history, and we learned about who actually saved George Washington's portrait, and it wasn't who you thought it was. So I don't know. It just sort of struck me how we perpetuate the impoverishment of our own culture

26:31      OD: And it's getting worse. You talk about learning this from your daughter. I'm learning things now that I didn't know as much as I am into this and study this, some things my kids are bringing home. But look, imagine this, Kay, even with all of that, people, what little we knew, people are trying to remove that as well, right? At one school, I consult at a lot of schools, I work with them in their education programs and cultural competency, one teacher told me at a school that a parent came up to him and said, " I want my kids to learn about Black history, but I want them to learn about the good guys like Dr. King, not the bad guys like Malcolm X." And so it's like they're trying to cherry-pick what is able to be taught. And again, it's not just Black kids and Black people need to know this history.

27:16      OD: It's like you're saying with this Madison example, we need to be able to tell the complete story, and so much has already been left out, and what little we have, people are trying to erase, and America suffers because of that. That's why there was so much backlash to Obama because a lot of people who never even worked for a Black person now had to be prepared to be led by one. And cultural conditioning of that Black people can't lead, that Black people are this or that because of what we didn't get in the history books. That led to a lot of that animosity.

27:51      KS: And it also feeds into that idea that anyone from any unrepresented group, particularly Black Americans, has to be so exceptional in order to rise to the level. When you say, "Oh, I only want to talk about Dr. King, I don't want to talk about Malcolm X." Well, are we going to go back through and remove all of the white men who had any questionable views or any history that maybe we don't want to know about? There's a lot, but no, we learn about them and all of their... First of all, we whitewash the things that they did badly, but if we learn about them, we learn about it as sort of a full picture of a person. They're allowed to be full people in a way that when you cherry-pick just a few exceptional people, you don't get that fullness of a culture.

28:45      OD: You see that in Hollywood, which I also talk about in the book. When you look at movies like Hidden Figures and 42, a lot of these movies which you think are about Black history, but they're usually about the white hero in the movie. Catherine Johnson said some of those things they put in the movie didn't happen, but the director said he did it so that the white people would not all look like villains. That whole thing about her having to go across the whatever to use the bathroom and she was like, "I used whatever bathroom I wanted to."

29:12      OD: But those types of things that were happening, were happen throughout our history. 12 Years a Slave, the list goes on that are designed to make white people look like their heroes when in many instances they weren't. And to make it always look like we could not have gotten a particular certain level of success or achievement without white people giving us permission. And in many instances, we had to take our freedom in many ways, when we brought this country to the ground in terms of the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn't about our freedom being given to us. People knew that this country was not going to be able to move forward if we didn't get the rights that we were demanding.

29:47      KS: Omekongo Dibinga, I would love to sit here and talk with you all day. I feel like I would learn a lot and I'm enjoying it, but we're out of time for this. I want to thank you for joining Big World to discuss disinformation in racist stereotypes because it's disinformation. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

30:05      OD: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

30:06      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review it'll be like re-rolling your holiday lights and finding they actually fit inside the box once they emerged, our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Omekongo Dibinga,
SIS professor

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on your favorite podcast platform.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now