More Than Words: Trevor Smith connects anti-Black stereotypes to lethal violence
The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.
Trevor Smith, Director of Narrative Change at Liberation Venture, is focused on fueling the movement for reparations through the Reparations Narrative Lab, which launched this month. In addition to his movement work, Trevor is the editor of the newsletter, Reparations Daily (ish) where he both writes and curates articles related to reparations. This work inspired his project for the cohort, Lethal Stereotypes – a nonfiction novel that looks at the impact of racial stereotypes on Black life and death.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Narrative Initiative: In your Juneteenth piece for Narrative Initiative, you mentioned several projects you have coming up. Tell us about them.
Trevor Smith: The program that we’re launching in August [is] called the Reparations Narrative Lab. We are inviting 10 folks into this space with us for 10 months. We will conduct some audience segmentation research as it relates to narratives. We’ll [also] be doing some narrative and story excavating to name the narratives and stories we’re up against as a movement, and [to name] the narratives and stories we want to see out in the world. Then, we’ll be doing some message and frame testing. We will invite professional storytellers into the space with us to learn a little bit more storytelling, which, we hope, will culminate in a writers’ workshop. [The goal is to] produce some content in the lab that [can] hopefully be reproduced and tested with different audiences.
Narrative Initiative: So, in creating this ecosystem for experimentation on reparation narratives, what do you hope to achieve?
Trevor Smith: I think there’s a couple of things. First and foremost, the biggest goal with this lab is to build narrative power within the reparations ecosystem that a group of folks can align on. And the way we define narrative power is the ability to tell stories that shift cultural mindsets, and, ultimately, culture.
I think it’s unrealistic to think that there will be 100% alignment on every narrative or every message, but, hopefully, what this process can do is help us name the ones we do agree on and build power around them. Also, reparations is not a new movement. It’s a movement that’s now getting renewed – or new – attention from philanthropy. Therefore, I think a lot of folks are getting more attention or entering the space. And so another goal of Liberation Ventures is to connect the field of organizations doing this work. Hopefully, through the lab, folks will collaborate with each other on narrative change projects, narrative interventions, and building some kind of connective tissue throughout the ecosystem.
Narrative Initiative: You are a member of the Changemaker Authors Cohort, and your project is a nonfiction novel called Lethal Stereotypes. Can you take me through how you conceived of this project?
Trevor Smith: When I was doing the research, and applying to Narrative Initiative around this idea, I came across the literary genre nonfiction novel, Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Essentially, a nonfiction novel depicts real historical figures and actual events, but it’s woven with storytelling.. So, Lethal Stereotypes really fits well within the work that I’m doing at Liberation Ventures, and everything that I’m reading about narrative change and pulling from social psychology and sociology. But, the idea behind Lethal Stereotypes is to show that the stories we tell about Black people and about blackness come together to create these stereotypes that make lethal interactions possible. It’s not saying that the words themselves are lethal, but they create the environment for lethal interactions.
Like many in my generation, I was really radicalized by the murder of Trayvon Martin. I was a freshman in college when it happened. To me, it really highlights the power of the “thug” stereotype. George Zimmerman called the police and followed Trayvon Martin because Trayvon was a young black man who was wearing a hoodie. In Zimmerman’s eyes, [that] “looked suspicious.” And so Trayvon Martin’s story is one that a lot of people know— it grabbed national attention—and so I definitely want to feature his story throughout the book.
There are other stereotypes that are less well known that I hope the book can illuminate [as well], and stories that are less well known than Trayvon’s that I hope the book can also shine a light on too.
Narrative Initiative: Like what?
Trevor Smith: So, for example, [the stereotype that] Black people don’t feel pain is one I’m currently digging into. Right now, I’m trying to find a story about the Black maternal mortality rate. We know the mortality rate is higher. What I’ll try to do in that chapter is link how the stereotype of Black people not feeling pain is connected to Black women losing their lives at a disproportionate rate in the hospital, and then weave in a particular story about a Black woman losing her life. That’s one example.
This is a really hard project because there is so much to read about stereotypes, and a lot of learning that I’m doing right now about stereotypes. Each chapter is about a different stereotype. The thug stereotype is one that I’m the most well-read on, but the other stereotypes I need research more.
This other one that I’m starting to dive into is the “welfare queen” stereotype, which is basically that Black people can’t be trusted with money. Or that Black people will spend the money frivolously. And obviously, I think there’s a lot out there about the welfare queen stereotype and I guess I’m just looking for specific stories about it.
I think some stereotypes are not as apparent as Trayvon Martin or Terence Crutcher out in Tulsa. So that’s another hard one that I’m looking into.
Narrative Initiative: So, there is not so much a welfare queen type of story. But along the lines of maternal care, there is the story of Tabitha Walrond, a Black woman in the Bronx. She was trying to breastfeed her child and she couldn’t breastfeed, she didn’t have any formula, and the baby basically died of starvation. And she was charged with neglect. But the “welfare queen” stereotype came out of a Ronald Reagan speech from the 80s, when he was railing against welfare, and is based on a woman who actually did go to prison for fraud, Linda Johnson. But, welfare queen also has the racist implications behind it, which is why navigating the system of government welfare, and government aid, has been attributed to the breakdown of the Black family because you couldn’t have someone living with you, if you were receiving aid, things like that. So, when you start to look into welfare policy, you will also find that barriers put in place to make the aid less accessible. So in looking at these stereotypes that have coalesced into a narrative about Black people, whether we’re thugs or don’t feel pain, or welfare queens and the other stereotypes against Black women, such as mammy, jezebel, sapphire, and all of that. What are you trying to elucidate about those narratives? Are you trying to turn them on their head with your writing?
Trevor Smith: I think my goal in my career is to turn them on their head. Whether this book will do that or not is definitely yet to be seen. I think it has the potential to do that, to make people think deeply about things like microaggressions. And why microaggressions are not really micro, because when microaggressions are aggregated, they actually create the environment for Black people to lose their lives. I’m trying to reframe how people think about the smaller things.
The idea came about after I read Nice Racism (by Robin DiAngelo). She spends so much time talking about how liberal white people perform what she calls “nice racism.” And in my head, I’m like, There’s no such thing as nice racism. There’s no such thing as a microaggression. We shouldn’t try to scale them from nice to horrible. Obviously, a white supremacist is different from a white, liberal, progressive, but racism is racism. It’s a big bucket. And so what I’m really trying to do with this book is push white liberals, white progressives, to really rethink microaggressions – how they use their language on a daily basis, and to really think about their mindsets, as it relates to race and to blackness. Hopefully, I can get them to ask, How does the way I go about my daily life perpetuate these stereotypes? Because they create the environment for Black people to lose their lives.
Narrative Initiative: So, do you see your nonfiction novel, Lethal Stereotypes, as being in conversation with very well known anti-racist texts by Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi? Or do you look at it as a challenge to the narrative they put forth?
Trevor Smith: I would say being in conversation, for sure. I think that the book hopefully will open a portal of new perspective for the folks who did read Nice Racism, White Fragility, and How to be an Anti-Racist. But I don’t even think that I’ve done enough of my own scholarship to be able to directly push back against a Kendi or DiAngelo, but I hope that I can offer a different perspective through the stories of people who lost their lives.
I want to be able to write stories and tell their stories in full, and I’m approaching my storytelling process, in my mind, with a lot of integrity. I want folks to see someone like a Trayvon in his fullness, and not in the way that George Zimmerman saw him on that day. We all heard a lot about the Arizona can and the Skittles. But, there’s a lot of other ways that Trayvon in his whole life showed up as a person. I met his brother, Trayvon Martin’s brother, a couple years ago. He was working here in New York, for a local city office. I hope to interview him. What was Trayvon’s childhood like? Or for the other individuals featured in my book? What were their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations?
In that way, I do push back against some of the narratives that I’m highlighting. I want to help folks think about what it means to be an anti-racist in day-to-day life. What conversations does an anti-racist have with their own family? And what does it mean to be pro-Black? Because I think there’s a difference between anti-racist and pro-Black.
Narrative Initiative: Definitely. So with that said, what are the narratives that you are specifically trying to shift with your own work on the book and with Liberation Ventures?
Trevor Smith: The “deservingness” narrative, specifically on reparations, and anything related to kind of cash or finances. Black people are not seen as deserving. And then I think because of that it extends to other people of color. We saw it most recently when the Child Tax Credit was expanded. For a while, they extended the child tax credit, then they rolled it back. Democratic senators, like Joe Manchin, were talking about work requirements, or talking about Black people spending the money frivolously. When it comes to Black people, we are not seen as deserving of financial assets. But, when it comes to the rich and wealthy, as we saw with Trump’s tax cuts, the majority of which went to corporations, and then it’s framed as a tax cut or “a bailout.” So that’s one.
The other is the racial progress narrative. That’s, I think, a really big one. Folks think that we are further along and on our way toward racial progress than we actually are. And there’s a study done by Michael Kraus, who said that the racial progress narrative leads people to make overly optimistic estimates regarding the state of racial economic equality in the nation. They did this study, where they asked folks to estimate the racial wealth gap. Researchers asked what participants imagined the Black-white racial wealth gap to be at different points in time. When asked about the wealth gap in 1963, the researchers found that folks overestimated it by 40 percentage points. When asked about 2016, they overestimated it by 80 percentage points.
So, we don’t have an understanding of racial economic inequality in this country. When we see things like this pushback on critical race theory, which is really a push back on history . . When you actually teach history accurately, it rubs up against this idea that we’re further along and have actually made substantial [racial] progress. Then, when you hear folks like Mitch McConnell, say, “Oh, we don’t need reparations, because we fought a Civil War over it. We signed civil rights legislation, and we elected a Black president.” So, those moments really highlight the need to address the racial progress narrative.
Another one, core to the American story, is the “bootstraps” narrative – that if you work hard enough, no matter your race, your gender, your ethnicity, your religion, you can climb the socioeconomic ladder. And so Raj Chetty, he put out some data a couple of years ago and he found that in 99% of neighborhoods across the country, Black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys who grew up in families with comparable income. So, if you’re the Black son of a minimum wage worker, and you grow up next to a white boy whose parents are minimum wage workers, that white boy will always earn more than you in adulthood. It’s the same concept when you’re the son of LeBron James, if you live next to another NBA player. When you grow up, that white boy will always make more than you in adulthood. So, to me, that pushes back against this meritocracy narrative. There’s something deeper at play here specifically for Black boys, but I think for Black people overall, that ensures we don’t have access to the American dream in the same way that white people do, for sure.
Narrative Initiative: So what would you want your readers to take away from your book where you’re working to shift these narratives by presenting these stories to do so?
Trevor Smith: I would want my readers to understand that we are swimming in a sea of anti-Black narratives. We consume so many stories and messages on a daily basis from the time we are children. From the moment we enter the systems of the United States – the education system, religious systems, healthcare systems – as soon as we start to enter all the systems that make up the United States, we start to swim in a sea of anti-Black narratives, stories, and messages. And then when we go out into the world, and start to engage and hold power within these systems, we perpetuate anti-Black stories, anti-Black narratives. So, we actually have to reframe how we approach our daily lives and our daily conversations.
I want folks to understand that messages matter. It’s not just semantics. The words that we use matter. There’s no such thing as racial “micro-aggressions.” They’re harmful, and they aggregate into narratives that create the environment where Black people can lose their lives.