Footage of violent racist incidents such as the murder of George Floyd is traumatising black children, according to the author Claudia Rankine, who believes it could be one of the factors contributing to a rise in child suicide among black communities in the US.
The poet, playwright, essayist and academic said the frequency and availability of such images has not led to black people being safer and instead is having a negative effect on the mental health of young people.
Rankine said there was now a “generation of kids” in the US who were “terrified” and “feel they don’t have options” in a world where they are criminalised “from the moment they are children”.
She added: “When you begin to take into account that the suicide rates around black children, especially black boys are going up, you understand they’re being traumatised by the information that’s coming towards them.”
A recent piece in the New Yorker cited research that found racial discrimination can exacerbate mental health issues, while having to deal with things such as body scanners at school and violent racist imagery on the internet means that at “younger and younger ages, [black children] begin to question whether life is worth living.”
In the US, as in the UK, the pandemic has triggered warnings about the rise in mental health problems among children, which were already an issue before March 2020. One US study from 2018 found the suicide rate among black children, between the ages of five and 12 years old, was twice that of white peers.
Rankine’s latest play, The White Card, addresses the use of traumatic imagery directly by exploring the white liberal racism of a family of art collectors and their impact on a black artist during the Trump era.
Its European debut is in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the Northern Stage before it tours the UK, and when it was first published and staged in 2019 it was described as “subtly dramatising the full spectrum of racism from micro-aggression to surveillance to death as spectacle”.
Northern Stage’s artistic director, Natalie Ibu, said the play would feel relevant to a UK audience because of the increased interest in anti-racism after the Black Lives Matter protest movement, and news stories such as the Child Q case.
Ibu said: “If you’re living in a country in which a teenage black girl can get stripped at school by police and no one batted an eyelid, then we’re a country that needs to have a conversation about race, racism and whiteness.”
The White Card was inspired by a conversation Rankine had with an audience member, who asked her the question: “What can I do for you? How can I help you?” during a Q&A session.
When Rankine told the man he needed to ask what he could do to change himself he became hostile, which led her to write a play about white liberal biases and “put it in the theatre in actual white bodies so they know I’m talking to them”.
Rankine believes culture can play a critical role in reshaping the way people think about race. She said she loved Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series because the five films interrogated the racism that black British people faced in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and showed how it wasn’t that dissimilar to the US.
She said: “I think those films are about the ways in which the same issues that black people have to negotiate here in the US have had a long history in Britain. This is what it looks like, in case you didn’t realise it.”
Her writing has also been credited with popularising concepts such as “microaggressions” and after the success of her book Citizen: An American Lyric, she received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry and a 2016 MacArthur “genius” fellowship.
She says that one of the biggest issues in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement is to convince white people that they need to address white supremacy personally. “How do you get white people to understand they really believe they’re better than anyone else?” she asks.
“It wasn’t something they were born with, it’s something that the culture made them believe.”