It’s not just We Got Y’all: When non-profits frame Black youth as deprived & in need of saviors
Too often we shifts responsibility to community-based afterschool programs to “fix” youth rather than investing in dismantling capitalism.
By Bianca Baldridge
HBO’s Insecure is one of the best series on television. Through both humor and drama, the show tackles the love and relationships of Black women, while also commenting on gentrification, cultural appropriation, white liberal racism, and education, among other things.
As a former youth worker in afterschool community-based programs and a sociologist who studies the racial dynamics of these spaces, Issa’s former job at We Got Ya’ll, an afterschool program in the show, resonates with me the most. For Black youth, community-based afterschool spaces have been vibrant sites of liberation and healing in a racist society, but they are often rife with deficit-based thinking and paternalism that undermines their effectiveness.
We Got Y’all provides a glimpse into the ways afterschool youth work can be beneficial and harmful as it perpetuates deficit-based narratives that frame Black and Latinx youth as culturally deprived, academically unmotivated, and in need of saving.
In film and television, schools are typically centered as the only site of learning, and teachers are positioned as the only educators (The Cosby Show and A Different World come to mind as a few exceptions). However, youth workers in afterschool programs are instrumental in the lives of young people, and Issa’s role as a youth worker in a critically acclaimed television show is an important representation of the profession (and the realities of its low wages, too).
Since the beginning of Insecure, there has been an ongoing theme of subtly calling out the whiteness of Issa’s workplace and white liberals with savior complexes working in Black and Latinx communities. This season’s critique even more forcefully addresses the realities of white leaders with savior complexes in the youth development world who rely on cultural and individual explanations for academic hardships rather than structural ones.
Although the We Got Y’all program is fictitious, organizations like it are pervasive. The logo of the program, Issa’s supervisor, and Issa’s co-workers framing of young people are the most problematic examples of what goes wrong in these spaces.
The paternalism of the first We Got Y’all logo
Other writers have pointed out the racist and paternalistic logo of the organization and how it hilariously captures the narcissism and racist paternalism of white liberals who think they mean well. The organization’s first logo depicts a large white hand cradling 3 small silhouettes of Black children.
The image itself is ingenious as a metaphor for white paternalism and benevolence rampant in education and youth work. White paternalism thrives off of assumptions of “lack” and deficits about youth and communities of color.
The imagery used is so poignant because it captures how whiteness functions in the service of itself.
Issa’s supervisor & non-profit savior narratives
The logo, which we learn was created by Joanne, the organization’s founder and leader, assumes that Black youth need saving and that white people are the ones to do it. It’s terrible on many levels, but it’s far too common in our thinking about educational issues related to Black youth.
Savior and messiah complexes are often visible in mainstream films about education where white teachers (mostly women) get rewarded for teaching “at-risk” kids in “tough” neighborhoods. They reinforce individual and cultural explanations for perceived failure without ever indicting structural racism or capitalism.
Leaders like Joanne and organizations themselves are positioned as saviors for youth of color who are perceived to be lacking something that only white people can give.
The We Got Y’all staff & deficit-based thinking
Throughout the series, we see the ways Issa’s coworkers are committed to racist assumptions and deficit-thinking about Black and Latinx youth. In season 2’s “Hella Shook” episode, we witness Issa’s frustration at a work retreat where Joanne asks the team to suggest how they would handle a situation where a student becomes disengaged from the program.
Team members provide racist assumptions that range from drug use to gang affiliation to pregnancy as explanations for disengagement, as if youth of color have a monopoly on drugs, violence, and sex. The framing of Black youth as “problems-to-be-fixed” perpetuates pathological ideas about youth of color (and their families) and is steeped deeply into narratives around education and policies.
This ultimately impacts the ways young people are treated and engaged in afterschool programs. Such framing includes how they are featured in brochures and promotional videos, how they are discussed in grant proposals for funding, or the ways they are asked to “perform” for donors by sharing their stories of struggle and subsequent triumph because they were “saved” by a program.
We must care about how Black and other youth of color are framed in all educational spaces, because it shapes how they are treated and engaged. The refusal to identify, disrupt, and eradicate the structural conditions that shape the lives of youth of color places their lack of access to “opportunity” squarely on them and their families. It also shifts responsibility to community-based afterschool programs to “fix” youth rather than investing in dismantling white supremacy or capitalism.
Insecure’s portrayal of We Got Y’all captures how whiteness gets embedded within non-profit programs engaging youth of color through paternalistic approaches which treat Black and Latinx youth as objects and not as human beings. It also positions Black and Latinx youth as in need of these spaces because of something they inherently lack and not because of structural oppression shaped by racism, capitalism, school privatization and other broader social and political problems. These ideas can be perpetuated by folks of all racial backgrounds within youth work.
I understand the value of these spaces and support the contributions they make to the educational experiences of young people. However, the racist and class-based narratives about youth of color engaged in afterschool programs must shift from a deficit-based lens to a more affirming one by focusing on what young people bring to afterschool programs and other educational spaces, and the strengths and skills they already possess.
Bianca J. Baldridge is a sociologist of education and youth worker. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work. She’s an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison.