SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen the "FUBU" episode yet, you may want to watch it before reading this post!
Trigger warning: This post talks about suicide.
Image credit: Indiewire
Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month, the latest Atlanta episode, "FUBU" brings up bullying and suicide in the school setting.
The episode begins at a Marshalls store. A young "Earn", played by Alkoya Brunson, is on a shopping trip with his mother when he spots a blue and yellow FUBU jersey. Earn's Mom agrees to buy the shirt for him but makes him "work" for it by fetching her a bag of chips that she desires. For those not familiar with the show, Earn is one of the main characters typically played by Atlanta's creator, Donald Glover.
The following day, Earn is so excited to wear his new shirt that he is seen lying in bed awake before his alarm clock goes off. Earn's excitement and confidence boost are undeniable as he makes his way to school for the day. The tone of the episode changes when Earn's classmate Devin arrives in a similar jersey.
The rest of the episode chronicles Earn's anxiety as he goes through the day wondering if his shirt is a fake and what the consequences will be should his classmates find out. He is also subjected to a form of bullying while his classmates tease him because his shirt is allegedly fake and warn him that he will be jumped if others find out.
Earn reaches out to a young cousin Alfred, who is apparently one of the "cool" kids at school, for help. Alfred tells Earn to deny the fake shirt accusations if other kids come at him and tells him that confidence is key. Alfred also agrees that Earn will be beat up by the "older" kids if word gets out about Earn's shirt allegedly being fake. What a horrible fate to face as a young student wearing clothes that your parent(s) purchase for you!
Later, we find Earn and Devin standing in the hall together while their peers examine their shirts for authenticity. It is decided that Earn's shirt is fake and that Earn is "broke as hell". Luckily for Earn, Al comes through and confidently proclaims that Earn's shirt is real. He deflects the negative attention to one of the instigators by stating that of course he would think that the shirt with the made in China tag was authentic because he is Chinese. The instigator later clarifies that he is Filipino.
As the scene progresses, Devin is taunted as he gets onto his school bus while Earn watches with both relief and empathy. The scene culminates in a fade to black.
In the final scene, we learn that Devin committed suicide. A man who seems to be the school's principal informs the students of Devin's suicide and shares that Devin was dealing with a lot at home as his parents were divorcing. Not only was Devin dealing with family issues but he was also being bullied and possibly even assaulted by his peers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), family conflict and a lack of a sense of a supportive school environment are risk factors for suicide. It seems that the culmination of these circumstances may have led to Devin's suicide.
This episode highlights the unique mental health challenges that black students face. This uniqueness is highlighted when Earn is sharing his fake shirt worries with his caucasian classmate who does not see what the big deal is about Earn's shirt. The caucasian classmate goes on to say that he is wearing his Salty Dog Cafe T-shirt for the second time that week.
While all students are at risk of bullying, the type of bullying experienced by black students is different.
Most students, regardless of race, desire to fit in and may go to various lengths to fit in. In my ecosystem, fashion is an important part of fitting in for black students. Being "fresh" and "stuntin" in the latest brand names are part of being "cool" and fitting in.
I have worn my fair share of fakes both knowingly and unknowingly in efforts to by fly and to fit in. When I was in high school, Juicy Couture, Polo and True Religion were some of the popular brands. I was lucky enough to have a few authentic pieces. I could definitely relate to young Earn's confidence boost and excitement that he felt when he was rocking his new FUBU shirt before the accusations began. I could also relate to the anxiety he felt when the accusations began.
I, like young Earn, attended a racial diverse middle school. The high school that I attended was predominately black. Some of my best memories and most culturally rich experiences took place at my high school. It is not my intention to take a way from that. While making memories and trying to live my best high school life, I did notice the emphasis placed on fashion as a status symbol. This was not as prevalent at my middle school and did not seem to be as important to some of my caucasian middle school classmates that presented themselves differently than my black classmates.
Our capitalist American society treats high-end fashion brands as status symbols. This ideal has trickled down into our school systems. As a result, young students, who are not expected to nor are they in a position to earn a living for themselves, are judged by the clothes that their parents can afford to by for them. Especially black students.
I am not sure why fashion is such an important status symbol in the black community? Maybe it is a result of the years of oppression that have created a society that requires us to constantly prove our worth? Regardless of where this ideal came from, it is very real and black students have been and are currently dealing with it.
While the cultural context of the show is very important, the universal mental health topics that were presented are equally important. Bullying and suicide are serious mental health and public health concerns. The following statistic quotes illuminate their importance:
28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying (StopBullying.gov)
20% of U.S. students in grades 9–12 experienced bullying (StopBullying.gov)
70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools (StopBullying.gov)
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US (afsp.org)
15 to 24 year olds had a suicide rate of 13.15. (afsp.org)
Tying it All Together:
According to a study conducted by Yale University, bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. As previously mentioned, a lack of a sense of a supportive school environment is a risk for suicide. Bullying does not promote a supportive school environment. Entities such as the CDC have recognized this correlation and have created toolkits and other health promotion materials as a result (see below).
I am grateful that Donald Glover and his team created this episode. It is important to talk about bullying and suicide. I am glad that he is using his platform to bring up this important topic! I am excited to share my thoughts on the episode and these important mental health topic during Mental Health Awareness Month!
I had the privilege to complete the Living Works Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) last year. Living Works is committed to promoting Suicide-Safer Communities. Hear are some tips for talking about suicide:
Don't be afraid to ask directly if someone is thinking about suicide
Prioritize safety - involve emergency responders if necessary
Assist the person in considering "turning points" or reasons to live (for example, a loved one or a pet)
Checkout the Living Works Website for additional resources and information about trainings including ASIST.
Above all, be kind! You don't have to be a social worker or other mental health professional to do your part in helping to create "suicide-safer" communities. The same goes for preventing bullying.
Have your ever experienced bullying? Do you feel that fashion can be a status symbol for better or for worse? Share your thoughts!
Want to learn more about bullying and suicide? Check the resources below!