Bioethics Blogs

"American Horror Story" in Real Life: Understanding Racialized Views of Mental Illness and Stigma

By Sunidhi Ramesh
Racial and ethnic discrimination has taken various forms in the
United States since its formation as a nation. The sign in the image
reads: “Deport all Iranians. Get the hell out of my country.”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
From 245 years of slavery to indirect racism in police sanctioning and force, minority belittlement has remained rampant in American society (1). There is no doubt that this history has left minorities in the United States with a differential understanding of what it means to be American and, more importantly, what it means to be an individual in a larger humankind.

Generally, our day-to-day experiences shape the values, beliefs, and attitudes that allow us to navigate the real world (2). And so, with regards to minorities, consistent exposure to these subjective experiences (of belittlement and discrimination, for example) can begin to shape subjective perceptions that, in turn, can mold larger perspectives and viewpoints.

Last spring, I conducted a project for a class to address the reception (3) of white and non-white, or persons of color (POC), students to part of an episode from American Horror Story: Freak Show. The video I asked them to watch portrays a mentally incapacitated woman, Pepper, who is wrongfully framed for the murder of her sister’s child. The character’s blatant scapegoating is shocking not only for the lack of humanity it portrays but also for the reality of being a human being in society while not being viewed as human.
Although the episode remains to be somewhat of an exaggeration, the opinions of the interview respondents in my project ultimately suggested that there exists a racial basis of perceiving the mental disabilities of Pepper—a racial basis that may indeed be deeply rooted in the racial history of the United States.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.