From Stigma Power to Black Power

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In this graphic essay “From Stigma Power to Black Power”, sociologist professor Imogen Tyler transforms our understanding of what stigma is and highlights the ways in which stigma power is fiercely and collectively resisted from below.

Travelling from the Northern to the Southern states in 1960 meant crossing, in Erving Goffman’s terms, from one “social interaction order” into another.

It meant immersion in the social politics of white supremacy, manifest in the Jim Crow signs that segregated social spaces, and the unspoken rules, rituals and codes “designed to degrade and divide” (Angela Davis, 1970).

By 1963, ‘the southern struggle had grown from a modest group of Black students demonstrating at one lunch counter to the largest mass movement for racial reform and civil rights in the 20th century’ (Gary Younge, 2013).

It was in the midst of these political struggles in ‘the interaction order’ that Goffman crafted his concept of stigma.

“Normals”, Goffman reassures the stigmatised reader, “really mean no harm, and should therefore be tactfully helped to act nicely”.

In effect, by arguing for the management of stigma, that is for it’s pacification, Goffman normalises stigma and conceals ‘its violent underpinnings and periodic atrocities’.

This critical reading of Goffman is an urgent one in the context of a wider movement to “decolonise” the sociological canon. With this in mind, this essay rethinks stigma as a technology of racism.


“From Stigma Power to Black Power” is a graphic essay written by Sociology Professor Imogen Tyler & illustrated by Birmingham UK based artist Charlotte Bailey.

The aim of the original article was to expose some of the limitations of the American sociologist Erving Goffman’s influential account of stigma (published in his book ‘Stigma’ in 1963).

It argues that placing Goffman’s account of stigma into dialogue with Civil Rights and anti-racist activism from the 1960s, and foregrounding racism as a preeminent form of social stigmatisation, transforms our understanding of what stigma is and what the social and political purpose of stigmatisation might be in particular contexts.


When I was trying to translate the torture of Emmett Till onto the page, I was sitting next to my 14 year old sister happily watching TV, and was trying not to imagine living in the times and circumstances these black families lived through.

While the research surrounding the graphic essay did help me see how far we’ve come, it was also at times a reminder of how history is still repeating itself.

I included the sketch of the death of Philando Castile, sitting in his car with his 4 year old daughter, reaching for his ID when he was shot 7 times by the police. I included this image after a lot of deliberation because I really wanted to hammer home the current injustices still happening.

Although there’s no segregation in lunch counters, police are still being called to haul black men out from waiting in coffee shops.

There’s no lawful lynching in public, but men can still avoid jail after murdering an unarmed black kid walking home with nothing but skittles in his pocket.

And we’re still getting a steady diet of police shooting unarmed black people.

All this, due to the unconscious stigma still stuck to black skin.


Read the full version of the graphic essay here



For more information on the process behind this graphic essay check out my blog post “Illustration a Graphic Essay & Artist/ Writer Collaborations”

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