TODAY’S EPISODE: Finding the Line Between Trauma Porn and Awareness
I know many of you mean well…but sometimes you need to think twice before posting.
Maybe even thrice.
What am I talking about? Well, videos of Black people being brutally assaulted or killed by police. Or, for that matter, similar kinds of things. Maybe it’s not police doing the violence. Maybe it’s an Indigenous or LGBTQ person who’s the victim. I use “Black people and police violence” as my framing mostly because it’s what I see most often shared online in terms of videos.
And that aspect alone—that I see it sooooo much more often than any other kind of video-recorded evidence—raises extra red flags for me, now that I think of it…and that drives me even more to caution you against being too quick to share these vids. But back to that in a second.
The main reason I chose to write this post—and to highlight police violence against Black people as I talk about the wisdom (or lack thereof perhaps) of posting such videos—is because of the whole intent vs. impact thing. That is, you may mean to do well by educating other white people about such violence or you may intend to spread awareness, but in fact you may be doing more harm than good.
One issue is that such videos can be incredibly triggering for Black people. This kind of gross mistreatment of Black folks has been going on for around 400 years in this country in various forms, to the extent that to this very literal day, Black parents typically end up having to have “The Talk” with their kids about dealing with police and other authorities. Black people already know that they get harassed, abused, assaulted, and killed at ridiculously high rates compared to almost every other group in the country. They don’t generally want to suddenly see it up close and personal on their social media feeds.
The reasoning of many white people is that if they share such videos, they will be helping other white people to see how terrible things are racially and to understand that police, for example, really do treat Black people so much worse than almost everyone else.
My counterargument to this would be: How much more do white people need to see of this to believe it? And, more importantly, why must the education come via a recorded event of terrible violence? Isn’t a news story or other account enough? I get that we humans are often visual people, but we don’t need to see people committing suicide or getting raped to understand that both of those things are tragedies we should be working to prevent.
Many times, in general, the ways we white people try to educate other white people or raise their awareness are largely performative and passive. We post something online and think we’ve done good. That we’ve done our job. That we’ve done enough. When, in fact, it’s pretty much the bare bones minimum effort. Most of us can’t even seem to muster the will to engage our family and friends in face-to-face conversation about things they are doing that are bigoted or discriminatory, much less do more substantive work in terms of protest or enabling changes to discriminatory systems that harm so many marginalized groups. Yes, information should be shared, but when that’s pretty much all we’re doing, we’re not doing much.
But getting back to the point, if sharing info about such atrocities is already pretty much the bare minimum, let’s not exacerbate it by making it graphic and in the face of everyone—including the people already being traumatized who probably don’t want to see more of that. If there’s a video to be viewed, make sure it’s not the first thing that people see and make sure it’s something they will only see if they choose to, like by having to decide to hit a link to it.
And now I’m going to circle back that other point I alluded to near the beginning of all this: Why do I see so many more of these kinds of videos online (Black people beaten and/or killed) than I do of hate crimes brutally visited on other marginalized groups?
Sure, some of it is because Black people are one of the top couple groups treated so horrifically (Last time I saw data a couple years ago, Indigenous People in the United States were killed by police at an even higher rate), but is that the only reason? I don’t want to see videos of violent bigots doing graphic harm to trans people or mentally ill people or anyone else, either, but I don’t even see those popping up very often, comparatively speaking.
As I think about it now, a part of me wonders if our willingness to share so much videographed violence against Black people is a subtle manifestation of internalized racism. Do we worry about the feelings of Black people less than other people when we choose to do this? Do we think Black people should be somehow “immune” to harm from our easy sharing of such videos?
I don’t know, but it’s a disturbing thought, and something you might want to consider if you’re one of the people who shares such videos online. I mean, even today, many physicians (and not just the old and middle-aged ones) believe incorrectly for some reason that Black people don’t feel pain as acutely as white people. Do we white people in general feel, perhaps, that Black people don’t feel as deeply as other groups and so we decide: why not share these videos?
Bottom line though: Let’s draw a really clear line between education and trauma porn. And let’s start by being a whole lot more conscious of how we disseminate information about brutal violence against Black people or any other group.
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]
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