In light of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery and other recent incidences of racial violence being filmed and uploaded to social media, I’ve spoken to a number of young Black people about their thoughts on the prevalence of these graphic images on their social media feeds, online activism, and creating a trauma-free feed. Here, Instagram user @lastnamebase shares her experience with these videos and why she feels that sharing them is no longer a necessary part of activism.
So, in these past few weeks, there’s been a lot on social media, particularly with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the video of it. There are some people who argue that these videos are necessary; that without these videos showing up on social media, there’s going to be no change, there’s going to be no awareness. What are your thoughts on the necessity of these videos being on social media?
I really think it’s not necessary to put it very bluntly and concisely. I feel like, when compared to the other races, I’ve seen more murders of Black people than any other race and I think that at some point you see something so much that it’s almost normalized and these images shouldn’t be normalized. And the act that we see in these videos should still have their, I guess, shock factor. But I feel like, at the same time, we should be able to respect the families of the victims and the victims themselves. And not just show it around. The information is out there, whoever is interested should be able to find it, but the images are at the same time just so triggering and I feel like we’ve had this massive exposure for a few years. It’s not now in 2020 that you’re going to talk about ‘awareness’ when talking about Black Trauma.
If you’ve been reading about this topic, then it’s almost been a decade of Black trauma being shown on social media. If it’s still new to you then, you know, that says more about the individual I think, and their surroundings and how well Black trauma is being represented, if it even needs any representation. I mean, we’ve seen the Eric Garner videos, we’ve seen the Sandra Bland pictures, we’ve seen all these images that were quite disturbing as well and, for me, it’s not necessary.
I’ve not needed videos of, I don’t know, the conflict in Palestine. I’ve not needed videos to be aware of what’s going on. I’ve not needed videos of women who have breast cancer to see how malformed their breasts were after chemotherapy. I’ve not needed that to be aware of these causes; I’ve not needed to see beaten up homosexuals to be aware of crime against them. So why do we need to have that obvious exhibit ABCD of racism against Black people? No, it’s not necessary at all.
“This pain really sucks you in”
If you don’t mind me asking, how old were you the first time you came across something like [the Ahmaud Arbery video] online?
So I’m first-gen and we had a horrible genocide in Rwanda. It was literally like the direct reason for which my family lives in Europe and so my first encounters with Black trauma were not even that distant to me. I guess one could say I grew up with it. Whenever the genocide would be discussed on television or in a documentary, you immediately see these piles of bodies and you’re shown – if you know about the genocide in Rwanda there’s this church where there was a massacre – and they just show you the skulls around there, you know, so at a very young age but without actually taking in what that [those images] meant. And it’s only later when I was older and more aware of my own blackness as well, because it is different when you grew up in a predominantly white area. As much as your family still identifies and cultivates your Africanness in you, you’re still, as a young kid, trying to integrate into the white society and assimilate to it to a certain extent.
Trayvon Martin definitely left a mark on me, like, I was not well, it was so awful. I remember thinking this guy could have been a friend of mine, he is is literally my age. And that one was really the one where I literally spiralled into a sort of … I mean it sucks you in, right? This pain really sucks you in and it makes you want to become this super activist, especially on social media where there are so many subgroups that fight for these causes and you then consume a lot of information around it. That’s why I also think it’s not necessary to show these videos because when it really interests you, you can find more and more information the more you look.
I remember it [Trayvon’s case] was extra hurtful because that was a point where I’m preparing to go to uni, all these life-changing decisions are about to happen and whatnot. And just imagining that someone’s life got taken away over wearing a hoodie, and they just had Skittles and a soda in their hand. Even now, sometimes when I’m literally at the supermarket just buying two little things or something and I just look at the conveyor belt and I’m like, wow, someone really died over this, you know?
When you come across a video like this, do you feel like [as a Black person] you have a certain responsibility to react, or quote tweet or something just so that people are aware that you’re aware of it? Because I was speaking to a friend of mine, who is white, and they told me that when they see something like this on Twitter, they want to retweet so that people don’t think that they’re racist. It’s almost as if they do it because it substitutes for activism in a way.
It’s a tricky one because obviously most of the things we see are from overseas. There are no major protests or marches happening in Scotland or Germany for this, for example. So, in that sense, our activism is quite limited. And I think especially because, let’s be very, very honest, even though black sorrow is very international, we’re still very split, like we’re dealing with our own issues. Like, whenever something happens in Nigeria or Ivory Coast or Rwanda or Kenya, I’m not getting an uproar from African Americans. You know, we always sympathize a lot with what happens to African Americans. So it’s a difficult one. We can help financially, I guess, but even there, you know, look at people like Shaun King; it’s difficult to know who’s to trust.
“Racism really is draining.”
When I first got to really read about all the injustice that happens in the States and how their systematic racism is set up, it just consumed me completely. I think the people around me were definitely a bit like, she’s having a little ‘Black Power moment’. But I rarely bothered to discuss it with white people. Because it’s a very emotional topic for us; we have a personal experience. And therefore it’s just painful. It’s like someone asking ‘oh, why does it hurt when they punch you in the face?’ Well, because you know? So early on, especially after the [Eric Garner] thing, I remember asking some of my friends if they had heard about it. And they hadn’t. And it was just like wait! Because my Tumblr and my Twitter and whatever social media accounts I had at the time were all saturated with this news. And from then on it was just a bit like, you know what, we don’t live the same life, we don’t live in the same world. I think I just subconsciously decided it’s really not my job to educate you on this. I think I just decided for myself that I can be aware of it but it’s almost like I don’t have the means to do what I want to do. There are people who’ve been fighting this fight for so long. And it’s like we take one step forward and two steps back. It was a bit like ‘what can I contribute to this, you know, like little me all the way from Europe? What can I do? I guess it’s really sad; it’s almost like giving up on the fight.
I kept educating myself and sharing whatever I was reading but I also had to take a step back from how often I was diving into these topics because it just it drains you. Racism really is draining. Around the same time I read [Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race] and that was definitely an eye-opener. It just made me realize as much as being Black is a part of my identity, the changes that I want to see are maybe not going to happen in my lifetime and the amount of output I get, versus the amount of effort I put in, just doesn’t make any sense. And as a Black woman, I’m really trying to move away from the whole caretaker, ‘mammy’ stereotype. It’s not my job to educate you guys. Like, you guys know that this is a topic that interests me, so if you have questions, please, by all means, I’ll share with you the documentaries and books that I’ve watched or read. But it’s just really not my job. I know it sounds horrible to put it that way but it is very draining. I like going back to this quote by Toni Morrison. She says that racism is a distraction, and it really is.
“If there’s an option to not watch things like that then I just won’t.”
Personally, when it comes to these triggering and traumatising videos on Twitter, I have a lot of words muted to try and filter them out. But then, you can’t mute videos and then you’re confronted with it. What steps do you take to make your timeline a little less full of Black trauma? Or are there even any steps that you can actually take?
For me, it’s definitely been the same steps that you’ve just mentioned in terms of muting certain keywords around these topics. Luckily, a lot of people on my timeline share the same view in terms of ‘don’t retweet stuff like that’, because you don’t know who you’re going to trigger. I’ll definitely get maybe a warning from other tweets: it might be ‘oh, why are people retweeting this?’ or ‘why do we need to see blah blah blah blah?’ and I’ll be sort of aware that, okay, any video that I might come across today or tomorrow could be something triggering. And then, maybe before I watch it I’ll read the comments before looking at the video. I guess, sooner or later, you are somehow confronted with it. It’s more a question of ‘to which extent can you control the actual exposure’? I think that’s the most that you can do on a platform like Twitter. The actual moderators of these platforms have shown that they don’t really care. They’re allowing this content to be on their websites; it’s a discussion that’s not even worth having about Twitter. And other things, I just don’t click on. Ava DuVernay’s [When They See Us], it sounds horrible, but there’s no need for me to see it. I read about the case, it was heart wrenching back then and I don’t really need the visual imagery to support it and revive all these emotions again. If there’s an option to not watch things like that then I just won’t. That said, her documentary 13th is a must-watch and a good starting point for people who are trying to understand the racism in America better.
And finally, are there any other ways that you feel like people, non-Black people especially, can raise awareness without actually retweeting or resharing these videos and images?
It’s a difficult one and as much as it’s not the Oppression Olympics, and I always try to draw parallels between the Black struggle, the female struggle, the homosexual struggle, but at the end of the day, it’s always the group that’s most affected that is putting in the most work. How many men actually actively supported the Me Too Movement?
“If you truly want to be an ally, be an ally offline and online.”
But being a good ally is very difficult. And I’d rather you not try at all than to go about it the wrong way. Everyone’s already so tensed up in this discussion and any sort of faux pas is really going to escalate very quickly. It’s, this sounds bad, but I just don’t have any expectation from other races, it avoids disappointment in the long run. The last week, I’ve seen so many people who never talk about racism or injustice against Black people now sharing Ahmaud’s picture and almost artsy sort of campaigns around it and it’s hard to differentiate between who’s taking time to educate themselves and who’s following the herd.
If you truly want to be an ally, be an ally offline and online. Listen to those who are affected. If you don’t have any Black people in your close circle, retweeting or resharing that picture is not going to do much for the Black community – but on the flipside, I guess it does reveal the racists within your own audiences. Listen to your direct circle and see if you can actually help there. Like, it’s standing up for your classmates in a seminar. We’re always saying if you want to change the world start with yourself. It’s exactly that. Do something about it offline.
Performative activism is not the one. Keep educating yourself, both Black and non-Black people. But especially non-Black, because no Black person owes you a thesis on modern-day racism.