“Activism is being active” – on Black Trauma with Adefela Olowoselu

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, writer Adefela Olowoselu (@adefelurr on Instagram) discusses Black pain as entertainment and first steps into activism. 

“I feel like the world itself is desensitized to Black narratives and Black experiences. And it’s that, plus the violence against Black people that becomes a double desensitization

Lots of people are saying now that without videos of racial violence and hate crimes going viral, there won’t be a public response or a response in terms of arrests or prosecution. what are your thoughts on that, that there has to be a video or a viral event before Black voices or trauma are acknowledged?

I totally agree. I feel like these things were definitely happening – speaking about America mostly – but there are obviously a lot of things in the UK that we’re just not informed about yet. But these things have been happening for years and years now. But it’s only the rise of social media that has made conviction for these crimes a lot more accessible. And I think it’s unfortunate that we have to use the words ‘has to’, these things ‘have to be’ filmed, because that really is the case. If nobody actually put these videos up and named these men that did the killing, there’s a very high chance that we wouldn’t have found out about it and that they wouldn’t have been arrested. And clearly the state was getting away with it in the first place because this [Arbery’s murder] happened in February. If the video has been released in a couple of months there wouldn’t have been arrests until then. So I think for me, the main unfortunate part is that yes, it does have to be put online, it does have to be filmed, it does have to be shared. And that’s the sad part.

Black Trauma seems to have become a genre of entertainment. So you have movies – I think 12 Years a Slave was the first time I became aware of the fact that they make movies solely about our suffering – and media like When They See Us where many say that the purpose is to make people aware. And when we view things like this as a form of entertainment, it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is real and horrifying and what is just another thing on social media. Have we have become desensitised to images of Black trauma on social media?

Yes, most definitely. I feel like we’ve become desensitized to violence in general. Because – and I don’t want to be like ‘all lives matter’ – but it’s easy to see how people, in Yemen, for example, are struggling as well. So we’ll see the adverts on television and we’ll happily change the channel or watch it to the end without feeling anything. So we are desensitised to violence and pain in general. However, I feel like the world itself is desensitized to Black narratives and Black experiences. And it’s that, plus the violence against Black people that becomes a double desensitization. I feel like people are so used to the fact that Black people suffer and they’re so used to seeing violence on the TV screen that when they mix those two together, it becomes even easier to watch.

When it comes to people watching it as a form of entertainment, it is quite unfortunate that the only way for these stories to be heard a lot of the time is through the entertainment industry. 12 Years a Slave, When They See Us, Django Unchained, and all of these movies – fair enough, it’s for education, but if it’s through the vessel of entertainment, somebody is going to make money from it. There’s definitely going to be some white people gaining profit [from these movies]. It’s like you have to go through the pain in order to get the education and, for me, that pain is people that don’t deserve to get any money from this, getting money in order to give these stories to Black people to educate themselves on their past and to everybody else in the world to say ‘this is what Black people have gone through’. the entertainment industry is a bittersweet vessel to educate people on Blackness. I feel its good that people have been educated however the monetary side of it is hardly anything that I’ll find easy to accept. It’s on Netflix, it’s being streamed a lot but people that don’t really even care about Black issues are just watching it. Because it’s on an entertainment platform. But I don’t know what other platforms would be easier to educate people aside from the education system itself. But obviously, we’ve seen time and time again that that side has failed. Then the next best thing is entertainment. Because it’s so accessible to watch things like that, it’s even easier to become desensitized to all types of violence because I feel like, well the world just doesn’t care about Black people – if there was a scale of who they care about most white people would be on top and Black people would be on the bottom, that’s just the way I see it. Now, with us being on the bottom, consider this general desensitization towards violence of all kinds. Mixing the two together just makes violence towards Black people an everyday thing. It’s literally as simple or as common as breathing air. ‘Oh yeah, there’s a Black person getting shot, that’s normal.’ And unfortunately, that is the case because people are really used to seeing it.

How old were you the first time you came across a video that explicitly or graphically showed a Black person suffering at the hands of racial violence?

Anytime between the age of 12 or 13. I don’t remember the first one I saw but it was definitely before the Michael Brown killing. They’ve definitely become more prevalent on social media. And I think its because people have seen what it can do. Because of Michael Brown’s killing, there was a lot more awareness of how the police were treating Black people in America so people had a lower tolerance for it and so now it became ‘I’m going to film it, I’m going to put it on social media, I’m going to get justice and also raise awareness of how people are being treated and how the police are treating people’. So its a lot more prevalent now.

I think back in the day [on Tumblr] it was a way of giving receipts. If someone was saying that Black people were getting hurt, people would [ask for proof] and it’d be like ‘here’s a video of a Black person being pulled over by the police’. And after a while that method of information was becoming more and more effective that it was no longer a case of ‘here’s the proof that they’re getting killed’ it was ‘here’s the video of them getting killed, let’s use this to convict these killers. Let’s use this to get justice.” The focus for these videos has changed. First, they were to show the facts but now they’re also to encourage change, even if the change is slow.

“It just kind of feels like black people are shouting into the void; scroll every day and there’s a new story and there’ll be a new video”

Are these videos necessary for change?

I feel like unfortunately, they are. I’d like to say that they’re one of the tools of change, solely, because they are a tool of change, but they’re becoming a lot more necessary now. You’d think that how many years on from when these videos started getting popular you wouldn’t need a video to convict somebody but clearly you do. And I feel like the fact that you do need these videos does mean that they are necessary. And maybe you don’t want to agree with that, maybe you feel like the videos shouldn’t be shown because its trauma porn but I think that the hard truth is that they are necessary because if it wasn’t for these videos, a lot of people would be getting away with literally just killing Black people. It’s just the way it is, it’s hard to admit, but that’s my opinion.

Some might argue that these videos might get people arrested, but that’s pretty much all they do. Because, for example, the police officer who killed Philando Castille a few years ago was put on paid leave and acquitted. There’s a video, there’s massive outrage, and then once again, the system lets people down. How helpful are videos in terms of doing more than just informing people? Do you think that they actually inspire change?

I think the videos inspired change in the past, but now they’re just inspiring rage, because not much more has changed. At first, the videos would actually bring us closer to justice. And maybe back in the day, the justice of somebody getting arrested was enough. But now that we know that people can actually be, convicted, they can go to jail, for life or get a death sentence (whether or not you agree with that). I feel like arresting is now no longer okay, not that we were complacent in the past, but getting arrests was what we were fighting for. Before, an arrest was really scarce. So now it’s at the point where the videos are getting people arrested, but we don’t feel like an arrest is good enough anymore, and rightfully so because it isn’t. But I think, in general, its more of a case of these videos encouraging people to continue reporting these crimes but in reporting and in this influx of videos we get, as a result, a lot of anger risen now and it just kind of feels like black people are shouting into the void; scroll every day and there’s a new story and there’ll be a new video. We’re now at a point where some people don’t want to watch the videos anymore because it’s just so sad to see. And its almost becoming a bit of a redundant way to raise awareness now because the videos aren’t really being watched and because there’s so many of them and there are so many cases of ‘this Black person got killed for this, and this Black person got killed for that’ we’re even becoming desensitized to the fact that we are getting killed if that makes any sense. I think it’s gotten to a point where the videos are helpful, but they can only do so much and when it comes to it, some people get arrested, some people got convicted, but all in all, we just kind of get angry and we’ll have these outbursts and debates on Twitter and Instagram or wherever and everybody will just be quiet until the next video comes up. It’s just been a cycle of that for years and years now, and now the shooting of these videos aren’t as helpful now as they were back in the day. Something else needs to be done. At the same time, the videos are still necessary to show that these killings are still happenings. It’s a strange balance I think.

“Educate yourself before you enter a discussion.”

You’ve said that these videos are a useful tool to raise awareness. And there have been some prominent figures, particularly white celebrities who have been criticised for simply posting or retweeting a tribute or something without actually engaging in the discussion. So my question to you is this, is retweeting or liking or simply sharing a post whether its the video or a reaction or a think piece, do you feel as if that counts as activism? Or is it just a way for people to feel better about themselves before they move on with their day?

Yeah, I don’t think its activism. Activism itself, it’s literally right there in the term, is being active. Retweeting is not an action. I think that’s just a reaction. As in ‘oh I’ve seen this video and I’m going to react by retweeting it and liking posts so that people on my timeline can see’. That’s fine, it shows that apparently, you care about the issue a little bit, but you don’t care enough to now stand up and start doing your research and, I don’t know, start a rally or whatever, so I don’t think activism is synonymous with retweeting and reposting. However, I don’t feel like anybody has the right to guilt anybody else about how they have chosen to react to seeing something like this. Celebrities, I feel like in general, I have my own kind of problem with celebrities when it comes to how they’re seen and the expectations people have of them and how people want them to use their influence. Celebrities, like normal people, can’t care about every single cause they come across. And as much as they have lots of money, it’s hard for them to care about every single cause they come across. And I think, especially for white celebrities, I don’t think that you can expect them to become activists now that they’ve seen a Black man get killed. Because being an activist is going to open them up to even more criticism on how they’re conducting themselves as an activist – ‘you’re not Black anyway, how can you be a white activist on Black issues when you’re sitting from a place of privilege?’. Some celebrities are probably only going to retweet and like posts to show some kind of acknowledgement but they don’t actually want to go there. They don’t want to engage in conversations that can make them seem ignorant, or make it seem like they’re on the wrong side of prejudice. But not everybody has to be an activist, not everybody has to speak to crowds about injustice and discrimination. For some people, it’s more feasible for them to just retweet and spread awareness but obviously, if you are the kind of person that’s saying ‘he [Arbery] deserved to be killed’ that’s another problem in itself. But sharing it and talking about it should be enough for some people because not everybody has that activist spirit and not everybody is capable of dealing with the videos. Not everybody is capable of having these discussions. So I don’t think [retweeting] is activism, but I don’t think everybody should be an activist anyway.

What would you say then to people, both white and Black, who come across these videos and want to do something more than just reacting? What advice would you give them on how to go further than just liking and retweeting it and calling it a day like ‘that’s enough activism for today!’?. How can they get involved?

Before anybody should get involved, this goes for Black and white people, you have to, first of all, educate yourself before you enter a discussion. If you don’t, you’ll be way over your head with actual activists. I think, first of all, you should research the background of the whole situation, if you’re really about it and if you really want to be an activist and actually do something, look at the police reports, research the story, research interviews with the family, read what the law is in America or the UK, or wherever it happened, and the laws against people having guns, the laws against following people, the laws against this, the laws against that. Basically, do your background research so that you can come up with the facts because the last thing you want is to be the person arguing with ‘I saw a tweet that said this’. I feel like relying on things that other people have said really discredits your opinion. If you do want to go towards this whole idea of being an activist, the last thing you want is for all of your opinions to be formulated off of what other people have said on social media. So definitely, do your research first. And then, find out how to spread awareness, come up with something new, don’t just read through other people’s posts, make something original, even if that means starting discussions with people on Instagram stories about it, asking genuine questions, for example, this interview. That’s a lot more authentic than just retweeting what you’ve seen on the timeline. Research the cases. This applies to white people and non-Black people too. Too often we’re so okay with just seeing what we see on social media and regarding that as research when there’s actually a lot of opportunity to actually go on the internet and research the case. Research the law, the police departments involved, do more digging than just Twitter and Instagram, come up with your facts, it makes you a lot more credible.

Look for the different communities that have these discussions based on actual knowledge they’ve acquired themselves from their research and experience as well. Sometimes your followers on Twitter aren’t the right people to have these discussions with. Find communities of activists and have these discussions with them. Try to localise your research – instead of saying ‘in America, this happened’ find out the state. When you localize your research, I think it makes it a lot easier for you to be an activist because you’ve really gone to the effort of finding out the particulars of the particular case. So that’s the advice I would give.

“We forget that everybody’s in a different stage of their education. Some people didn’t really have these conversations about race until the past few years meanwhile people like me have been having these conversations for years.”

When something like this happens, especially when things happen in quick succession, for me, Twitter is not the place for me. I have to go. I mute words, and that’s my way of creating a trigger-free timeline. Is there anything that you do to protect yourself from these triggers and traumas online? Or are there any suggestions you would make to people who would like to reduce the amount of Black Trauma and triggers on their timelines?

You just have to be aware, obviously, you can’t predict it but I think there’s a certain tone and a certain tone to a caption when it comes to a video that you know that a Black person is about to be killed. Because I haven’t actually watched the video because I saw a caption, along the lines of him [Arbery] getting killed and I exited the video because I just knew he was going to die. It’s hard to tell you to develop a sixth sense but that’s basically what I do. I just knew he was about to die. And I didn’t think that I needed to watch that on my screen. Become sensitive to captions and become sensitive to videos to the best of your ability, especially in the first few seconds. If you have a feeling that it’s about to be bad, that it’s about to be fatal, don’t watch it. Or before you watch it, at least look at the comments or something just to see if this is about to be something that’s going to trigger you.

Muting words is very important as well but I also feel like muting words is interesting because some words shouldn’t be muted. A guy I follow on Instagram, for example, a few weeks back when Black men and some Black girls were getting dragged for posting colourist tweets, and this guy said that he was muting the word ‘colourism’. And it was questionable for me because I’ve seen him post tweets where he’s [been colourist] and I thought that this is the last person who needs to be muting tweets about colourism because he needs to be educated. So as much as I’d advise muting words that can trigger you sometimes I think you need to be introspective – is it triggering me because I’m insecure about how much I don’t know about the topic? You can mute discussion about Black people being killed but if its because you just don’t know enough and you’re being too lazy to educate yourself on the topic, don’t mute to the point where you’re not going to see anything of the sort again because education is still very, very important.

Another thing you should do is know when not to talk about it or be comfortable enough to tell somebody ‘I don’t want to talk about this because I am tired of it’. I’ve been on Tumblr since the age of 12 or 13. And then I got it on Twitter a bit more. I don’t want to say that I’ve heard about more than most people but I’ve been on this whole discourse for almost 10 years; its been years of me just hearing about Black pain, Black pain, Black pain. And it’s gotten to a point now where I just don’t engage in all the conversations anymore. Because I’m just tired of it. I just choose not to. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, to put it simply. I can write about it because that’s basically me talking to myself and giving myself time to really develop my thoughts. If I were to advise somebody, I’d say know when to drop out of the conversation. It’s not good for our mental health.

We forget that everybody’s in a different stage of their education. Some people didn’t really have these conversations about race until the past few years meanwhile people like me have been having these conversations for years. I have a friend who I met in university who is mixed race but wasn’t really around Black people until she came to university. I’ve been having these conversations since I was 12 but my friend is just getting started and she is more than welcome to go and explore her identity and learn about the Black experience and she might share this stuff a lot more because her outrage is fresh but mine is, well she [my outrage] is a little wrinkly at this point. She’s still there but she’s old, she’s been around for some time. And somebody like me might not want to engage in the conversation because I’m tired of this discourse but somebody like her might not be. And a lot of the people who are posting on their Instagram stories are people who have just gotten into these conversations, they’ve just become, for lack of a better word, ‘woke’. They’ve just found out about how bad this stuff is so instead of expressing anger and impatience towards people like that, consider the fact that they could have just started this journey of education. Appreciate where people are on their journey and let them do what they’re doing but protect your peace and step back if you need to.

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