“It’s too much” – On Black Trauma with Saabirah Lawrence

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 timeline. Here, blogger and podcaster Saabirah Lawrence (@saabirahlawnrence on Instagram) shares her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement’s relevance in the UK and protecting your mental health in the face of viral trauma.

“Why do we have to see ourselves being killed in order for people to believe that these things happen?

I’m certain that you’re aware of the recent incidences of black violence and black trauma. I was reading some of the articles about them that are trending online at the moment and, a lot of the argument for these videos is that well, without them being shared on social media, we wouldn’t have awareness, we wouldn’t have arrests, we wouldn’t;t have any sort of change. So my first question to you is do you feel as if these videos – and here I mean the videos of murders, not tributes and such after the fact – are a necessary part of getting change or justice?

I am so on the fence about this because in a way, I totally understand that we want the evidence. And as Black people, as the Black community, our word is never enough, unfortunately. But at the same time, why do we have to see ourselves being killed in order for people to believe that these things happen? So I’m very much on the fence because I understand why they might be necessary, to a degree. But at the same time, we as Black people should not be used to seeing ourselves being killed all the time on the timeline. We come to social media to connect with people and to be distracted from life so we shouldn’t have to now see accounts of murder on our feeds. I get that they may be necessary, as evidence in court and in the legal sense but in terms of being shared on social media, I don’t understand the point of that. I know that a lot of people say that it’s for awareness but I think that sometimes we get way too comfortable thinking if we share this we’re doing our part but essentially what you’re doing is sharing these traumatic experiences and telling people that this is something that we’re supposed to see when we’re not. If you watch a movie and its violent, there’s a warning that there’s violence in it so that we can opt out of that. But you sharing this violent account of murder to people who have not opted in to see it is quite dangerous and it’s not great for our mental health. I understand that we need awareness and evidence and for people to see that these things are happening but this is not new. There’s evidence going back through history of the police abusing their power – we already know that this happens. We shouldn’t have to have these videos because we know that this happens but, yes, I do understand why they are shared, to a point.

I understand that. We often say – looking at what happened lately with Amy Cooper – that there would be no consequences without evidence. None of the consequences she faced would have happened if it hadn’t been recorded. But at the same time – I was speaking to someone else about this in another interview – we’ve almost gotten used to categorizing racism. ‘Oh she used a slur but she didn’t kill anyone so it’s not really that bad.’ We categorize racism as if racism in any form isn’t racisim. And as you were saying we can’t opt out of these images and they do take a toll on our mental health. I don’t know if you feel differently but, to me, watching a white woman using her privilege to almost get a Black man hurt and a video of a Black man being hurt cause me similar amounts of mental distress.

I completely agree because we know the consequences of Amy Cooper’s actions. If the police actually turned up we could have been watching two videos of the same accounts very easily. So I completely agree. Racism doesn’t have levels, racism is racism. There are different forms of racism. But at the end of the day, racism is racism. So calling the police, knowing full well that if you tell the police that there’s a Black man threatening you, they’re going turn up a lot quicker than if it was a Caucasian man, or if you didn’t mention race. You know the consequences and I actually still use that was an act of racism. It wasn’t by accident that she mentioned it was African American man, it wasn’t by accident. She said that she was frightened when they were more than two metres away from each other so it is very difficult to separate it when you know that the consequences are the same regardless of how she was racist.

“I let myself be angry. I let myself be frustrated. I let myself feel what I need to feel at that time.”

When was the first time you came across a video like Arbery’s, a video graphically depicting a Black person being hurt or killed?

I don’t remember which video it was. I just remember watching it and feeling like I was watching someone I knew die. But I wasn’t able to really understand what those emotions were and I wasn’t even that young, I would say it was only a few years back. Back then I would actually watch the videos whereas now if I see anything like them come across my timeline I just don’t watch it. I watched that first video and I thought to myself, from then on, I wasn’t going to watch them any more because it puts you in a space of darkness that I don’t need to be in and thoughts of anger and frustration. And then I go out into the world and I’m looking at people like, you could do the same to me. And I can’t think like that because I don’t know them. It’s a weird experience, to watch someone that you don’t know at all but, because you have a similar skin tone or because you’re from the same community, it affects you as if they’re someone that you do know. You are grieving for someone you never knew but you understand, at a different level, why they died and everything that led up to that moment. It’s too much.

How do you channel those emotions or get yourself into healthier mindset once you’ve come across a video?

I think before I probably would have just like sat with it and been angry and tweeted a few angry tweets and just felt really frustrated and probably ranted to my family. That was what I used to do. And now I need to find healthier ways to channel these emotions. I need to also accept that these emotions are real and they’re valid. So I let myself be angry. I let myself be frustrated. I let myself feel what I need to feel at that time.

What I did recently was I decided, I’m going to switch off from my social media and I’m going to put on something really funny and allow myself to be distracted and hope that the next day I wake up feeling less heavy. And it worked, it did make me feel lighter but it was still weighing on my mind. I still thought ‘ what can I do?’. That’s something that I normally ask myself – what can I actually do now? Because I don’t to just sit with this anger. I want to use it for something positive. That’s how I deal with it.

“You just have to think to yourself, if this was someone you knew, if this was a white person, or someone who looks like you, would you want to share this video around?

So right now there’s a whole outpouring of posts on social media from people across the board, regardless of race, ethnicity, or background. And a lot of people, especially non-Black people, have come under criticism for sharing these violent videos. Obviously, there is that justification that we’ve already discussed, where sharing these videos is considered activism or raising awareness. While you’re on the fence about this justification, what alternatives would you suggest to people who want to raise awareness without just blindly reposting graphic and trumatic images?

This incident has made me really think about how people, especially non-Black people, can go about supporting and being allies to the community. And I find myself really confused as to what they can do other than making sure that they are active in their activism and keeping it up in a physical sense. I mean, if there is a situation where they know full well that a person is being attacked or mistreated based on their race then, at that time, they should take a physical stand. When it comes to social media, it’s difficult because anything you say can be misconstrued or misunderstood. So it’s quite easy for you to post something with positive and good intentions but for it still to be seen as something that isn’t genuine. So it can be quite difficult on social media to do your part.

But I think you can still support and raise awareness without sharing the videos. You just have to think to yourself, if this was someone you knew, if this was a white person, or someone who looks like you, would you want to share this video around? I think maybe social media makes it very normal to just share these videos. But realistically, if someone’s being killed, why would you want to share that for other people to see? You could simply mention the fact that this has happened, find out when and use that as a way of raising awareness or, as people do during times like these, create pieces of art or find posts that you can share. You just have to be a bit more sensitive to the issue. I would suggest asking members of the Black community, how can I best support you at this time? Maybe that’s the best way to go.

In terms of speaking up or saying nothing, a lot of brands and companies have been criticised. Yesterday I saw a tweet from Jackie Aina calling out these brands. Do you feel that everyone is obligated to post something or respond in a public way? What is the responsibility here?

I think everyone has a responsibility, because I don’t feel that racism is something that only Black people should be talking about. But at the same time, I think if you’re going to speak, don’t centre yourself in the issue, centre the fact that you’re supporting the community. And I also think is quite difficult because if we think about the brands that Jackie Aina was talking about, they’re not Black owned and the chances of them having a large amount of Black people in their companies could be quite small. So them understanding what to say, the words to say, how to even speak to the Black community without it being … I mean, we all understand trends, we understand slang or understand how to use those words and how to use that in a marketing sense but when it comes to actually saying something that is meaningful and that can speak to your customers, I think it’s difficult because they don’t see us as anything other than customers. I think that’s probably the problem.

I think everyone does have a responsibility to say something. I think what they say is important but, even know if they speak out after Jackie’s called them out and they get it ‘wrong’ they’ll be criticised for it. I guess, if you don’t have the people in your community, in your company, that represent the [Black] community, you’re never going to be able to speak to us in the correct way because you don’t have anyone there to help you out or to speak on your behalf. So I think if they’re going to say anything it should be as simple as ‘I support the Black community and we’re donating’. They make millions, they are able to donate to the families and causes. And they should do it publically.

I think sometimes they worry that if they take a political stance then, you know, people are going to dislike them. But, if as a collective we aren’t doing certain things, then it means everything can slip through the cracks because you have to be the majority to get focus on certain issues and to get actual change to happen. It’s not going to happen if Black people are the only ones speaking about racism. So they have to say something. If I sat in front of them now, I wouldn’t know what to tell them to say but there are resources out there and organisation that they can support.

“This is a racist society. You may not intentionally be racist but if your society is racist, what are you going to do to remove racism from your society?

The reason that I reached out to you was that I saw your Instagram post from the other day, about how people look at the situation in America and are convinced that well, it’s America, you know? As a Black person living in the UK. do you ever feel as if there’s sort of a disconnect between what’s happening here and your experiences here and then the more blatant racism that we hear about in America?

There is a clear difference in how, outside and inside, people view racism in America and they believe that we’re fine here, that we don’t experience racism. And they don’t understand why we’re supporting Black Lives Matter. It’s like we’ve told ourselves, we’re okay here because we don’t have the same level of violence and kind of abuse from the police. But historically, we’ve always had police brutality in the UK, it’s always been a problem in the UK. It’s not that it’s not a problem, it’s just that the chances of the police killing someone in the UK are lower because of the weapons that they have and the actual tools that they have, whereas, in America, you can shoot someone from far away and kill them. So I think that makes a difference.

I think in the UK, the conversation on race is always so hush hush, let’s not talk about it. Everyone wants to sweep it under the carpet, everyone wants to say we’re fine but just because your neighbour is not white doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a real problem. You’re supposed to be around people of different races, it’s not supposed to be a thing of… it can be very covert here, it’s looks and they way people talk about certain things. It’s the discomfort that people have in conversation with you. I’m a normal person, you don’t have to feel awkward about talking to me, you don’t have to use slang and communicate with me in a way that you don’t with other people. It’s things like that make me feel as if you have an issue with my race and it’s probably an issue that you don’t even understand yourself. I think that’s the main issue in the UK. If you keep telling yourself that we’re okay, we’re not racist, then people will believe it to the point that when you tell them that they are being racist, that they live in a racist society, it feels like a personal attack when it’s not. This is a racist society. You may not intentionally be racist but if your society is racist, what are you going to do to remove racism from your society?

Lastly, are there any steps that you take or any steps that you think anyone could take to sort of avoid seeing these images?

I’m not opposed blocking people, I do it all day, every day. In this instance [George Floyd] I did kind of hear the news before I saw any photos or images. I just kept hearing people saying things like ‘I can’t breathe’ and repeating those words and seeing people talking about how he had his leg on his neck and things like that. So when I heard those words, I was like, okay, whatever video that’s coming, I don’t want to see it because it’s going to be way too graphic for me. I don’t want to see any more of people talking about their lack of breath, lack of oxygen, it’s too much. Especially when you know this is real, this is not a movie, they weren’t acting, this was a real life lost. Fortunately enough in this incident, maybe I’d already muted and blocked the people who were posting these videos because this time I just kept seeing people retweet about not wanting to see the video and so I never actually saw it on my timeline. I’ve only actually seen like a screenshot but not the video. I think maybe I have pre-proofed my Twitter because I didn’t see it.

So I think that what helped me was muting and blocking people who have previously shared these distressing videos. If that’s what you need to do, mute, unfollow or block. If there are words that you need to mute, go ahead and mute them. At the end of the day, it’s your mental health and physical safety that you need to take into account. And it’s your social media. You’re able to dictate what you see and what you don’t. Be really intentional with that and understand that this is your space and create a space for things that you want to see. You don’t have to see these images, you don’t have to have these conversations. It’s absolutely fine to say I’m not going to watch this video. If you can, switch off social media altogether. Put your phone down. I have my notifications turned off which I’m quite glad about because if anyone had sent me the video it would have been really difficult to deal with. So yeah, turn your notifications off and if you’re not ready to engage in the conversation right away, take some time. It’s important to do that.

Saabirah is on Instagram (@saabirahlawrence) and she writes at saabirahlawrence.com

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