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, Nkechi Adeboye and I discuss racial bias in the media, desensitization, and reconciling online activism with real-life action.
So we’ve spoken a bit and you’ve said that these videos that are shared on social media are graphic and traumatising. And it is sort of surreal to be scrolling through memes and stuff and then suddenly there’s a video of somebody dying. Why do you think people feel so free to share these images?
I think a lot of things are done under the guise of awareness and people aren’t thinking or reflecting. You see so much on social media, not just in terms of stuff like that [Black Trauma] but things like jokes and whatever. But there’s a disconnect almost. Because, even one thing I thought was raised by that video, was a lot of people who I knew to be quite racist in person were sharing it and then acting surprised that this is such a big issue. It’s not just as simple as retweeting it. So you engaged with the video and you retweeted it and you obviously didn’t think twice about sharing it. But how has this actually changed on a personal level for you?
It’s kind of the same thing with the mental health conversation; a lot of people go online and talk about mental health and being kind but don’t think about what they’re like off of social media. It feels like awareness was trendy, and that’s what it looks like right now.
The way I look at it, we see these traumatic videos in the same setting as entertainment. So, as you said, we’ll be looking at other stuff on social media and then we’ll just come across it and the context doesn’t change. So we see these horrific things in the same context as a movie clip or a meme, for example. There’s just no separation. Moving on, there’s the argument that people need to be confronted by these images in order for change to happen. With Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd, there were no arrests and then the videos went viral and we started seeing arrests so people argue that because of people seeing the videos and because there was that public outrage, the arrests came. Do you agree that sharing these videos is necessary for change?
No. Because that video [Arbery’s] wasn’t initially shared for awareness. That wasn’t the intention. The person who shared it thought the opposite would happen. They thought that the public would see them trying to make a citizen’s arrest of a young Black man and he thought the public would be in favour of the shooters.
I was speaking to someone else about this last week and they were saying how they felt that even when it’s not videos of people dying, it’s constant videos or reposts of aggression or slurs or other racist incidents and even when there is no physical violence it’s still violent. Have we been desensitized to it?
I definitely would argue that racism is violent in all of its forms, even in something as simple as how a person is spoken to or what’s said. I’ve definitely not been desensitised because it still really upsets me. And even the argument that we need to see these videos to understand what’s going on – I think that when Black people are telling you that we are being killed senselessly by police, maybe just believe it. I think some people, non-Black people, are desensitized to it because they then go and inflict violence on Black people by being racist. The amount of people I’ve seen share it who I’ve had really uncomfortable experiences with, I’m like ‘what business do you have sharing this’? I mean, people can grow but if you are being racist in your life why are you acting so horrified that racism is a real problem in 2020? Maybe it’s social media telling them that racism is wrong rather than them understanding that it’s wrong for themselves.
Perhaps we classify racism, subconsciously. As in, microagressions would be at the bottom and them someone being murdered would be all the way at the top. And people tend to only really be horrified when it gets to that extreme. And we fail to recognise that everything, from microagressions to murder, is still racist and it’s still harmful.
Let’s talk about microaggressions. Using the example of religion, I see all sins as the same, right? We can add morality and moral attributes to them but the outcomes are all the same. And they can all be harmful in the same way. Even if you’re saying that shooting someone is worse than a microaggression, okay but at the base of it isn’t it all the same? We know that racism causes stress and can actually be linked to reducing peoples’ life expectancy. There are various studies on young Black men in London being under constant stress because of these microaggressions and it’s killing them. Racism actually has effects on your heart. And we see it again with the frontline workers. Why is it that such a small proportion of the UK population is Black or Asian and yet we make up such a big proportion of the deaths? Does it stem from the fact that workplace bullying has led to them being put in the most dangerous positions? There have been stories of people being put in the most dangerous wards without PPE when they don’t even usually work there. And when they have one mask for fourteen nurses, it’s definitely not going to the immigrant. And that’s led to death as well, the same as in the video.
You were saying that there’s people who you’ve known to be racist sharing these videos. What do you think is their motivation? Are they doing it to feel good about themselves? Do you think that they are even aware that they themselves have been racist? If we were to post a video with the roles reversed, for example, and social media was full of white people being brutalised, people would be really upset about these videos being shared so constantly. So why do you think that white and non Black people feel so free to share videos of Black bodies and people being killed?
I think it comes down to them not being seen the same. Even the pictures they used to portray Trayvon Martin, literally a child, in the media – I mean there’s no way you can justify a full-grown man the size of George Zimmerman, being afraid of and shooting someone like Trayvon Martin – but the picture of him with the hood up – and I don’t think there’s anything remotely scary about him there, he looks like a little boy with his hood up and he’s got such a young face – the fact that they do stuff like that, that they’ll find pictures of victims smoking or mug shots and you have to search to see pictures of them [at internships and with their families] is violent. If there’s any sort of violence where a white person is the perpetrator, the photos they use of them are so nice. A white man will go and kill his whole family in their sleep and the photo the media will use is him hugging his kids instead of a mug shot. But when a Black person gets murdered, if they’ve committed the smallest crime, no matter when, they will use their mugshot photo.
So it comes down to existing bias?
It’s deliberate though.
So retweeting a video of police or supremacist brutality, does that count as activism?
If you retweet and you don’t think about it properly… A lot of people share posts to their Instagram story but off-screen, are they changing their lives? It’s a discussion we’re going to have off-screen. More from the fact that the videos are horrible, it’s not really activism if you’re doing almost more harm than good. We’re getting into a time where, maybe, my white friends want to be more informed of this stuff but if you don’t think long enough not to share it, it can be ill-placed. [If they want their activism to go beyond just retweeting] they can start believing people. They can stop saying that people are being dramatic. They could think about their own individual actions, think about further things they can do, living out their activism, I guess. Speaking to their friends who may have questionable views, standing up instead of having your Black friend do it all the time. There’s a girl I’ve worked with in the past – we both do the feminist society at uni – and we did a presentation together on beauty standards and it was such a relief to have her start the conversation about Eurocentric beauty standards instead of me because it underpins everything. It was such a relief A) that she knew about it and B) that she raised it and included it because it changes it from ‘oh, this Black girl is being political again’. And a burden wasn’t on me to educate people and also educate her because then working with her would have been so stressful. And it gave a more complete presentation. So I think that’s what people need to do.
I think social media allows some detachment [from real life]. It’s a bit off topic but even this morning Pretty Little Thing is posting about Mental Health Awareness Week and they’re giving away free clothes or something if you tweet them about your mental health with #BeKind. Real issues, even mental health discussions, have become commercialised. Why do we see them as some advertising thing? It’s not the discussion for today but when we’re talking about mental health and then you choose to shop with Pretty Little Thing you totally disregard the mental health of people working in their distribution services. If you’re buying fast fashion crop tops during a pandemic, you disregard the mental health of the women in the supply chain being exploited by billionaires. People talk about it on social media without drawing parallels to their real life. Everyone’s an activist on Twitter and Facebook but then they’re still wearing fast fashion. Obviously, people will do things within reason but I think sometimes it’s better to see you put your money and your actions where your mouth is.
Going back to racism in the UK, people seem to justify tiers of racism. One of the first things that happened to me at uni, within three hours of arriving, was some white boy turning around and looking at me and saying to two Asian boys that he hates Black girls but he doesn’t mind P*** and that is so fucking wrong. Only in the UK would people justify being racist to Black people but not to Pakistani people, while also racially assaulting Pakistani people. Or where else would people say that they hate Chinese people right now but they’re usually okay. I mean, doesn’t Tommy Robinson say that he has Black friends and he just hates Muslims? Even Tommy Robinson, who is a full-time racist as his career.
Looking back at social media, really quickly, I wonder sometimes if the problem is how quickly it goes. Personally, I’ll like and retweet stuff and the next day I’ve probably already forgotten about it. No matter how funny it was, or interesting it was, as soon as I’ve reacted to it, that’s it. And so it can be easy to feel as if you’ve done your bit by posting or sharing online.
Yeah. What’s the point of doing social media activism if it doesn’t change what’s real?