DMT Beauty Transformation: Sharing Images Of Police Brutality Isn’t Allyship. It’s Traumatizing
featured Khareem Sudlow

Sharing Images Of Police Brutality Isn’t Allyship. It’s Traumatizing

August 28, 2020DMT Beauty

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By now, you may have seen video footage of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times in the back on Sunday. Edited versions are on the news, and many folks are sharing it on social media. Some are doing so to “raise awareness” about racial injustice — but recently, psychologists and advocates have been speaking out about the damaging effects of this kind of content.

Coming across a video that depicts violence against Black people on social media can be severely harmful to mental health, emphasizes Alifee Breland-Noble, PhD, a psychologist, author, and founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project

“If you are Black, you should not be watching,” Breland-Noble shared during a powerful Instagram Live she posted to her private page, regarding the topic. “I do not want you to be any more traumatized than we already are as Black people, given the daily slings and arrows we encounter dealing with racism at school, at work, out in the community… It is a constant barrage and it pains me that we are here one more time.”

Breland-Noble and an increasing number of folks on social media are asking that we think before we hit the share button. These calls to stop disseminating and normalizing what some are calling “trauma porn” come in the days after the police shooting of Blake, and amid months of protests against racial injustice in America, following the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Dominique Fells, and Riah Milton

Why these videos are harmful

When a Black person watches someone they identify with be attacked, especially by an authority figure, it is deeply traumatizing, Breland-Noble tells Refinery29: “There’s secondary and vicarious trauma that can come from watching.”

Destiny Singh echoes this sentiment. The attorney in Atlanta, GA, began speaking up against these videos in 2016, when she accidentally viewed a clip of the immediate aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile. She was in her living room, on leave from her job as a public defender. She was holding her son. “It was nap time and he was falling asleep and I just happened to turn the TV on,” Singh says. “It was playing. I remember crying for so long after and calling my husband. You can almost prepare yourself if you go to a news article and click on the video, but just turning on the TV and seeing those images? That was traumatizing for me.” (Videos on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram can also sometimes play automatically as you scroll by, exposing users to content they were not prepared to see.)

“As a Black woman, I continue to see these highly brutal, gory images and then I’m expected to go to work and continue taking care of my family the next day,” Singh says. “As far as impact is concerned, think about how watching someone who looks like your husband, son, or brother getting killed over and over again can affect a person.” 

In order to protect her mental health, Singh has avoided watching the video of Blake’s shooting, which three of his children witnessed. But she’s seen plenty of videos of violence against Black people over her lifetime, including some she’s had to watch for her job as a public defender and others that have been broadcast widely, such as the police brutality against Rodney King. Singh says we shouldn’t need to see videos like these to believe that these incidents are occurring.

Breland-Noble adds that the videos dehumanize the people in them. “If this were your loved one, would you want other people consuming that?” she asks. “I have a brother, a younger brother. If that happened to him, I wouldn’t want anyone watching that. What I’d want people to do is to be protesting, calling their elected officials, talking about defunding the police, training these police officers so they’re not continually engaging in this behavior… I would not want them forgetting my loved ones name, but I wouldn’t want anyone watching that.” 

Is there ever a reason to post or share?

Some argue that these videos can help spark action and call attention to injustice. For example, footage of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot while jogging in February, didn’t circulate publicly until more than two months after Arbery’s death. “It was that public outcry and demand, and feeling that really horrible image of him being murdered that was the difference in the justice for Ahmaud — and it’s still not over,” S. Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Arbery’s family, told CNN. “We have to unfortunately continue to circulate these very painful videos that is causing collective injury, but it’s a necessary evil.” 

But Singh says images depicting violence against Black people have existed for at least a century. “To say that we’re raising awareness is to blatantly ignore this country’s past,” she says, arguing that at this point, “America is already aware, it just doesn’t care.” 

She thinks the racial justice protests that began after a tape circulated that showed former officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, asphyxiating him, would have happened even if the video did not exist. “It’s not that the videos or the stories of police officers brutalizing Black people are different now,” she says. “It’s the conditions in this country. All of them… COVID. Quarantine. People losing their jobs. Reactions to racism and xenophobia coming from the White House. And in the midst of all that, police officers and vigilantes haven’t missed a beat. Everything’s coming to a head, and the unrest is resulting in this very beautiful moment that we’re seeing.” 

What can you do instead of sharing videos? 

Write a post about how the incidence of violence made you feel. Share resources for donating to bail funds or to organizations doing the work such as Black Lives Matter. Call your Congressperson. Buy from Black-owned businesses. Protest.

Before hitting share, Singh suggests pausing and thinking for a moment. “It’s impact over intent,” she says. “You should think about how this will affect the people around you and how you might be subjecting your followers to something that may traumatize them.” 

What to do when you accidentally view violence

If you do stumble across a violent video, Breland-Noble says one of the best things you can do is to get away from the area you watched it in. “Put your device down or turn off the TV,” she says. “Just walk away for two or three minutes and give your brain a break from that moment.” If you have the ability to take even a few minutes to yourself to recenter, do so, rather than trying to push yourself to snap back right away. “You’ve got to be focused and intentional about creating space for yourself,” she says. “Listen to music, meditate  do something you like. Different things bring different people peace.” 

Talk to someone about how you’re feeling, suggests JaNaè Taylor, a psychotherapist and founder of Minding My My Black Business. That might be a therapist, an understanding friend or family member, or both. “You don’t have to discuss the video itself, but maybe the fear that you’re now experiencing,” she says. “The sadness that’s come up for you based on what you’ve watched. Or maybe you don’t even have the words for it. Saying, ‘I’m not sure what I’m feeling, but I’ve been impacted.'” Ideally you’ll talk it out in person, but the second best thing is by phone or Zoom.

Singh urges everyone to disable video autoplay on Twitter, which will prevent videos from automatically playing as you scroll by. (To do so, go to settings, then “data usage,” and then “autoplay”.) Breland-Noble also suggests temporarily muting friends who you know have shared videos like these in the past.

Life today can feel stressful and overwhelming, to put it mildly. It’s more essential than ever that we do what we can to take care of ourselves, and to try to be mindful of each other’s mental wellbeing, too.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

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Molly Longman, Khareem Sudlow

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