Featured on Tonic. Author: George M. Johnson
Fighting Words is Tonic's opinion column. Send pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will never forget the video as it scrolled up on my Twitter feed. I clicked play, and quickly felt my nerves telling me that what I was watching wasn’t right. It was a black teenager having his locs cut by a white woman in a gymnasium full of people, mere seconds before his wrestling match was to begin. I watched the pain, shame, and embarrassment on his face, and thought of the fraught significanceof hair in the black community. I felt sick.
Rage roiled inside me as I composed a tweet about how racially charged this action was—forcing this young teen to either cut his hair or not be able to participate in the sport he loves. It was a glaring example of hair-related respectability politics, something black people know all too well. Hair in black culture is tied to our heritage, and has a trauma attached to it most cultures don’t understand—it goes all the way back to plantation owners cutting off slave women's hair or requiring them to cover it, most likely to rob them of their femininity and autonomy, respectively. Today, lot of black Americans have internalized the idea that their natural hair is unacceptable. Although the teen won his match and helped his team to victory, I imagine the scars of his humiliation will be there forever.
I’m well aware that having your hair cut and getting choked to death on a sidewalk are two very different types of trauma. Nonetheless, it has become commonplace on social media to display black pain—on every point on the trauma spectrum—to the masses. With a direct line back to the infamous police assault on Rodney King, which our parents watched with horror as it appeared on our TVs, social media has now allowed our deaths and our pain to be televised for millions to see in concise, searing video clips. Movements launched out of the images of Eric Garner uttering his last words—”I Can’t Breathe”—before dying of asphyxiation when a New York Police officer put him in a chokehold. Torture porn swarms social media, of beatings in Waffle Houses and subway attacks; I'll give you a break here by not linking to them.
Of course, making these videos public is necessary. Racial violence has been one of our country’s darkest realities, and only in the last few years has it's been shoved into our every day existence, right next to pictures of people's baby showers and avocado toasts. No American can justify saying, “This is too painful to watch so I won’t watch it.” Nonetheless, these reminders affect black Americans immensely, and differently.
“There is a fine line between wanting to stay informed and preserving one’s mental health and wellness,” says Shawn Ricks, associate professor of race and ethnicity studies, and assistant vice president of equity, diversity, and inclusion at Salem University. “Watching, and re-watching, videos where black people have been killed or harmed can result in vicarious traumatization—meaning, the trauma of that event, even though it did not happen to you, will resonate within you on a mental and physical level.” I can attest. I get a rush of adrenaline, fear, and anxiety when I see these videos; so many of them have left me in tears.
And then there’s the other danger: The continuous onslaught of these videos sometimes feels like it could lead to desensitization. “When we become desensitized, we begin to block or lessen our feelings or our outward expression of those feelings,” he tells me. “So, the danger is if you have begun to lessen your feelings and you think you’re ‘okay,’ you will continue to expose yourself to events and situations that are not in your best interest in terms of your mental and physical health.” In other words, even if you seem jaded, your body will still note the impact.
In a piece I wrote for Tonic not long ago, I discussed a term called “weathering”—the deterioration of health as a result of the chronic stress of being exposed to a lifetime of systemic racism. As someone who lives it, I refer to weathering as “a thousand paper cuts to the body and mind, a slow and sometimes subtle degradation.” Each one of these videos of black trauma is like a paper cut, slicing up the body a little at a time while never giving it enough time to fully heal.
When I ask Ricks what’s happening to my body when I receive these images, he says, “First, the mind begins to initiate the stress response—alerting your body that you are under attack. The amygdala, which is the part of your brain that handles the stress response, does not know that difference between real and perceived events.” It’s up to the rationalization skills we have to help us determine what we’re viewing versus what’s actually happening to us.
When we watch and re-watch events, Ricks tells me, we send ourselves subconscious messages like, “I need to be careful,” “I am in grave danger,” or “I need to worry about my children/partner.” The amygdala initiates the “flight/fight/freeze” response and prepares our body to be ready. Being in that state of hypervigilance—a state of heightened alertness—can be exhausting.
Ricks tells me that this response would be great if one needed to outrun a tiger or lift a car off of a child, but having it when there is no situation that requires that amount of adrenaline can take a toll over the years. Over time, chronic stress is life-threatening—it can manifest as depression and/or anxiety, among other things, he says. And in terms of physical health, chronic stress is the leading cause of illness and as well as the core reason for the majority of doctor visits.
We can’t crumble. And we can’t succumb to the normalization of black trauma—our deaths are garnering larger audience numbers at the expense of our health.
Here’s how we can resist.
Have a “discharge plan,” Ricks advises. What types of things could you put in place to allow you a space or way to release some of the trauma you are taking in from the videos and/or conversations? Healthy discharge plans could include meditation, mindfulness, breathing techniques, journaling, creative activities, and supportive group settings.
“The best way to protect one’s mental health is to be selective with your intake, and to create a discharge plan,” Ricks advises. Selective intake involves being mindful of how and when you watch events that may cause vicarious traumatization. “Before watching a video, decide if you will be able to process it. Decide if you want to watch it. Think about how much you will talk about it—which can almost be as bad as re-watching. If you do decide to watch it, commit to watching it one time.” The more we watch trauma, the more trauma stays with us. Period.