Recently, as I scrolled the more than 1 million tweets connected to the hashtag #Black_Lives_Matter, this is what flashed before my eyes: the black-and-white dashcam video of Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, in handcuffs crying, her 4-year-old daughter trying to comfort her; protesters in Berlin standing in solidarity with the BLM movement; a Now This video of a young Black girl calling herself ugly; police attacking protesters and protesters fighting back; an image of George Floyd unable to breathe.
Suddenly neither could I. My chest tightened, my heart beat faster and hot tears began to bubble from my eyes.
For a person of color, engaging in this moment of collective trauma — whether by watching and sharing the video of George Floyd’s death, discussing racial injustice on social media or speaking out in the 3D world — involves anxiously teetering across the fine lines between personal experience, obligations to the community, and — in my case — professional responsibilities. Since I manage a news organization’s social media platforms, it’s part of my job.
Many Americans describe watching the videos as a wake-up call to persistent racial injustice. For Black Americans, it touches a deeper nerve.
“I watched it. I tried not to cry. I was just in awe,” said Jason Cordova, 31, a comedian in Weymouth, Massachusetts. “I have a son. He’s 11. You gotta really prepare a Black kid to be treated less than human.”
Ann Ebhojiaye, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, said the reaction is normal, reflecting “vicarious trauma” or “retraumatization from the Black experience in America.” You’re “seeing images and videos of violence against people that look like you and sometimes not being aware of what you’re experiencing,” she told me. Research suggests that repeated viewing of terrorism news coverage can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in people who have previous exposure to violence. Yet the onslaught of distressing images is hard to escape.
These videos carry echoes of historical images showing slaves being punished and Ku Klux Klan lynchings, often made to publicize and celebrate these heinous acts, said Deirdre Cooper Owens, a professor and the director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska. “There is a long memory and expectation extending from slavery that Black suffering be public,” she said.
But Cooper Owens does not call for censorship of images. Instead, she points to the gratuitous nature of their sharing as a problem. Why, she asked, should Black people be subject to “the overrepresentation of our trauma?”
Yet there’s little doubt that these kinds of videos helped to grow the Black Lives Matter movement into an urgent national protest. Their viral nature forced society and even the global community to witness the brutality so many wanted to deny.
Some people of color are careful to consume in small doses to protect their equilibrium: “Anytime I decide to watch any of these videos, I always think before I do it. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” said Michelle Stafford (@divayogi), 42, a yogi and healer in Baltimore. After watching the video of Floyd, she said, “I took a shower. I was feeling so anxious, my heart rate was up. If I’m feeling this way in my house, in a safe space, I can only imagine what people in other circumstances are feeling.”
She is trying to help others in her community process their feelings by leading regular yoga sessions via Zoom, followed by group discussions, that are payment-optional. Kyaira Carter, 26 (@yokyni), offers similar sessions in Houston. “I want to use my platform to remind the Black community that healing is possible for us,” she said.
But Shannon Johnson, 37, of Los Angeles said watching these videos and discussing Floyd’s death on social media — however painful — helped her process what she saw and might force others to face buried truths. “I think if we can talk about everything else, we can talk about the uncomfortable stuff.”
As a script consultant and fan of horror films, she said she is somewhat “desensitized” to violence, so going through the hashtags reminds her of the reality of being Black in America. “When people say George Floyd’s name,” she said, “I see the video.”
She and many others credit the videos for helping to grow the Black Lives Matter movement into an urgent national conversation.
As a social media manager, I wonder if those of us in this field should be doing more to help users navigate this traumatic moment.
If you type the word “suicide” into your Twitter search bar, you are immediately presented with an embedded message that reads “Help is available,” as well as a phone number and link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
If sensitive content such as the video of Floyd’s death and countless others like it is allowed on social media platforms, why shouldn’t that content be flagged with additional support and resources?
“There is a general lack of understanding from the social media industry about the effects of repeatedly consuming disturbing content,” said C. Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.
For instance, images that depict gratuitous gore and certain sexual content are not allowed on Twitter, but sensitive content such as the video of Floyd’s death does not break Twitter’s rules. It is allowed to appear on the platform, but it should appear with an interstitial — a filter that warns of sensitive content and blurs the content until you click and agree to see it, said Lauren Alexander, a senior manager on the product communications team at the Twitter HQ in San Francisco.
Video hashing tools are used across the social media industry to prevent re-uploads of violent videos, but they can’t stop re-uploads of versions that have been altered or edited. Likewise, the interstitial warnings may disappear when sensitive videos are edited and re-uploaded, as is the case with viral content, such as the killing of George Floyd.
One option is for users to adjust their safety settings on Twitter to block sensitive content and disable the autoplay function of videos on their timelines. “What we are trying to do and how we approach sensitive media is to not be the decision-maker, Alexander said. “We are not mental health providers.” She pointed out that she has more choice in what to watch on social media than if she kept a news station on in the background, where the video of the killing played repeatedly.
What’s clear is that simply unplugging isn’t adequate advice for communities of color trying to cope with the effects of vicarious trauma. Sometimes, as Ebhojiaye said, “it’s important to really process, why are you so emotional?” When you have that awareness, you can work toward taking action in a way that you feel is empowering, she said.
For me, watching Floyd’s agonizing death caused me to confront the pain of a lifetime of digesting racist and colorist messaging that seemed to scream, “Your skin is too dark, your hair is too kinky, your voice does not matter, your life does not matter!”
Viewing that video and other images that assault people who look like me is part of my profession. It can be very hard to steel yourself against the pain you see.
Part of my healing has involved reminding myself that I am both beautiful and worthy. That’s something I do through the art of storytelling, songwriting, performance art — and writing like this.