In many respects, having the world at our fingertips is one of the greatest technological blessings in the fight against racial injustice. From raising awareness to recording much-needed evidence, while the revolution will undoubtedly be digitized, Black people are unfortunately left traumatized by the constant sharing of distressing footage. Social media once provided frivolous escapism from reality but the en masse posting of avocado on toast has been usurped by sharing images and footage of the spillage of Black blood at the hands of those entrusted to serve and protect us.
In a world where a polarized and divisive rhetoric has become the norm, I’d typically be hesitant to make such a sweeping generalization and yet I say with full conviction on behalf of the Black community—we are exhausted.
For centuries, Black people around the world have been raped, both metaphorically and literally, of our freedom, rights and resources. We have been enslaved, again, both metaphorically and literally, in systems that were constructed solely to keep us oppressed, suppressed and repressed. And yet, despite the countless protests, activists and wars that fought for equality before us, it took the virality of an eight-minute and 46-second video to finally catalyze a global awakening for those seemingly oblivious to our endless plight.
Progressive as it may seem, this wake-up call was not for Black people. We didn’t need to see or hear George Floyd echo the exact same harrowing words as Eric Garner, as he struggled to say he couldn’t breathe with the weight of a white policeman on his neck. In a perverse twist on overnight celebrity, innocent people are now household names as their agonizing final moments become clickbait.
The unavoidable spectacle of Black death is both triggering and haunting, but long before social media’s inception, graphic violent images were shared in the form of lynching postcards in the late 1800s to mid-1900s. Black people have had to endure seeing their bodies being publicly terrorized and tortured for years and at some point, we must ask ourselves: how many more need to be shared until the intended purpose has been fulfilled? Or perhaps more simply, what even is the purpose?Distressing footage and the rise of PTSD in Black communities
According to clinical psychologist and professor Dr Rheeda Walker, the dominant narrative dictates that suffering is the norm for the Black community. Post-traumatic stress disorder, though often discussed in the context of soldiers, war veterans and victims of sexual assault, is an increasing reality for Black people. “Seeing videos of someone die who looks like a normal member of your community brings a sense of, ‘That could have been me, my spouse or my child.’ It’s problematic because we don’t realize that it’s traumatizing.” She adds that the psychological effect of trauma, either firsthand or secondary, can lead to being hyper-vigilant, creating tenseness in the body, having difficulty sleeping and increased anxiety.
“It can manifest as paranoia and questioning whether you are in potential danger. Part of human survival is feeling safe and a lot of Black people do not feel safe in our society,” says Dr Walker. “Exposure to these images is a reminder about our lack of safety, especially when there are no consequences for law enforcement and people who are killed at will. There is a fear that permeates the Black community that Black people have no control whatsoever.”
It’s crucial to remember that although current Black Lives Matter conversations are often centered on police brutality in the US, white supremacy is everywhere, as Black people know all too well. There is a spectrum, of which few countries are innocent and most have blood on their hands. Those not living in the US feel the trauma of seeing innocent people, who look like us, gunned down while also bearing the weight of our own country’s systemic shackles and microaggressions that we’ve been forced to navigate and internalize for fear of being branded the ‘angry Black woman’.
Instead, we are praised and celebrated as the ‘strong black woman’—all the while the origin and necessity of such super-human resilience is never questioned. Existing at the intersection of racism and classism, it is no surprise that Black women are suffering, considering we have to navigate the strain of social, medical and economic inequities that further exacerbate our mental health.
It’s the compounding nature of living with the knowledge that Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate; the largest unemployment levels and pay-gap inequality; are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted; are less likely to be given pain relief when hospitalized; are twice as likely to be murdered; and Black trans women are disproportionately killed due to hate crimes.
As Dr Walker adds, this feeling of malaise “undermines our day-to-day wellbeing and ability to function at an optimum level because it doesn’t go away. We try to fit in and ‘act right’, but it doesn’t work like that. Black people cannot change who they are.”We are exhausted
Black people are exhausted because we are over-exposed to trauma. “Sometimes Black people can’t talk about depression and anxiety but we can say, ‘I am tired’ and that fatigue is synonymous with depression. The fatigue from having to work so hard, being hyper-vigilant, having to behave, talk and style our hair a certain way. The exhaustion is an amalgamation of all the things we have to navigate in our racial experience while being on the wrong side of race,” Dr Walker explains.
Further adding to that frustration is then being asked to educate others on how to be a good ally, as it’s a reminder that non-Black people can show up simply as curious yet privileged people. “While Black people are exhausted navigating the white world, non-Black people get to ask for the CliffsNotes and circumvent all of that by asking us to do more work. The epitome of privilege is asking the Black community to tell you what to do, so you can then go out and do it.”
What is truly exhausting is deciphering what has actually changed amid the copious sharing, newly formed anti-racist book clubs and posting of black squares one arbitrary Tuesday in June? In light of the recent non-guilty verdict of Breonna Taylor’s death, it would be easy to say nothing has.
The devastating irony that 65 years before, on the same day, was the acquittal of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murderers. This social groundhog day feels forlorn and further highlights that any tangible taste of justice is still not within our grasp. It is mentally damaging having to simultaneously educate non-Black people on how to be anti-racist while having to defend the validity of why something is racist in the first place. The Black experience is constantly questioned, reduced or belittled by those that know nothing of it as they are cocooned by their own privilege.A simple “How are you doing?” goes a long way
In this era of social-media activism, where shares, saves and likes are haphazardly considered the metrics of showing allyship, true support involves reaching out and checking in on your Black friends, family and colleagues. The seemingly simple question of “How are you?” can be testing for both parties as seldom do we scratch beneath the superficial surface to answer truthfully. Asking a Black person how they are may open up a possible Pandora’s box that will force you to do some self-reflection about your own complicity.
If that feels uncomfortable, take solace in knowing that it is far less so than hundreds of years of oppression. Support your Black friends selflessly, without inserting your white guilt or statements of disbelief on issues that we always knew still existed when the world turned a collective blind eye. Don’t just check in on your Black friends that look like me; mixed race and therefore palatable in the eyes of society, or those with names westernized for ‘ease’ of pronunciation. Make sure they are all OK. Black people with names that teachers choked on when calling attendance registers, Black people you don’t consider Black because you vehemently claim to not see color, Black people who perhaps may not even look inherently Black due to the cocktailing of their DNA.
Black grief runs so deep we often become desensitized to it like a chronic pain we’ve numbed in our minds and learned to live with. But this is not normal, nor is it healthy. We have inherited an ancestral trauma as we endeavor to amalgamate our own, and the recent BLM movement has allowed Black people to break their silence without as much fear of the possible repercussions. As global outcry finally begins to reverberate that Black lives do matter, we must remember that so too does Black rest along with Black laughter, happiness and mental wellbeing.
One can only hope that one day, the only trending content of Black people is centred on elation rather than devastation. Like so many movements before this, we aren’t naive in thinking that this uphill battle is anywhere near over as it has only just begun. So let us rest, regroup and heal as you become the ally you promised to be.