Why must graphic videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery make the social media rounds in order for the public to care about their unjust deaths?
Posted on May 30, 2020, at 12:04 p.m. ET
I’m a creature of routine: I start my morning with a cup of tea, a good book, and a quick scroll through Twitter. I have anxiety, I need a routine. With the rise of COVID-19, this routine keeps the walls of my condo from closing in on me, and the clothes I wear from constricting me like a straitjacket. But my routine has been fractured; I can’t get on Twitter anymore. A quick scroll through my timeline might end with my heart pounding. A simple login is now a leap of faith that a wave of anxiety won’t crumble me to my knees. Once a refuge from quarantine, my timeline has become a graveyard of dead black bodies:
George Floyd in Minneapolis who gasped “I can’t breathe” as an officer pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee. There are videos of some of these deaths lingering on the internet, as if black death is something that should be traded and shared. As if they weren’t someone’s loved ones. But thanks to public outcry sparked by the videos, both Ahamud Arbery’s killers and the police officer Derek Chauvin who held Floyd in a neck chokehold with his knee as Floyd gasped for air, have been arrested and charged with murder. And Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police after a black bird-watcher named Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog, has been fired from her job after a video of her claiming that an “African American man” was threatening her life went viral.
Once a refuge from quarantine, my timeline has become a graveyard of dead black bodies.
It is good, I suppose, that social media has made it possible for these incidents to attract a wide audience and stoke demands for justice. But why does black trauma need to go viral for nonblack people to give a damn? Why is it that we, the people who have dealt with this shit our entire lives, have to see triggering and PTSD-inducing videos just so our issues don’t go ignored? It’s traumatizing having a video of someone being murdered automatically play when you open an app. Especially when the murder is racially motivated, and especially when it’s at the hands of the state. We are being subjected to imagery that, according to studies on racial trauma and vicarious trauma by clinical psychologist Monnica T. Williams, can induce depression and anxiety. And when combined with daily discrimination and microaggressions, we can even have PTSD-like symptoms.
Before social media, the daily black experience was unseen and uncared about by the majority of nonblack Americans. There were no clips of “Karens” calling us nigger while at a restaurant, or sound bites of police officers threatening us. When I had a shotgun pointed in my face after approaching the wrong house looking for a party — a night I’ve played over and over since Ahmaud’s murder —I had to suck that shit up and carry on. I buried it deep down in my crowded subconscious, adding it in with the microaggressions and racial gaslighting I have to deal with on the daily. I, like most black people, had to carry around unseen trauma. But now, our trauma is everywhere. I’ll be blunt: Social media uproars have become necessary to cut through the deafening silence of white people. But white delusions about this country being some postracial paradise are causing black people to relive trauma after trauma after trauma, one retweet at a time. This clear divergence in realities is why things have gotten so bad that black trauma now has to go viral to be seen.
When both black and white Americans are asked their opinions on race relations, for example, this discrepancy is noticeable. In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, when participants were asked whether they agreed with the statement “black Americans are treated less fairly than whites in the country by police officers,” 50% of white Americans said they agreed, while 84% of black Americans agreed. When asked if they believed black Americans were treated less fairly than white Americans in court, 43% of white people agreed while 75% of black people agreed.
When I had a shotgun pointed in my face after approaching the wrong house looking for a party — a night I’ve played over and over since Ahmaud’s murder —I had to suck that shit up and carry on.
Black and white people can occupy the same spaces now, but we still live in two different countries. Some white people view the Confederate flag as a symbol of the South. I see that flag and think of old grainy pictures of white people on picnic blankets eating around a hanging black body while that flag billowed in the wind behind them, smiles wide on their faces like it’s another fun family outing. Our historical facts will never have as much power as their engrossing mythology. I didn’t have to imagine what I would have done in Ahmaud’s shoes. I have had a shotgun pointed at me before. I want to lie and say something writerly like how the moon glinted on the steel barrel or how I was stoic or brave or even had my life flash before my eyes. But none of those things happened. I didn’t feel anything. I was numb from shock. “Is this the party?” I asked.
They lowered their guns. It wasn’t. I was off by one house. My entire existence almost reduced to a blood spatter against brick siding because I was off by one number courtesy of Google maps. The mundanity of the moment haunted me when I saw Ahmaud’s video on every inch of my timeline. The thought of his day starting with a jog broke me. His day started off so normal. But we don’t get to go to the wrong houses by accident — whether they’re occupied or not. We don’t get to forge checks or sell loose cigarettes. Or play with toy guns. Or reach for our license and registration, even when it’s asked for. That’s why those videos are traumatizing; an everyday, ordinary occurrence that most Americans would survive can become fatal due to the color of your skin — and there’s nothing you can do about it. Depending on where I go, I wear bright colors, smile even when I don’t want to, and wear my college alma mater clothes as a shield to ward off the perceptions of white people. But none of that matters. Every one of these shootings shows that as long as you have black skin, you will always be in danger. It’s anxiety-inducing to know the body you occupy could lead to your death.
Black Americans don’t need to see those videos to know this shit goes on. We know it goes on. We hear the stories from our aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, our grandparents and parents who lived through Jim Crow. Discrimination in the US of A is as American as apple pie, and every black American at some point has had a slice. No. Those videos are for those who either didn’t know or have gaslit black people for years about our collective reality, causing us to question our experiences and our perceptions.
But what can we do about it? Is our sanity worth moving the country forward? Will our realities and white mythology ever align? I don’t know the answers. But until then, we’re forced to carry the brunt of this country’s emotional labor.●