There were no words to describe how much I hurt the night I read of Elijah McClain for the first time. I unwillingly came across the story of this 23-year-old autistic Black man on my Instagram timeline. He died last year following a chokehold and a ketamine injection administered by police. Once I was made aware of what happened to him, I saw his story everywhere, including in the fears that I held for my family.
By then, I’d grown accustomed to the ritual of opening my apps to the news of the latest instance of race-related suffering and reflecting in silent despair for the rest of the day. As I scrolled through my feeds, each post—especially images and videos that show Black people dead and dying—seemed to contribute to a continuous stream of death. And the compounding knowledge was breaking me down.
There is nowhere to hide from trauma when you’re a Black person in 2020, and the more time online, the higher the risks.
“People are exposed to these types of images quite often, and they need a space to talk about how these images make them feel as well as how they are coping,” says Brendesha Tynes, an associate professor of education and psychology at the USC Rossier School of Education whose research explores the impact of racist online harassment on youth of color.
Tynes finds it plausible that the racist comments that often follow these images could also have an effect. “I imagine watching the video and then on top of the video seeing people repeatedly affirm the negative messaging in the video—a killing or beating of a person of color or a Black person specifically—just compounds the effects,” Tynes says.
Too often, we discuss the happenings of the world—like the coronavirus pandemic and state-sanctioned violence—in a way that divorces them from the most longstanding, pervasive public health crisis in our country: racism. As I try to make sense of the world around me, it’s becoming increasingly clear that my time online is intensifying the way I experience the trauma around race.
The role of technology in racial trauma
A growing body of research is seeking to quantify the pervasive ways that racism impacts Black people’s quality of life, whether on or offline.
For the last few years, Tynes has worked with colleagues to study the ways that engaging with racism online increases one’s risk for trauma. Her work sheds light on how racism in multiple mediums—both in person and online—can lead to depressive symptoms. The most recent effort she participated in, which was led by assistant professor at Rutgers’s School of Public Health Devin English, found that on average, Black youth are exposed to five discriminatory messages per day—with many of them being online.
Beyond Tynes’s work, many of these studies describe the concept of “weathering”: how acute and chronic racism can accelerate aging and worsen a person’s overall health. Mothers like me who fear for their loved ones’ risk of exposure to racism are at risk for complications as well.
There is nowhere to hide from trauma when you’re a Black person in 2020, and the more time online, the higher the risks.
While weathering has been a pervasive health problem for decades, the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the ways that technology is contributing to Black individuals’ trauma. But it’s much more than scrolling past heartbreaking videos of violence and death. It also the memes that mock our death, the insensitive media campaigns—like Snapchat’s recent “smile and break the chains” filter—and the Zoombombing efforts of white supremacists to disrupt social, educational, and professional meeting environments. While technology has brought people together during the pandemic, it has also made it easier for racists to infiltrate these efforts and torment individuals without ever having to leave home.
The Anti-Defamation League is keeping track of instances where Zoom is weaponized to display anti-Semitism, graphic sexual and violent videos, and racial slurs. Not surprisingly, Zoom—like many platforms before it—has failed to acknowledge the white supremacy at the core of these efforts. Millions of BIPOC and marginalized individuals anxiously go online, fearful that their virtual safe spaces, like community meetings, religious gatherings, and business meetings, will become sites of ridicule and harassment.
And while Black folks as a whole are at risk, even more marginalized Black people—like Black women, Black trans and gender nonconforming individuals, and Black folks with disabilities—are at greater peril for being harassed.
I remember watching in (not quite) disbelief as racist tolls attacked Beatrice Dixon’s Honey Pot brand by posting fake reviews that relied on stereotypes after her Target commercial made its debut in March 2020. She faced attacks simply for mentioning how being a Black woman shaped her journey into business. Being Black and successful—or even just publicly acknowledging race as a Black person—puts you at risk for harassment.
A hidden mental health crisis
As more of our world shifts to a virtual format, it’s increasingly important that we’re prepared to address the impact of virtual racism—whether vicariously or directly—and its accompanying risks. Awareness of these risks has multiplied the necessity of understanding race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), a condition similar to PTSD that manifests through depression, anger, and hypervigilance—a state of constantly being on high alert.
These symptoms can be made worse by social media’s dopamine-stimulating and addictive notification systems and infinite scrolls, which are designed to keep you hooked. Some studies have shown that frequent use can increase one’s risk for anxiety and depression.
Tynes says it’s essential to have a dialogue about how exposure to images of Black people being attacked and murdered impact people of color, particularly Black people, of all ages. But the stigma attached to mental health can make having those conversations challenging.
“I think that’s all the more reason to have an open dialogue about what it means to see police racial violence repeatedly or even just general forms of online racial discrimination where you’re seeing negative images of your group,” she says.
As I struggled to process the tragedy of McCain’s story—and the bizarre contradiction of having to read his painful last words on a cutesy Canva Instagram template—I was afraid to talk with my usual support system. My friends and I try to protect each from these stories because their influx can make functioning, and therefore parenting our children, difficult. I thought it was noble to hold the pain of his death alone. But the fact that his story happened nearby—he was murdered less than two hours from our home—intensified my bottomless sorrow. The “what if’s”—What if it had been my husband? What if one day it’s my son?—left me cycling through silent frustration and sadness. Still, my decision to disengage felt like a betrayal. Who was I to step away from the phone if he’d never move again?
The double-edged sword of connection
As the recent swell of protests has shown, cellphones, social media, and meeting platforms like Zoom can be instrumental in planning activism, bringing communities together, and fomenting other efforts to create an anti-racist society. Technology makes it possible for people all over the world to attend virtual events regardless of where one lives, such as lectures about technology’s impact on racial issues and conversations with more experienced civil rights leaders.
In addition, Allissa V. Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg, says technology and social media enable us to get a “bird’s-eye view” of anti-Black racism—insight that’s invaluable.
She notes that activists’ use of technology as a tool to document Black dehumanization and show the barbaric nature of white supremacy fits neatly into a continuum of Black resistance, which includes the efforts of Fredrick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, and Mamie Till-Mobley.
Her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism, explores how smartphones, social media, and social justice have enabled Black Americans to establish counter-narratives around racism and brutality. Richardson calls this “defiant, investigative gaze” Black witnessing.
Allissa V. Richardson
This is the first time we can be present. We can hit record.”
“This is the first time we can be present. We can hit record, stay with that victim, and say, ‘I’m not going to let you go through this by yourself. I won’t allow them to say they don’t know who did this to you,'” she says. “‘I’m going to make sure that I have a strong counter-narrative to the official report that they will surely craft that says that you deserve this, and I’m going to say your name.'”
However, the intentions of the individual behind the camera can change the lens of this witnessing.
Richardson notes the critical differences between folks like Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who bravely captured George Floyd’s murder, and William Bryan, who filmed Ahmaud Arbery’s murder to send a message.
According to Richardson, individuals like Bryan film events to preserve a white supremacist hierarchy, similar to the lynching photographers who would develop celebratory postcards after a lynching. “It’s boastful, like look at what we did to this person,” she says. “[It] may serve as a warning to anybody else who steps outside of the boundaries of this white supremacist hierarchy that we’re trying to enforce.”
How to minimize trauma while Black witnessing
Though my time spent online often brings me anguish, I know the world won’t change until everyone can admit that America was founded on Black dehumanization and that racism is alive and well today on top of the legacies we study from the past. And the painful stories of Tony McDade, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Rayshard Brooks are the fuel for change.
Every day, I challenge myself to be authentic in how I confront this pain. I’ve committed myself to a movement I dubbed #FreeBlackmotherhood, which encourages Black women to embracing their feelings of both joy and sadness. That means crying when I’m sad and getting comfortable with the justified rage that accompanies being a Black woman and mother in America. Now, I step away when I need a moment to cry or seek clarity. And I’ve found tools like text threads, site blockers, and WhatsApp—a suggestion from Richardson—useful for staying connected with less of the noise.
It’s too easy to witness Black death on platforms like Google, Facebook, and Instagram.
But change can also happen on a larger structural level to protect Black people from traumatizing images. Simply put, it’s too easy to witness Black death on platforms like Google, Facebook, and Instagram.
“White people do not have to see themselves die over and over and over again on prime-time television, let alone online. It’s very difficult to find images of white death in that way because it’s heavily moderated and constantly scrubbed. I’m calling for us to do the same thing for people of color,” Richardson says.
However, she notes these images are too powerful to ban completely. Instead, she suggests that we revive the “shadow archive,” a practice that involved removing traumatic images, most notably images of lynchings, from public view following peak circulation and storing them in a newsroom, library, or museum. Richardson hopes to find a way to “make [these images] as helpful as possible without traumatizing Black people,” she says.
Tynes is working on another solution. She recently won a nearly $1 million grant to develop an app that can help reduce racial trauma online. While the project is still in the research stage, she thinks that increasing digital literacy can help prepare young people for the racism they will experience in digital spaces.
“Critical digital literacy skills, specifically critical race digital literacy skills, will buffer the association between seeing traumatic videos, traumatic events online, and depressive or PTSD symptoms,” she says.
Despite their traumatizing impact, Tynes believes these images are the only path to change.
“I don’t yet have the answers to how to balance needing the world to see what’s actually happening and protecting Black kids,” she says. “I just know that I’m working on creating tools that will help them to protect themselves if they see these videos.”