Black History Month 2016: Where We Stand

Does filming and sharing the strife of black people harm more than it helps? Rianna Walcott questions the most dangerous black tropes and surveys a history of white gaze on black pain

Feature by Rianna Walcott | 30 Sep 2016

Black history, as it is taught, tends to be overshadowed by the spectre of slavery and civil rights movements. Little is said about historical black achievement, and those achievements are often white-washed, credited to white people. You’ll see this happening in films, where people of colour are skimmed over in representations of their own history, favouring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. You can also find it in the entire ethos of the United States of America, which largely refuses to acknowledge how massively indebted it is to the (unwilling) contributions of black people.

Even the accounts of slavery taught in schools are ludicrously watered down. Many black people, myself included, only discover the extent of the atrocities committed through personal research later in life: slapping on Roots in front of a class of children is not enough to explain the wider-reaching consequences of slavery on contemporary black people.

The Strong Black Person and other tropes

Because of this, black people are best known for their trauma. It is often down to black people to celebrate successes among themselves, leading to the meteoric rise of celebratory hashtags like #blackgirlmagic and #blackboyjoy, to counter constant negative representation in media and history. Meanwhile, globally, black people are notorious for tragedy; the enslaved, the victim of police brutality, the anonymous starving African child who has long been instrumental in getting western children to eat their vegetables.

In spite of the fact that black trauma is at the forefront of global consciousness, mental health is heavily stigmatised within black communities. A culture of silence as well as the belief that mental illness is the preserve of western white people means that we lack the language to express the negative effects of constant aggression on our mental health; studies by the Mental Health Foundation show that black people living in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health problem, yet also more likely to disengage from mental health services than white people.

The internalised trope of the strong black person precludes shows of weakness in poor mental health, and in the past I have been told to just ‘deal with’ depression, because I’m better off than my ancestors have ever been and therefore have nothing to complain about.

It doesn’t help that black pain is also rarely seen as valid, or private. This is not limited to black people, but also extends to other people of colour. Take the media saturation of war photography; graphic pictures of destruction shared of the current Syrian conflict; pictures of famine and poverty in non-Western countries. The humanity and privacy of people of colour is, without exception, treated as inessential. We are denied dignity in life and death.

Making white people care about black pain

Having white people substituted into these images is unthinkable, as a recent advert campaign for Save the Children highlighted. The entire premise of the advert is that viewers should be able to empathise better with the plight of refugees in war-torn areas if it is demonstrated using a white British child. This correctly assumes that the impact of seeing actual black and brown people in distress is limited; it’s too common in the public eye, people are no longer surprised by it, and they no longer care.

In recent years, the press has thrown a long-awaited spotlight onto reports of police brutality, largely as a result of widely-shared bystander videos documenting incidents. While it may seem like these tragedies are happening more frequently, we have the dubious comfort of knowing that this is not a new phenomenon: things are not necessarily getting worse, only more visible.

The impact of these videos is massive, and a double-edged sword. On the one hand, police officers must be held accountable for their actions. Having video proof of innocence, while a poor substitute for justice, at least allows for the public clearing of victims’ names.

There is, however, a disturbing element of voyeurism to the sharing of these videos. I wonder how they affect the wider populace, the effect they have on the mental health of black people, and if over-exposure to them is having the opposite effect of inuring people to our pain.

Dignity and 'awareness'

At Black Lives Matter marches and similar liberation groups there is a consensus on the videos: a wary, weary acceptance. There is clearly a link between regularly witnessing images of extreme violence and depreciating mental health, as demonstrated in a recent psychological study of a sample of journalists, who following regular viewing of violent content subsequently experienced symptoms of depression and PTSD.

Many black people refuse to watch these videos for their own well-being. It's traumatic to say the least to watch live executions of your people; I still can't look at a picture of Tamir Rice, the doppelgänger of my cousin, without feeling dizzy. Our trauma is on display, and we are devalued into a week-long hashtag. The transformation of death into an agent of social change is despicable, but not without value. It is immeasurably better than dying in ignominy. It becomes a question of whether it is worth traumatising ourselves and giving up our dignity in the hopes of raising 'awareness', and the hope that video evidence may eventually secure justice for the victim.

The eternal fight for ‘awareness’ demands a limitless supply of proof, and spreading ‘awareness’ is not always the outcome. If these deaths come to be expected, will dying at the hands of police officers simply become something black people ‘do’ – as fixed and anonymous as the stereotype of the starving African child? There is already a stark similarity in the ways these images are shared; a fleeting show of sympathy that is soon forgotten, until the next tragedy.

There are other ways to make sure victims’ lives are valued without compromising their dignity, traumatising their families and ourselves. Sharing positive images of victims in life, talking about them and marching in their name is immeasurably better than broadcasting their pain.