Our Trauma Shall Be Viral No More: Reflecting on Voyeurism as a Gateway to Allyship

Note: This essay first appeared in the All Y’all Collective’s Mouth of the South Series in February 2020.

This week, another heartbreaking news story(1) regarding the traumatization of black children in our schools filled our timelines. This time, she is a beautiful brown-skinned six-year-old arrested at her school by the Orlando Police for seemingly having six-year-old tendencies — throwing a temper-tantrum in a state of unrest, frustration, and/or sadness. I don’t know every detail of Kaia’s story. What I do know, however, are hundreds of black and brown girls just like Kaia who are not allowed to simply just exist in their humanness and blackness on a daily basis. For many of us, Kaia’s story may be the latest but it is certainly not shocking news, particularly given the documented and reported history of the traumatization of black girls in PK-12 classrooms around the country. Kaia’s story though, similar to that of Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones, are perhaps more heart-wrenching given the young age of the victims.

I learned about Kaia’s story on Twitter. I stopped mid-scroll and clicked on a link that took me to a news story which included the body-cam video of her arrest. In the video, we hear Kaia’s pleas. We hear the officer’s replies. We hear school personnel questioning the arrest. We, strangers and bystanders, are granted access to the traumatization of Kaia by way of the virality of media. Upon viewing the video, my heart breaks knowing that another one of ours has just learned that the classroom (and the world) is neither safe nor affirming of their existence in all forms. Before she even learns her multiplication times tables(2), Kaia has learned that those skills don’t mean a thing if you cannot manage one’s blackness and existence in schools. We watch her learn the consequences of being black and bold. Without permission, we have been granted access to Kaia’s painful and premature coming of age as a black girl in a white supremacist society.

That news story and affiliated footage has been shared thousands of times by people around the world from all walks of life — most outraged and calling for action and change. Many activists and educators in this work that I respect and admire have used the video and/or screen grabs on their timelines and feeds to spark conversations and action from their communities.

I get it.

Our experiences in fast-paced and overstimulated society has taught us that we need to find ways to get folx to pay attention, to slow down, to care. Furthermore, a long history of oppression and brutality has taught the black and brown communities of this nation that we need indisputable evidence of our trauma in order to provide that it (and we) exist.

And so we record.
And we share.
And we push for body cameras and footage.

We demand recognition of trauma sustained in our communities and demand better from a system that was not made for us.

However, the reality is that most black and brown folx don’t need a video of a six-year-old girl getting arrested to be informed or outraged about the trauma our community experiences. In fact, a PBS NewsHour report, Kenya Downs outlines the psychological effects this obsessive sharing and consuming has on black folx on social media. I, along with other respected activists and teachers, often take social media breaks in order to combat this. We know that these breaks are necessary to sustain our work and well-being in this space.

We record, share, and call for action because we need allies to recognize our pain, our plight, and the necessity of justice for our communities.

However, in an attempt to illuminate the plight of black and brown folx in our communities, we actually center whiteness. In so many ways, we sensationalize black trauma to shock white folx into giving a damn about black bodies. When we share these viral images and videos of traumatization, we manipulate and spin pain as a tool to educate and evoke change in aspiring white allies and partners in our work. In her 2016 reflection on the death of Alton Sterling, journalist April Reign wrote, “Sharing a video on social media or the media will not change anyone’s mind. Either it will confirm what one already believed was true, or a person will look for ways to contradict what they have just seen. Rather, the dehumanization of black bodies becomes some sort of perverse entertainment as images of our pain are broadcast for the world to see.”

The consumption of the black experience by white masses — whether it be our joy, creativity, or pain — is not new. We see it today in the love of our celebrities, the appropriation of our culture, and the virality of our death in the media. In many ways, the consumption of the traumatization of black bodies is as American as the whiteness in which it is produced. From lynchings in the 20th century to today’s Facebook Live, white folx have been allowed to bear witness to our pain and dehumanization without being held accountable.

I will no longer contribute to a cycle of voyeurism in the name of progress.

Relying on the consumption of trauma to evoke empathy is not sustainable for our work toward liberation. As long as we depend on the consumption of trauma to “empathize,” we will always rely on the traumatization of black and brown bodies to create allies. I don’t know about y’all, but trauma does not exist in my dream of liberation. Because of this, I refuse to sacrifice the well-being and lives of our community in order to develop white allies.

As a teacher-organizer, I am constantly working across lines of difference to build coalitions with like-minded teachers, researchers, and activists. Most of us agree that there is power in story-telling and evidence of our experiences, particularly in a system that is determined to diminish and kill our spirits and bodies. We have survived by passing down and sharing our stories and experiences inside and outside of our communities. Throughout history, journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others have dedicated their lives and work to documenting, reporting, and sharing not only our trauma but also our resistance and resilience.

Let me be clear — I am not advocating for censure of storytelling and the important reporting of our experiences (traumatic or otherwise). I am, instead, making two pleas for our community going forward.

  1. Stop relying on the viral display of our traumatization to evoke empathy.
    a. Learn about our stories, our history, and the work of black and brown activists and leaders seeking justice for our community.
    b. Seek resources and tools to prepare yourself to engage in online and in-person dialogue regarding the traumatization of black and brown bodies.
    c. Build coalitions with like-minded people to keep yourself accountable to your role in our work toward liberation.
    d. Continue to share our stories and seek justice (without contributing to the viral consumption of black trauma).
  2. Reorient toward liberation.
    While my dreams for liberation are informed by my experiences and understanding of the world, I refuse to allow my dreams to be limited by the systems in which we exist. I choose to dream beyond trauma. I dream of a liberation in which black and brown folx are seen and heard and affirmed in all aspects of who they are as excellent, beautiful, and resilient bodies. My work reflects that dream. My timeline reflects that dream. Does yours?

Notes:
1. News story intentionally not included.
2. My apologies to Kaia if she already knows her multiplication tables. If so, I’d love some tutoring, Kaia!

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