Viral Black Death: To Watch or Not to Watch
The inner debate on the sharing of black death. It’s complicated.
Art by Noel Ransome
When I watched Philando Castile get murdered by an officer, I felt rage.
Explaining the obvious reasons for that rage would be redundant, so I won't, because to explain something so basic as a life taken adds to the emotional fatigue. But that's what on-demand pain can do to people of color. It mutes them from the tired rehearsal of thoughts and justifications that present the same questions: Why was this officer scared? Why do these cops keep getting away with murder? Why does this continue to be a thing?... What am I going to eat later?
And it's usually some version of that last question that irks me the most—the one that exposes my ability to forget and move on with life. Just watching the Rodney King beatings in the 90s stuck with me for months. It was the first time I had seen a clear injustice over a skin color that matched my own, and my anger was rich and full from my innocence. Now, each new black death alters the terrifying into something more commonplace. Black folks can still be killed for following orders, and white justice can excuse it all the same. The cycle causes me to feel drained without as much fight left.
So I opt to ignore future videos with "killed by cop" headlines and procrastinate to hitting that play button. Instead of the normal questions, I quickly fall on that what am I going to eat for dinner, thought, until the next murder.
I wanted to make sense of these feelings that I couldn't completely resolve. Like a two-sided coin, on one hand, I see viral deaths as a means to keep me woke and inspire change. On the other, the mass retweets and news segments compound my black mind with unresolved black death. The issues come in their inability to make me feel like anything but shit because my blackness in contrast to their whiteness, makes me susceptible to being murdered by a cop. Adding to that is the guilt of wanting to cast it all aside for my own selfish, mental well-being reasons.
But experts say that I shouldn't have a reason to feel guilty, despite these raw feelings. Speaking to Dr. Sherri Williams, a communications scholar that's currently doing a research study with a team at Wake Forest University, on the effects that viral killings have on black millennials, she reminded me that this cycle of thought is more common than I'd think. "Respondents actually did say that when they do learn of another death or hashtag, they've mentioned this feeling of numbness that produces anger. Their anger comes from the fact they're in the position to feel numb, and that goes along with the anger that comes with the fact that it happened again."
A lot of what others and I feel is apparently natural. It serves as this defense mechanism for our own unconscious minds—an actual legit thing that can happen during moments of trauma to reduce anxiety. And according to Williams, she's just as vulnerable to the pattern. "In our research, some of the black millennials are definitely saying that they purposely try to avoid these videos, sometimes just for their own mental health. Even for myself, while doing this research and speaking to people about it, right now, I just can't take it. So I've avoided the Philando Castile video."
What concerns her most about the debate of viral black death are the same concerns I've thought about but couldn't articulate. According to a mass media theory called cultivation, Williams believes that it can be also affecting our outlooks in more negative ways compared to the good that it's producing.
"Cultivation talks about how when we watch images over time, how they shape a reality for us. And how cultivation theory asserts that we've learned social reality, standards, and expectations through what we watch," she said. "If these younger people are watching these images of black people getting killed all the time without consequence, what is it doing to them?"
It's a good question. I know intimately what it does to me as a black man, it makes me feel tired. Every new tombstone with the names Sam Dubose, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner doesn't encourage me to become an activist. Instead, they make me think about self-preservation, caution, further turning me into a victim of my skin. But that's just my story, my brand of numbness. For me and many black millennials, this sensation that feels new is a product of our privilege. For others like an old friend Robert Thomas, it's a story he heard time and again without pressing play on a video.
"The one thing I think about when it comes down to all these black lives being lost from the police is that for certain people that lived in the worst communities like me, we're used to this. These videos aren't doing anything," he explains. "Sure, it's getting us angry, but it's an anger we've always lived with. We're numb to it, like an old man with that 'those damn kids broke my window again,' shit, that's us. Seeing black death is regular."
Thomas grew up in Toronto's Lawrence Heights, which previously held the label the "Jungle" by residents and police alike for its crime. There, he witnessed death and images of violence way before any hashtag dictated how he should feel.
"The one thing we fail to realize from these videos is that the answer changes for each person. What have I gone through? What have you gone through? If you see people who film these things with steady hands, that's how comfortable we are with seeing this shit already."
Like in the case of my homeboy Thomas, viral videos of black death are beginning to feel way too comfortable within my space that's removed from in-person death. In a lot of ways, it lends to Dr. William's take on our societal expectations becoming modified by imagery. The fact is, that I don't know what the balance between exposure and harm is, but it remains important for each person of color to stay woke while protecting their own hearts and minds.
"I don't listen to the news anymore because I'm tired of hearing this shit," Thomas says. "I want to keep my head positive, to get out of this bullshit that I've lived in that's a new thing to some other people. At the same time, they've got to know that this is happening outside of their comfort zones. It's either going to wake you up, or keep you scared. Unlike all the white people out there who watch these videos, these are the only two choices us black people have."
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.