Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 14: Trauma Porn

Hi friends,

Before we get started and forget to announce this, we have BIG news! We will begin a monthly speaker series via Zoom for any of our readers or their invitees with anti-racist leaders in a host of topics. To make sure we can pay our speakers for their labor, we have created a Patreon for our readers. Patreon is a platform where creators can have followers subscribe on a monthly basis to pay small increments of money to help fund their broader goals. Our increments are $2, $5, $8, and then a few higher options (if you don’t already have local giving as part of your budget but you can afford it, this is an option of a way you can give each month to a broader community in anti-racism). We promise that ALL money will go directly to our speakers, the organizations and grassroots causes they represent, and the causes listed in our weekly “PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR POSTS ARE” section. Ellie and Emily will take exactly zero dollars and zero cents ever (but Patreon itself will take 3% of our total earnings, just for the sake of transparency). Our newsletters and general dialogues without speakers will still be available to all regardless of payment status, but we are posting audio recordings of our speakers exclusively to our Patreon subscribers. You can learn more or opt in to a monthly subscription here and we will be logging our contributions and where we pay in a public spreadsheet that we’ll send in these emails as we go. 

Why are we paying our speakers for an hour of our time?

As we talk about what it looks like to build a more equitable world, first and foremost we think it is important to pay people for their work. We think that featuring leaders within communities affected by racism, and then paying them for teaching us about topic areas of their expertise is a small but important way for us to pay reparations in real time to the Black and Indigenous folks that teach us. 

Also, we keep forgetting to plug this but: here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone has forwarded them to you.

This week, we are talking about the often well-meaning but deeply troubling spread of “trauma porn” when sharing videos and photos of acts of racist violence, poverty, or disaster. 

WHAT IS TRAUMA PORN?

“Trauma porn” is characterized by the gratuitous sharing of videos or photos of people experiencing horrific conditions, most often in the form of viral videos of extreme police brutality or . “Trauma porn” uses the same linguistic device as the terms “food porn” or “poverty porn”, the phrase “trauma porn” is “impactful by virtue of being the grotesque association of two words we’d rather not put together for the sake of respectability. The discomfort we may feel when faced with such a term is intentional, as the phrase itself reflects the obscenity of the act of consuming depictions of suffering. Trauma porn refers to the perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune; a phenomenon which has become increasingly pervasive in a digital era where pain is commodified, and upsetting portrayals of it stripped of their emotional impact as they sink into the depths of content overload.” (Thanks Chloé Medley for this great explanation).

But I thought I was sharing a video to raise awareness? Is that wrong?

We’re going to go ahead and assume that the heart behind sharing graphic images of people experiencing horrific violence or traumatic natural disasters is to raise awareness and bring attention to conditions that *should* disturb us. However, sharing graphic images and videos can be problematic for a few key reasons: 

  1. It is incredibly re-traumatizing, specifically for Black people, to be constantly exposed to videos and images of violence against other Black people. Watching a horrific video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds is notably more traumatic for individuals who can relate to Floyd’s Blackness and to the regular expressions of police brutality. Sharing these videos can be traumatic for people who have seen or experienced such everyday acts of violence in their own communities or those of their loved ones. 
  2. Constant exposure to such horrific images doesn’t actually heighten our awareness of them, rather, it makes us numb. It is a weird facet of the information age to have constant access to video footage of the most horrific moments of others’ lives. Despite our good intentions that maybe *this video* is the one that will change the status quo, shocking, shaming, and saddening people doesn’t move them to action.  We live in a constant state of collective connectedness but in a way that breeds attention deficiency as new information about new horrific acts is constantly emerging. Every traumatizing image and video appears on our feeds long enough to spark temporary outrage and shame, but long term, often creates greater cynicism of our ability to make tangible change, and skepticism of such horrific stories when they aren’t accompanied by video evidence.
  3. We aren’t entitled to see the worst moments of other peoples’ lives as a transaction cost for our believing that they were, in fact, harmed. There’s a certain type of voyeurism employed in our need to have photo or video footage of migrant individuals washed up on shores of the Medditerranean, people displaced by natural disasters living in crowded and often squalid conditions, or police shooting at members of our communities to believe it is real. If your friend were to tell you they were harmed, you wouldn’t require that they show you proof in order to feel a call to action.

We are not shaming anyone for sharing these videos (we both have shared graphic images and videos for the sake of “raising awareness” in the past), but rather noting that there is a place for those images, and that place usually does NOT include casual sharing on our social media. We also want to note that it is crucial that people do record such acts of brutality and violence when they see them, for the sake of officer accountability and systems-level change. Rather, we are asking our readers to be critically conscious of the media we share, asking ourselves if this is going to exploit someone else’s suffering or if it is truly informative. We can share information about racist violence or natural disasters while being reverent of the people that it will most closely affect. We can be vigilant about saying the names and telling the stories of people experiencing tragedy while being intentional about not contributing to an ecosystem that allows us to become numb to Black grief and Black pain. 

WORDS OF THE WEEK

Word we are learning

Detour spotting (many thanks to Emily’s friend Madison for this incredible resource)

What is detour spotting?

Detour spotting is the ability to identify patterns of guilt, defensiveness, or denial that appear in conversations about race or other marginalized identity groups. These detours attempt to distract or deter conversations about race and racism, closing off opportunities for growth, accountability, or acknowledgement. We have both taken “detours” and we would venture that everyone who reads this, at some point, has, too. 

What are some examples of these detours?

  • Statements like “I’m colorblind” or “I don’t see race”
  • Victim blaming or statements that assign arbitrary conditions to receive compassion, such as “if they would only protest peacefully”
  • End-run escapism, i.e. “Of course racism is bad, but I’m a woman and I experience sexism which is much worse” or “I’m white but I grew up poor so how can you say I am privileged?”
  • “Don’t blame me” thinking, such as “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump so I am not racist” or “I never owned enslaved people”
  • Asking for people from marginalized identities to “teach us” to be less racist, sexist, or homophobic, rather than seeking the information ourselves, etc.

How can we spot our own detours?

Take a breath and identify what it is that was said that is making you want to change course in the conversation. Are you uncomfortable with the way you feel like you are being characterized by someone else making note of your own privilege? Are you feeling vulnerable and want to project that onto another person? Are you feeling uninformed and want someone else to shoulder the responsibility of your learning? Whatever it is, make note of it and bring it up with a trusted friend later and work through that resistance together. Once we identify a detour we’ve taken, we’re less likely to repeat it.

How to address other people’s detours:

Gently tell them that they’ve taken a detour from the conversation at hand. Remind them that you are not here to be “right;” you are having this conversation because you care about protecting Black lives. Remind them that, of course, they have experienced some form of grief or pain related to another identity and that is valid, but right now what we are talking about is racism. Don’t be afraid to ask that people do their own research, and even suggest resources (may we recommend this newsletter? Is that too self-promo-y?). We recommend that you do this with as even of a tone as possible, not because we want to tone-police anyone, but rather because if our end goal really is increased safety and decreased hostility toward Black folks, we want to make sure that we are disarming others and making space for everyone to grow. 

Word we are unlearning

Looters (or at least unlearning our fixation with “looting” when we talk about disasters, protests, or people’s lives in upheaval)

Why are we unlearning this

The media’s fixation on looting has long served as a distraction tactic from the issues at hand, directing more anger and vitriol toward those suffering at the hands of violence or tragedy than the individuals and systems that cause them harm. This is especially true of Black folks in the United States

As Raven Rakia puts it, “In America, property is racial. It always has been.” We cannot separate the fact that construct of race was invented simultaneously with American beliefs about property ownership: within the context of slavery. The distinction between who was Black and who was white in early American history was made based on who could own property and who could be owned as the property of another. And the very idea of enslaved people revolting, asserting that they were not property that could be owned, was largely received as America’s first instances of looting

“Looting” within the post-Civil War context became a key fixation beginning with the Red Summer of 1919 where mob-led violence against Black people became increasingly normal until Black people fought back, including many multi-day violent incidents where dozens of Black people were killed, along with 15 white people. The media fixated on the Black individuals’ involvement, featuring photos of the murdered bodies of young Black men in newspapers and headlines about riots, leaving out key details about the violence starting with white supremacist groups. Headlines about “looting” have continued to shape public perception about the behavior of Black folks in crisis, including in 1943 when over 240 incidents of racist violence sparked uprisings in Black and Latino communities, wherein police and public officials exclusively sided with white nationalist groups spearheading the violent acts. 

Most notably, in 1967, Miami police Chief Walter Headley used the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” during hearings about crime, referring to young Black men as hoodlums and stating “we don’t mind being accused of police brutality” when referencing these young Black men. Donald Trump tweeted that same phrase following the first few nights of protests related to the killing of George Floyd earlier this summer. 

Mainstream media, because it is funded and staffed in an ecosystem supported by white supremacy culture, is itself a tool of white supremacy. Journalists have greater incentive to  repeat what the police deliver nearly verbatim, as a means of preserving the relationship between their news organization and local law enforcement. The relationship is semi-symbiotic: local journalists get leads from law enforcement, keeping readers engaged with sensational versions of events, no matter how often the story changes or becomes discredited with more information; law enforcement continues to be painted in a positive light. 

Even after myriad conversations about police brutality, the media still switches to passive voice when a Black person is shot by a white vigilante or a police officer (“shots were fired”, “officer-involved shooting”). By doing this, journalists obfuscate reports of the state over the clear voices and testimony of an entire community, often whose members have witnessed officers commit acts of violence. 

One day we’ll have a newsletter exclusively about rioting, looting, and property damage as its own form of protest (in full transparency, we’re still reading books about it and want to make sure we do an adequate job of our own processing before we share it with the whole group), but for now know this: white kids who burn couches after football games aren’t admonished for their property damage. The media’s focus on property damage associated with protestors, people who have lived through natural disasters, and Black individuals as a whole is a detour from constructive conversations about larger inequities. When you hear a news reporter talk about “looting,” mentally flag it as an incomplete narrative, and then delve more deeply under the surface of the social ill that fueled the looting, rioting, or property damage. 

PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR POSTS ARE

In light of Hurricane Laura and in anticipation of the upcoming hurricane season, we are encouraging our readers to donate to the American Black Cross. The American Black Cross was born out of frustration with response to Hurricane Harvey by a civil rights attorney from Dallas. The American Black Cross “means that “WE OPERATE IN THE BLACK” from a financial perspective with no administrative salaries being paid. We make sure that everything entrusted into our care reaches those in need.  We use every available resource to locate those impacted in under-served areas and or disaster zones.  We listen to the experts in helping us to identify those at risk.”

The American Black Cross provides for disaster relief, fire relief, funeral services for victims of disasters, food, clothing, and personal care, and interfaith spiritual and religious support. You can learn more about what they do here or buy items from their Amazon wishlist here

A NON-FINANCIAL WAY TO TAKE ACTION

As California burns and the state expects 2020 to be one of the worst years for forest fires on record, we want to remind our readers of their firefighting force; 3,700 inmates working at minimum security training facilities called “fire camps” throughout the state. Only 2,600 of those firefighters are “qualified” to fight on the fire lines, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; however, none of whom will be legally allowed to obtain firefighting jobs upon release from prison. These inmate crews receive the same training as the state’s seasonal firefighters and do much of the same work, but their pay is meager by comparison, with incarcerated firefighters earning between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they’re on a fire. The firefighters they work alongside (the ones who are not incarcerated) earn over $90,000 annually. 

This year, California Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, proposed AB-2147 to allow incarcerated firefighters to have an easier path at having their records expunged. We are asking all of our California readers to please call your elected officials to ask them to support AB-2147.

This year, in particular, California is facing particular difficulty quelling the fires because so many of those who would otherwise be fighting fires are sick with or quarantined due to COVID-19 inside the state or federal prison in which they are serving time. You can learn more about the impact of COVID-19 in prisons here or here. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it every week: the risk of COVID-19 to the prison and jail population is an anti-racist issue. The constant waves of arrests this summer related to Black Lives Matter protests only further solidify that. We are asking our non-Californians to call your local solicitor’s, District Attorney’s, or prosecutor’s (all the same thing) and ask for them to drop the charges against all protestors in your area. 

RESOURCES

Primary Resource

Supplemental Resources

  • Floodlines – we cannot recommend this podcast, hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II and produced by The Atlantic, enough. It is SUCH a good long-term listen about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the policy decisions that ravaged the lives of people left in the city after the dams broke, and the racist media fixation that skewed who got assistance for the months and years that followed. (

Other Resources We Loved

  • The Abolition Movement – Emily’s queen and role model, Josie Duffy-Rice (you might remember her name from when Emily was fangirling about her husband’s interview of Rep. John Lewis), penned this thoughtful explanation of police and prison abolition, its history, and the demand to make public safety safe for all of us. 
  • Really all of the articles in Ta-Nahisi Coates’ guest edited September issue of Vanity Fair: The Great Fire
  • Remembering Chadwick Boseman: Ibram X. Kendi on Legacy of “Black Panther” Actor, Cancer & Anti-Racism. – an interview with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi speaks about his own August 28th “second birthday” that marks a surgery during his own battle with stage 4 colon cancer, the systemic racism that leads to late diagnosis of Black patients, and the incredible influence of Chadwick Boseman on our culture through his roles in such influential films over the past 4 years, particularly Black Panther.

NATIONAL OVERDOSE AWARENESS DAY

We also wanted to plug some resources in light of National Overdose Awareness Day, which notes the impact of drug overdoses in our communities and highlights tangible alternatives for care that could prevent overdose-related deaths. Overdose prevention, harm reduction related to drugs, and drug policy are anti-racist issues so it feels appropriate to plug them here. Some organizations we love are the Drug Policy Alliance, that aims to end the war on drugs and instead provide solutions-oriented policies to power our communities, and the Harm Reduction Coalition, that works to prevent overdoses by providing resources to help people reverse the adverse effects of drug use such as overdose, HIV, hepatitis C, and fractured relationships.

Two of our favorite podcasts about drug use are Last Day (Season 1), which explores the impact of substance use disorders on individuals and families and In Recovery, which answers questions about addictions of all kinds. 

Okay friends, just one more plug for our Patreon and one more message of sincere gratitude for your support and courage as we continue this journey toward a more just, more anti-racist world. We’ll see you next week and until then, stay safe and healthy.

In solidarity,

Ellie and Emily

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