Images of cruelty to blacks spur racist trauma

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Since Wanda Johnson’s son was shot by a police officer in Oakland, California, eleven years ago, she has seen video after video of similar encounters between black people and the police.

Each time she revives the trauma of the loss of her son, Oscar Grant, who has been shot by a transit police. Most recently, Johnson was unable to escape the George Floyd video pinned to the floor below the knee of a Minneapolis officer, pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

“I started to tremble. I was awake for two days and just cried, “she said. “Watching that video alone opened such a wound in me that isn’t completely closed.”

Johnson’s loss was extreme, but for many black Americans, her grief and pain feel familiar. Psychologists call it racial trauma – the suffering experienced by the accumulation of racial discrimination, racist violence or institutional racism. While it can affect anyone who is repeatedly confronted with prejudice, it is currently drawing particular attention to black people.

The unfortunate irony is that it is precisely this instrument that can help to make more people aware of the racism and violence with which black and other colored people also help feed their trauma. In the weeks following Floyd’s death, the distribution of the video it captured was a major catalyst for protests that demanded a reckoning with racism – attended by people of all races, many of whom had never participated in such activism before. And within a few weeks, the national conversation has drastically changed: the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ has become widespread, Southern American monuments have also fallen down in corporate America, and calls for criminal justice reform have brought in new laws.

“It is really frustrating that many people in this country have to make sure they really start caring,” says Alasia Destine-DeFreece, 20. “It is necessary to show something that is actively damaging those who are black and then spreads on social media. ‘

Destine-DeFreece, remembering that he was often the only black in many situations growing up on Rhode Island, notes that such images have been used with great effect before. She heard about Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who was kidnapped, beaten and murdered in 1955 after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Her class saw photos of Till’s brutally beaten face – some images that had spurred the civil rights movement.

“Seeing that kind of footage that is now spreading faster and further has taken its toll. You see someone who looks like you’re dying, “she said.

Symptoms of racial trauma can include anxiety and depression and are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. The trigger can be a screaming insult on the street or ill-treatment due to someone’s race or creed. The abundance of social media from graphics of harm to people of color means they are often inescapable.

“If you’re in a situation where the danger always seems to be there, whether you see a Central Park birdwatcher harassing, or someone falling asleep in their car in a parking lot … there’s that constant physical presence of danger and the psychological awareness that danger lurks, “said Dr. Altha Stewart, former president of the American Psychiatric Association and currently senior dean at the University of Tennessee Science Health Center.

That “constantly bathing our organs” in stress hormones can lead to a state of “near dysfunction,” she said.

The video about Floyd’s murder is one in a litany. Previously, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting was also captured on camera, and no one was charged until public pressure intensified after the video circulated. Since then, many have watched an officer fatally shoot 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks after a struggle.

“It feels like it’s just an endless string of hashtags of dying black people,” said Christine Ohenzuwa, 19, who recently protested outside of the Minnesota State Capitol. “I am looking forward to me and many other black people, it is reaching a point where it is just very traumatic to constantly see black people being killed.”

When video of Floyd’s graphic death started circulating online last month, Joi Lewis declined to watch it.

“I know what it looks like. I’ve seen Black Death, ”said the life coach and self-care expert. Lewis, who is black, had seen Philando Castile’s death in real time four years ago, after the 32-year-old black man was shot by a Minneapolis police officer and a video of the immediate aftermath streamed on Facebook.

But to inspire those who have been forced into action in new ways in recent weeks, Lewis admitted, “The video had to be played.”

Anyone could be upset by seeing such graphics – and there are many – but Resmaa Menakem, a racial trauma specialist from Minneapolis, says the pain is intensified for many black people.

“When something like this happens, it’s not just the grief to see that brother destroyed, it’s also the 400 years of grief that have never been addressed,” said Menakem.

Aaron Requena regularly takes breaks from Twitter to avoid such images. The 25-year-old photographer in Los Angeles says he’s struggling to balance what happens by not torturing himself at the same time.

“It’s close to home for me because I’ve been in contact with the police where I was just busy with my business and had to ask myself, ‘Is this going to end for me the way many of these situations end?'”, Asked he. Requena, who is black. “It’s getting close to home because you know you could be next.”


Nasir is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Nasir on Twitter at

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