Deshayla M. Mitchem
B.A. Xavier University,
M.Ed. Candidate University of Louisville
This reflective development explores the topic of the “trauma porn” concept specifically relating to its usage as an educational tool with little to no regard of how these tools effect the Black students who must endure the constant reminder (auditorily and / or visually) of the trauma and pain endured by them and their families. Using a personal story and some background of showcasing pain, this article will explain how examples of such instances have lasting and lingering effects on Black students. The goal here is to acknowledge the common disregard that the education system has of the mental health of Black students and how the educational system prioritizes the needs of non-Black students at the expense of Black learners. Is the possibility of invoking empathy with non-Black learners worth the additional trauma Black learners must endure in the process?
Keywords: Student Affairs, Black students, Racial Trauma, BIPOC students, Diversity and Equity, Perspective, Personal Reflection, Trauma porn, Empathy vs Sympathy
There is an overlooked form of trauma that is forced on Black students. This trauma takes place when non-Black learners are educated on the history of Black people in America. Although this article will focus entirely on the experience of Black students (Operational Definition of “Black”: Currently in society “Black” is considered the race of those who have ancestry native to African countries, this term will be used to identify a more specific sect of people within this currently defined race. I will be using the term “Black” to describe the ethnicity of those who are direct decedents and/or have predominate ancestry of peoples who were enslaved during the American chattel slave trade.) this is an issue that has not solely affected them. Many BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color) students are expected to listen to, watch, and even engage in discussion of the trauma their communities have suffered due to white supremacy. This is done in service to and with a focus solely on the learning of white students and to provide proof of historical trauma. As a result, the goal is to invoke empathy for the experiences of BIPOC from their white peers in the name of education.
This is an issue because these instances – discussions, readings, showing videos – are moments that members of BIPOC communities never forget. Meanwhile their non-BIPOC counterparts simply view these atrocities as today’s lesson and the white students walk away often able to simply move on to the next class, meeting, or meal without further consideration of the incidents shared in class. This problem sticks out most to me due to the lack of trigger/trauma warning students receive and the lack of options students of color are given to avoid being further traumatized and victimized.
This is not an abstraction, but in fact is highly personal for me. Especially while attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) I felt vulnerable and triggered to see the images, hear the stories, and be exposed to the information. That was not all, however, to see my peers in class to be people visibly disinterested and/or only attending a movie or lecture for extra credit increased the harm that was done. Coming to an event to see the brutality and violence perpetuated against people simply because they looked like me and to them the event is simply a “thing they attended once” was further dehumanizing and painful. For me and other Black students the movie or lecture could have been years ago, but we have never forgotten it.
The history of the exploitation of Black trauma, pain, and suffering is as old as this nations’ formal declaration of independence. The history of showcasing/broadcasting racial trauma in order to educate the racially privileged in America began hundreds of years ago. Some of the earliest appearances of exploitation of Black suffering to educate white people began during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many enslaved peoples were accompanied by non-enslaved abolitionists. These white onlookers would describe or show examples of the horrors of American chattel slavery to induce sympathy and remorse from those who continued to own or benefit from the ownership of enslaved African diasporic persons. Olaudah Equiano (a formerly enslaved Nigerian) wrote in his auto-biography, “I have seen a slave beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over. I have seen slaves put into scales and weighed, and then sold from three pence to nine pence a pound.” (Equiano, 1789).
The use of Black suffering as “educational tools” continued and became more popularized during the Civil Rights Era. Images and videos of large groups of Black people being hanged, harassed, hosed, mauled, beaten, spit on, slurs being chanted at them, etc. One of the most famous examples of these are the publishing the images of Emmet Tills’ body at his funeral (Jackson, 1955). These were once again used to demonstrate the severity of just how dangerous it was to simply be Black in America.
Now today, social media videos of public murders of Black people become viral. As Black people are being killed, today’s onlookers record their deaths on phone and then make the videos accessible for everyone to see. The videos serve to remind those of us who live despite the legacy of lynchings and violence that we continue to be targeted, vulnerable, and less than. And still today for the white viewers, the images remind those who have the option of forgetting or the ignorant bliss of never knowing the terror of these experiences in the first place.
With the increasing numbers of images, videos, and speeches on the topic of Black pain so easily accessible now, this issue is as important as ever. The hope seems to be that the tangible proof of trauma provided by these images make undeniable arguments for and proof of the existence of pain and harassment against Black people. The idea seems to be that the images provide physical proof to invoke empathy from outside communities to spark solidarity to fight toward gaining equity for the Black community.
However, is that really the outcome in a culture with such a persistent history of displaying images showcasing the terrors that Black people endure? Without intentional discussion and detailed analysis of our history, does simply exhibiting images increase empathy or could it just be creating and condoning passive sympathy? Worse yet, could this bombardment of images and videos and other evidence of violence be desensitizing white viewers all together? Over utilizing of such educational tools can easily become exploitive turning into trauma porn. Ross (2016) defined one form of trauma porn as being “hyper-consumption of Black death and pain” (para. 1). For some educators this results in using the trauma of Black people to engage and spark interest on the part of white students. However, not only can this approach fail to educate white viewers, but it can also cause further harm to Black individuals and groups who hold the same identities as those showcased in these violent images.
Existing scholarship highlights the role of “trauma porn” in educational settings. Some scholars call into question its utility, and nearly all offer warning about the possible damage that can ensue by using this as an educational strategy. As Kovacevic (2020) wrote,
Not only is trauma porn ineffective in encouraging people to act, it is also immensely dehumanizing. Often, many of these videos depict marginalized communities’ pain and suffering, stripping them of their dignity, as sharing a window into the injustice they face becomes a token of performative allyship. Meanwhile, this content is a harrowing, triggering reminder to these communities of trauma and psychological damage… Sharing videos of Black deaths on social media won’t save Black lives. Instead, it normalizes police brutality and leaves the system responsible intact. We should not have to witness people in their most vulnerable and frightened states to believe their pain is real and exists (para. 4).
Instructors and program coordinators must be careful to utilize triggering and traumatic information as educational tools. These “tools” can easily be over saturating to the audience that relates to the issues. Trauma porn is nearly unavoidable in today’s media, but excessively using such information for education may be insensitive and unconstructive.
As a current student affairs graduate student, I like many of my colleagues, utilized undergraduate campus programming to the fullest. After being encouraged to attend a diversity event from a university staff member, a friend and I jumped at the chance to go. We even left a recurring event early in order to attend the recommended presentation. After arriving we quickly realized that we were not prepared for the topic of discussion.
The event was a presentation about a project called “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice” provided by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an initiative that is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States. This presentation was held at my university during a promotional tour for the museum about the memorial which opened publicly in Montgomery, Alabama 2018.
The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 Corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. It is EJI’s hope that the National Memorial inspires communities across the nation to enter an era of truth-telling about racial injustice and their own local histories, (The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, n.d.).
During the presentation the host showed interviews, images, and spoke graphically about the US’s history with lynching (lynching: Murder by mob, especially in the form of hanging for an alleged offense with or without legal trial.).
As unsuspecting Black women, we left the event triggered, retraumatized, and speechless – not even having the ability to talk about what we had just been put through. Seeing images of people who favor individuals in your family hang gruesomely from trees soaked in blood or on fire affects you much longer than the ninety-minute presentation. The presentation was three years ago, and it haunts me to this day – enough so that I am compelled to write about it now.
This memorial is important in acknowledging the innocent Black people who lost their lives to brutality and violence inspired by hatred and racial injustice. The work symbolizes and brings awareness to the extrajudicial murders that have historically targeted the Black community. Especially now after the raised awareness related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the protest and ongoing violence against Black people in the summer of 2020.
However, in the days following this event my friend and I had several discussions. We talked about how we felt about the event. We talked about our personal experiences in the aftermath of the event. Discussing how unsuspecting we were for the event to be such heavy topic, mentioning the disinterest we noticed from the body language on some of our non-Black peers, and how casually life seemed to remain for others though we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Little did we realize that we were not alone. How we felt not only happened to the two of us simultaneously, but other students had similar experiences. This lecture was one of many situations in other educational settings where BIPOC were put through trauma in order to privilege the learning of the white students in our classes on our campus.
As I discussed above, Black students carry these experiences throughout their lives. The trauma and torture of our ancestors affects us on a much deeper level than those with different identities and lived experiences within the United States. As a people, the Black community are already experts on Black pain for a number of reasons. Whether those reasons are to best circumvent enduring more trauma, sharing familial stories via oral tradition, listening to historically Black music from the past (i.e., The Blues: Strange Fruit- Billie Holiday), and now social media. However, well-versed in the knowledge of Black pain we may be, our suffering is also used over and over again to the point of over-saturation to educate our white peers.
While all of this information is powerful, it is useless without making changes based on what I have discussed here. I have outlined below implications for students, student affairs professionals, and faculty. My hope is not to solely surface information here, but to provide some starting strategies for making learning environments safer for Black and other students of color.
For undergraduate students who are experiencing re-traumatizing events, the focus should be on safety. It is important that they have human resources to turn to for help when their mental health is at risk. This is particularly essential for Black and other students of color whose mental health should not be sacrificed by resurfacing past cultural and community trauma for the benefit of others’ education. Taking advantage of campus resources related to healing practices to healthy coping is important amidst constant triggers on college campuses. Additionally, learning the educational jargon to describe how these incidents make students feel can help them access what they need.
For graduate students studying student affairs it is essential that they educate themselves on how to acknowledge issues without causing triggers. Ensure that programs provide listening, helping, and counseling skills to aide in the prevention of harm as well as strategies to address it. Graduate students – particularly white graduate students must speak to Black and other IPOC students about these issues of traumatization on campus. Asking BIPOC what they need or how to help them should be a foundational aspect of both the learning and work in graduate programs.
Student affairs professionals should be more aware of the lasting effects imagery of violence against Black and other people of color can have on students. Acknowledging re-traumatization and how this is a part of the Black student experience on campus is a first step. As a result, providing clear and honest announcements thorough trigger warnings must be included in programs where students are at risk. Additionally, providing detailed resources for mental health following the discussions is a part of ethical practice around programming on topics like the history of slavery, white supremacy, and racism in our country. Offering time after the discussions for decompression venting after events is also a way to cultivate support for students.
Recommending/promoting more self-education and resources to non-Black students on these topics is also important. As has been mentioned, many BIPOC students have pre-existing expertise. White students need to do more work to begin to understand the legacy of white supremacy.
Faculty who teach courses that touch on or are explicitly about Black people and culture should be more cautious about how and how much of this information they present. I recommend that faculty provide alternative class participation for Black students on the days when potentially re-traumatizing content is being covered. While that information may be considered necessary for white students to understand context and history for a given lesson, it is likely that many Black students have already learned about these issues from their family and lived experiences. Faculty should also provide mental health professionals for support in class during these lessons or at the very least a list of campus resources to the students in their classes. Creating discussion-based opportunities where the effected students in their classes have the ability to speak candidly about the experience without penalization.
Utilizing graphic images capturing violence against Black people as an educational tool can be cruel and is considered trauma porn (the perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune ). The over saturation of images and videos that showcase Black murders, lynches, brutality, etc. has the ability to leave lasting psychological racial wounding for the Black students who are expected to endure and participate. This may also backfire as an empathy invoking strategy by desensitizing non-Black people of witnessing Black people in such distress and turmoil. There may be advantages to using these kinds of materials to prevent the whitewashing and diminishing of history, however; there are many layers of harm that over utilizing such violent imagery can have on the community members, being cognizant of such usage is vital in an equitable educational environment.
It is important to acknowledge and understand that the constant visual and or auditory aides of trauma can cause lasting psychological effects on Black students. The continuous reminder of the horrors that the Black community has experienced remain with Black students after the lecture/event and may not remain in the minds of those it was used to emotionally evoke. Do these tools truly spark an empathetic connection between non-Black and Black learners or do the create more sympathy? More consideration of those who are more often than not effected is necessary regardless of the possible positive outcomes it may have on non-Black students.
- What are some ways you can help circumvent or address the traumatization of Black students in education?
- How often would you say this happens? How many times have you noticed?
- Is the desensitization that some Black people have to the violent viral deaths that have happened in the recent years is due to the exploitation of Black pain in media over time? How can you surface that in your conversations with students?
- How would you reformat a lesson discussing this racially traumatic information that would include the entire class without retraumatizing Black students while still providing a powerful and potentially transformative learning experience?
- How have other communities been exploited by having their communal / cultural trauma utilized for the purpose of educating white students?
Deshayla Mitchem is a Cincinnati, Ohio native and is currently attending the University of Louisville’s College Student Personnel M.Ed. program. Deshayla chooses to focus her studies and career on the betterment of the minority higher ed. student experience, with a concentration on Black students. She utilizes her passion for social justice and intentionality to help frame how she shows up in her work as a student-affairs professional.
Equiano, O. (1789). The life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa the African, 1789..
Jackson, D. (August, 1955). Death of Emmett Till [photograph]. The Chicago Defender.
Kovacevic, S. (2020, November 18). The unhealthy obsession with trauma porn. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://missionmag.org/trauma-porn-unhealthy-obsession
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial
Ross, I. (2016, July). Trauma Porn: Hyper-Consumption of Black Death and Pain. In The Odyssey (Vol. 12).