A common part of the black experience is the epiphany that our skin color is not incidental. One way or another we learn that blackness in a white society is a risk; a certain vulnerability that might hurt us. The suffering of other black folks can only be witnessed passively for so long. Eventually, the numbness adopted for protection gives way to something else, transforming into an outward projection. Some might rupture in justified anger, while others seek answers and try to fight. But for a few, myself included, once the anesthetic wears off helplessness seeps in, the plight of being black in this country is fully realized.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage,” Ta Nehisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me. This type of destruction has manifested itself differently throughout history: Gashes on a slave’s back. Men and women hanging in trees. Bloodhounds and firehoses targeting black protesters.
Those directly spared from such trauma still did not go unscathed. Racialized violence is never experienced in isolation. Instead, it imprints itself on the communal psyche and can be felt as a twitch upon the thread that connects us all.
The phenomenon of shared pain in the black community has started to be researched in earnest. In an interview with National Public Radio, psychologist Dr. Monnica Williams pointed out that even witnesses to racism are affected, saying “Maybe that specific thing has never happened to us. But maybe we’ve had uncles or aunts who have experienced things like this, or we know people in our community [who have], and their stories have been passed down.”
I’ve felt this type of telepathic suffering too, as if it were a phantom pain from a limb I didn’t even know was missing. From when I learned my grandfather was denied service and called a nigger to his face, to seeing a white woman uneasily holding her purse when my mother entered a room, I knew racism went further than its intended target. I was keenly aware of the fact that they were being punished for their blackness, a common trait among us. Within their degradation I saw my own, and even caught glimpses of what my future had in store: humiliation, quiet resentment, and above all defenselessness.
This trend of hurt is likely to continue if not proliferate due to technology. From Trayvon Martin’s stiff corpse stretched out on the grass, to Philando Castile bleeding out on camera; we’re being bombarded with images of brutality caused by racism. While these recordings are bound to disturb anyone, I suspect it’s especially painful for young black people like myself. After all, with the common burden of racism comes a kind of kinship, and when one of us suffers we all do.
There’s no reason to propagate this type of abasement. The psychological stress just isn’t worth it. Time after time I hear stories of my peers crying out over the deaths of our counterparts, yet feeling completely helpless to do anything about it. We get it: as soon as we were born targets were painted on our back. Seeing our contemporaries get viciously attacked by authority figures does nothing but add to our anxieties.
What’s even more disturbing is the apparent entertainment value our suffering has to the public. As LeRon Barton mentioned in a piece about the dissemination of black pain, videos of racial violence today resemble the lynching postcards of history. While the brutalization of African-Americans serves as a painful reminder to some, it’s little more than a cheap thrill to others. We’re already portrayed as lesser beings in most mainstream media, what’s the point of throwing in our corpses for show?
Of course, it’s important that the reality of racial injustice is known to all. There’s an argument that documenting the violence against black Americans is much-needed evidence, proof that would make all those skeptical of this brutality open their eyes. Yet there are other ways to convey the urgency of racism in this country other than showing our people dying. It’s a real testament to how the humanity of black people is so tenuous that it takes only death to make the public realize we deserve sympathy.
Even though I haven’t yet left my adolescence I’m jaded by racism. The old scabs have been picked at and yet they keep growing back. Still, there’s hope for other black youth who need to be spared this continuous pain. No, I don’t see our suffering coming to an end anytime soon. America has indeed changed since it’s birth, but its evolution feels superficial in the face of recurring abuse. Change may or may not come again, but either way, we must be kinder to ourselves.