When we watch videos of black men dying on loop it harms us
Police officer aiming gun at car (Shutterstock)

Lately, it seems that you cannot turn on a television or get onto Facebook without seeing a black man die. Most would argue that these viral videos of black police violence increase support for reform. They even recently forced the president to acknowledge the long history of police violence against black communities.

Yet, we can’t keep watching this type of death over and over again without eventually having some sort of mental or physical negative health outcome. At least not people of color. We might need these videos now, but not forever.

I reached out to Ohio State University professor Brad Bushman, who warned about desensitization caused by violent images in Science Daily in 2009. He told me: “It is detrimental to continuously show violent images”. It doesn’t matter whether they are shown on video games or YouTube clips – all have the same effect. “[Watching violence] makes people numb to the pain and suffering of others”.

When I asked him about the continual coverage of these incidents in media outlets, which had videos like Walter Scott’s on continual loop for days leading to the arrest of Officer Michael Slager, Bushman responded: “there is no need to repeatedly show such images”, adding: “Once people have seen them once, that is enough.”

So far there has allegedly been over 400 people killed by the police this year. And while we don’t have good statistical data on yearly rates, hopefully, with all this attention on police violence, we won’t see an increase. But we could potentially see an increase in something else.

“Chronic experiences of racial discrimination, and I’d include vicarious discrimination, can influence mental and physical health outcomes”, Amani Nuru-Jeter, associate professor of public health at University of California-Berkeley and researcher on racial health disparities, recently said in aninterview .

“I’m not saying [the affects] are the same as post-traumatic stress disorder, but we do see some similarities in how people cognitively respond”, she continued.

Racism has been proven to cause depression, the common cold, cardiovascular disease and even breast cancer in many studies due to what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger calls “ embodied inequality.” And to experience these negative outcomes, it’s not even necessary to be exposed to racism: just anticipating racism to occur caused negative health outcomes as well.

So in light of knowing this, it’s easy to assume that these videos could be are hurting us like the racism that is causing them is hurting the victims. But we don’t know to what extent, because the trend of using social media to document violence and hopefully cause positive change is still new.

However what I do know is that already these videos are starting to make me feel numb, like Bushman warned. And due to their frequency and rates in which they are played over-and-over I fear that just showing them will continue to increase the numbness allowing it to become so normalized that we no longer flinch when we see black men dead on TV. And that is terrifying as a black man.

In the 1960s, the Black Power movement famously coined the slogan “the revolution will not be televised” meaning that we will not learn how to change the world from the television, rather it’s a distraction. And with the advent of social media and now live-streaming I feel like they may be right. Rather it will be tweeted, live-streamed and put on YouTube.

As the movement to end police violence, and the violence itself, continues to maintain its hold on the media, we must consider stepping back from these violent images. Take a break or just view them once. Watching them over and over again doesn’t do anything for us but continue to hurt us and make us more and more numb.

We don’t need another tweet or even Facebook update about a black man dying to make us care. We shouldn’t need another video with millions of views for us to want to change a police system that we know needs reform. Because between American slavery and the death of Freddie Gray, I think we have all the evidence needed to do real work to end white supremacy.

At least I’d hope so.

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