The aftermath of tragedy and of trauma is always re-shaped and distorted when projected back to us through the lens of social media. News and updates that would usually arrive chronologically now have the capacity to overwhelm all at once thanks to the constant shares, likes, tweets, retweets, screenshots, WhatsApp messages and on and on and on. Information that when processed slowly can be given the chance to settle now hit like a tornado; relentless and continuing.
Time and time again, whenever something painful occurs, it is always black bodies that are spread across news outlets, netzines, Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds. The image of bodies upon bodies, of arms sprawled and knees bloody, of mothers collapsing into the arms of other mothers overridden with emotion – it is us who become the visual embodiment of the word ‘tragic‘.
Two major events in the past weeks have reaffirmed this to me. The mudslide in Sierra Leone which killed nearly 500 people and so far, has left 3,000 people displaced and 600 people missing, and the attack in Barcelona. I have no intention of using the pain and suffering of others as a talking/writing point nor am I interested in comparing the two events; each tragedy is worth mourning. But, there is an obvious race-tied discrepancy in the ways that these tragedies are relayed to us, in what is considered ‘just enough’ or ‘too much’ for the virtual; in what is considered ‘respectable’ to the memories of the victims and in what is considered public domain. At which stage do we begin to police the things we share online?
When was the last time you saw an image of a dead white person flat on the pavement?
Or lying in a grave as soil was piled over them?
Or stacked on the back of a boat lying in blood?
White bodies are humanised in the media, they are the given the dignity which should be afforded to all departed souls and they are hardly ever used as tragedy porn. We are drawn to the names and stories of the victims; we begin to know their lives, their hobbies, what they planned to do next week, whether they had any pets… This has the effect of humanising them in our eyes as we begin to envision a connection with them; thereby feelings of anger/sympathy/sadness about their death ensue. We think of the fact that they too perhaps lived a life as mundane as our own and yet here they are. That like us, they too had a future which has now been taken away and the fact that it could have just as easily been us. We are shown pictures of them smiling with their families, or their friends and our last image of them is always one that is relatable rather than shock-inducing.
In contrast to this, following the death of black people, whether singularly or in masses, detail is always drawn to the gory details of their demise coupled with pictures of their last moments.
“Heart-warming’ as state gives R8m to Sierra Leone after mudslides” IOL News writes followed by a large image of young Sierra Leonean men burying their friends.
“Sierra Leone Buries Over 300 Mudslide Victims in Mass Graves” reports The New York Times accompanied by pictures of people lined up in a morgue.
“More than 300 dead, 600 missing in Sierra Leone mudslides” writes ABC News with a picture of a dead body being carried away on a stretcher.
We’ve seen it time and time again. When Mike Brown was brutally murdered, images of his last moments were shared online so much that his mother had to speak out and demand that people respect her son’s lost life and stop sharing them.
As black people, we are continually reminded of the worthlessness of our bodies. Even after death we are commodified for clicks, for views, for retweets, for follows and ultimately for capital. If your fellow black person is not worth anything dead, then you are not worth anything alive. If they are not respected even in their most vulnerable moments then you are not respected now in your (sometimes) strong moments. The cycle is ongoing and it is exhausting.
Online spaces might be different from IRL but they are just as, if not more, capable of evoking real emotions. The space between online and offline is increasingly becoming non-existent and what we pick up from the internet most times serves as the backdrop to our real mundane day to day doings.
Black people should not be stock images for what tragedy looks like.
Foreign journalists should not be in Sierra Leone poking cameras into what will turn out to be a horrible defining moment for thousands upon thousands of people. I have often read articles or spoken to individuals who have expressed that they no longer have a reaction to such portrayals or that they are ‘just used to it’. No person should become accustomed to the image of their own destruction; as in the portrayal of your suffering is daily news.
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