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TRAUMA PORN
AND THE COMMERCIALISATION OF BLACK PAIN

Tina Charisma explores whether ‘Black Trauma Porn' is more detrimental than helpful.

It has been over a year since the death of George Floyd. His death sparked global activism as a video footage of him gasping for his last breath was circulated across international media and online reaching millions in the process. According to Pews Research Centre the Black Lives Matter hashtag which is often used in association with Black deaths in police custody was shared 47.8 million times on Twitter. 

The portrayal of racism, racial bias, and black people’s ongoing suffering in the media have been coined ‘Black Trauma Porn’. The footages of the abusive events create notoriety, and a buzz for social media attention. The commercialisation of these scenes usually for profit comes at the expense of the constant burden it causes to Black viewers who must relive these experiences repeatedly. 

This process of commodification has been criticised for resulting in desensitisation: the narratives intend to be “anti-racist”, sharing stories with the intent of educating people about injustice caused to black people. For a long time, the issues have been silenced; over time as activism sought to reconcile due justice to issues relevant to the Black community this has bred countless films and stories amplifying the terrible experiences of Black people.

Because of its psychological impact, the reduction of trauma porn has also been called for: a replay of discrimination and racism on screens like other forms of trauma trigger mental stressors. However, many people continue to see nothing wrong with it; several have accepted the commercialising of Black pain. Some have even added how it benefits politicians such as Biden whose win was arguably due to voters feeling fearful and needing to draw a form of partisanship in solidarity with the on ongoing brutality against Black lives in America.

The benefits of Slacktivism, activism through the use of social media is often reduced to having minimal effect and being a mere act of performativity. When connected to trauma porn many question its meaningful lasting impact. Black pain and oppression go beyond the content produced on it triggering many viewers.

“The commercialisation of these scenes usually for profit comes at the expense of the constant burden it causes to Black viewers who must relive these experiences repeatedly."

The overall ridicule of Black trauma porn is thus challenged because Black people must continually open their wounds to show how they have been brutalised to get people to understand and empathise. This sometimes creates mental and emotional injuries. The price of watching some of these all in the hopes that it will convince the world to pay attention is often not justifiable to the mental health of several black people. Black trauma porn highlights that the heritage of trauma can come at the expense of the normalisation of seeing Black people suffer. It poses the important question of whether this does more harm than benefit.

There are different genres within these categories. The primary ones are slave movies such as 12 Years of Slave, Antebellum and more recently Underground Railroad which illustrates the abhorrent lives of the enslaved people under their masters trying to find freedom. Then there are segregation films with Black people moving into a certain area such as Them a ten-part series on Prime Video centring the Emory family moving into Compton, California a white neighbourhood during the great migration. Their transition to this white-dominated state results in a terror of racial aggression towards them against the townspeople and racist supernatural entities. Reinforcing the overused narrative essentially that racism exists.

Other films within this genre also draw on ideas of  police brutality with black people being wrongfully charged popular examples include When They See Us, Queen & Slim and Two Distant Strangers which depicts a black man stuck in a time-loop where he is repeatedly killed by a police officer.

Black films have been characterised and normalised to include black trauma mostly because of how inseparable their experience and the stories that they tell are. Based on stereotypes this may be true that frequent storytelling of Black suffering normalises the experiences of Black people creating a hyper consumption of black death.

While these videos do serve a purpose in educating and highlighting patterns of racism and racial abuse it has overall created repetitions that people are no longer interested in seeing.

Black history is bursting with atrocities that are only now being addressed more widely which answers why there are so many of such films with such storylines. While there is a gap in stories of Black joy, excellence, and beauty. Whether or not there needs to be a reduction in Black storytelling or not there are ample other areas that story tellers need to bring alive to cover different aspects of the Black experience beyond pain.

Words by Tina Charisma

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