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What Trauma Porn Is, and Why It Hurts Black People

My grandmother was born in the early 1940’s in Selma, Alabama. She lived on a farm with her doting mother and father and with enough siblings for a small baseball team. She married at 16 and moved to New Jersey, giving birth to my aunt and mother, who would then give birth to me. I’ve grown up listening to stories about my grandmother and her adventures on the farm and the miraculous things she’s done throughout her life — things that as a Black woman she had no business doing. It wasn’t until I was older I started hearing the stories that weren’t as positive. 

I started learning about existing at the same time as Jim Crow, first hand. She told me about the times she would watch KKK parades come down the streets of Selma, and how they would lift their shirts and flash police badges. We heard what happened to members of her family — gruesome things that it is not my story to share.

The sad thing is if she didn’t tell me about what life was like — if she didn’t sit down and talk to me about the realities she and my grandfather faced — I would still be inundated with the trauma through the form of media and art.

Trauma porn is media that showcases a group’s pain and trauma in excessive amounts for the sake of entertainment. Trauma porn is created not for the sake of the marginalized group, but instead to console or entertain the non-marginalized group. It also has the tendency to cater to the non-marginalized person’s ego versus actually helping the marginalized person depict what life is really like for them. It can also serve little to no point to the overall plot (see: Adrian Mellon’s death in “IT II”) and be used as a device to jolt the audience.

Trauma porn at its core is exploitive and emotionally provocative for unethical reasons that lack compassion for anything other than the society ruled “default,” aka those who are white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, able-minded and neurotypical. 

Marginalized people are keenly aware of the issues they face. They are aware of the death rates, stereotypes and hardships that come with existing apart from the “default.” When trauma porn is created surrounding the “experience,” to put it lightly, of what it means to be marginalized, it is never made with the marginalized group in mind. Thus, the art can further trigger said marginalized group. 

This isn’t to say that any media made to bring awareness to issues is inherently trauma porn. In fact, we can still create art that isn’t happy or doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s all in how it is made and how it is dealt with.

As I am a Black Queer woman, I am going to look at this from a Black Queer perspective. Trauma porn can be seen within multiple marginalized groups, including that of people who are chronically ill or disabled. You are the judge of whether the art created is helpful, or ultimately trauma put on for show.

In 2018, Childish Gambino created a song and music video that went viral dubbed “This is America.” The song and video were well crafted as it had different nuances surrounding Black history throughout the video. However, it was exceedingly jarring to watch. With no warning, we see a Black person being killed at gun shot within the first minute and it is the first out of many jarring and triggering components of the video. 

This video was not made for Black people, and I stand by that opinion. We know about the KKK. We know about police brutality. None of this is new information thus, for Black people, it only further served to be a video that highlighted Black trauma after trauma. One can argue that the video was created to educate non-Black people on Black life, however the way it was done was further emphasizing Black pain with no end in sight. There were no call-to-actions on what can be done better. Yes, it launched a larger conversation, but at the cost of Black folk’s well-being.

Compare this to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer”, a digital emotion picture (as she calls it) that she launched around the same time in 2018. She brought up very similar political themesbut did it in a way that was cognizant of Black watchers while also getting the point across. 

Should Childish Gambino have put a trigger warning or handled the video distribution in a more mindful way, it may not have been as bad. However his art simply highlighted Black pain in a way that felt disgusting when I saw Non-Black people jamming to the song on the radio. It felt as if they were jamming to my pain. It felt as if they were partying to my trauma. 

Another example I want to bring up is “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett vs “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas.

“The Help” is a very well known movie that actually became one of Netflix’s top streamed movies post George Floyd’s shooting. “The Help,” while trying to address discrimination and racism, focuses on Black pain to highlight the main character’s growth. “The Help” isn’t about Black people. It is about Black pain relative to the white savior complex. We exist in both the book and the movie to be the poor sad Black person that the white person saves. It is a feel good movie for white people that they reference often. Meanwhile I couldn’t sit through it out of anguish for what was a reality for my people. There is nothing “feel good” about “The Help” for Black people. Our resilience and trauma is not for your entertainment.  

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas is a novel turned movie about police brutality and has dominated the NYT’s Bestseller’s list for years, never dropping too low in ranking. Black people are murdered in the book. Protests do happen, however she writes in a way that protects the Black reader while also enlightening non-Black readers to a horrible truth for Black folk in America. 

We need to be more conscious of trauma porn’s creation and consumption, because consistently seeing media where your intersection is being harmed just for people to “sad” or “care” react on Facebook is traumatic in and of itself. We are having to watch ourselves be murdered, raped and/or demonized all for a higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. 

For those of us who create art we need to create it in a way that, yes, shares our truth but is also cognizant of the people from said intersection that will be impacted by engaging with it. Whether that is at the least putting a trigger warning or changing an ending, we need to be better.

For those of us taking in and engaging in trauma porn, deeming it “necessary,” ask for whom and why. Is “This is America” necessary for Black people? Were we not aware of what America is like for us? Is “The Help” actually helpful for Black people, or does it just make you feel better about yourself in relation to race issues?

Finally, for those of us tired of seeing our trauma put on the silver screen, make sure you are engaging with art and media that affirms your life and livelihood. We are more than stories about pain and suffering. We deserve stories surrounding adventure, happiness and every intersection they have not allowed us to have.

You matter. Your life matters. I love you.

Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash