When I see a full name in hashtag form, my heart stops for a moment. The more I see it, the more wary I get. Context clues fill me in and I start to put the pieces together during my morning scroll. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Eric and later, Erica Garner. Trayvon Martin. The last one gets especially sticky since, for the last five years, there are always tweets and Instagram posts to commemorate what would have been his birthday. This year, he would have been 23 years old. “Who cares,” a reply tweet to a warm post celebrating him declared. “That’s why you shouldn’t attack people.” The responses continued in that vein and worse; against my better judgement, I read a few before retweeting the original post and closing the app for the rest of the day. Ignoring trolls is easy. Parsing through the relevant but triggering stories you can’t—and don’t want to—ignore? Not so much.
Tweets, videos, hot takes and lengthy personal essays chronicling problems we’ve long-known existed pack our screens, and every post, tag and share puts us face-to-face with it in ways that have real life ramifications. In general, discrimination can, and does, have clear and quantifiable effects on the physical and mental health of those it affects most, according to multiple landmark studies. But it’s in the digital retellings of these experiences that we find continued damage. That’s why unplugging from it all has become a means of survival.
On nearly every platform, there is a reference, update or response to some awful reality. Whether it’s a new study confirming our own lived experiences, a video depicting police brutality or another problematic statement from America’s current President—his most recent comment a dehumanizing dig at Black immigrants and the countries they come from—it’s a seemingly never-ending stream of both content and context.
The internet is full of stories about violence and racism against Black people
It lies in realities of gendered violence that manifest in more harmful ways for Black women, with reported incidents sitting at a rate 35-percent higher than white women. The conversations around wage disparity are, for us, complicated by the fact that we are affected by the widening pay gaps between men and women and the ones between races. (Black women make 63 cents to every man’s dollar, compared to 79 cents for women in general.)
As conversations about sexual abuse remain at the forefront in a way that is finally seeing at least some real consequences, we are also reminded that it even looks a specific way for us in terms of who the public cares about and scrutinizes most. Of the claims leveraged against disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, the one from Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o was one of the very few he chose to adamantly refute, and Lena Dunham jumped to the defence of Girls writer Murray Miller when a Black woman, actress Aurora Perrineau, leveraged claims of sexual assault against him.
In discussions about health and wellness, the notion of healthcare discrimination looms; something shared most recently by superstar athlete Serena Williams, whose post-childbirth complications could have been easily avoided had she not been dismissed by her healthcare providers—just as many Black patients are routinely dismissed thanks to long-held misconceptions about our ability to endure pain.
And honestly, even good news stories can cause pain
While there exists plenty of light between these cracks, they’re still not without their own nuance. It’s of course remarkable that Ava DuVernay is the first Black woman to direct a $100 million film, but you also have to think about why, in 2018, we’re still in an age of firsts. This year’s Emmy Awards saw Lena Waithe become the first Black women to win for best comedy writing, and Viola Davis was the first to win for best lead actress at the Emmys in 2015—and while these achievements are more than worthy of celebration, it also reminds us of the systemic flaws in Hollywood, and most industries, that have prevented this from being a normal occurrence before.
What happens when your job is writing about your community’s trauma?
These stories matter, as do the the conversations, posts, videos and educational threads that come out of them. Black women are among social media’s most active and influential user groups, so depending on the makeup of your timeline, you’ll see several important but different angles about any one of these issues. They’re conversations that have been going on long before the advent of the internet, but new spaces mean they can take on a new and sometimes inescapable life. Often, that weight can be daunting.
But it’s even harder when unpacking these stories is your job. As a writer in a shifting media world, I’ve seen slight progress in making sure that underrepresented communities tell their own stories. But what stories are they? I’m often called on to write reactionary stories—to racism, to sexism, to add observations of both to a piece of pop culture that even the most well-meaning white writers would probably miss.
For many of us, it can start to feel as though trauma is our only valuable export, even with all of the freedom that online spaces give us. So while these are important things that I’m never going to stop talking about, I’ve found it imperative to step back and disconnect in ways that other people don’t have to. They can, but the stakes are always different.
Changing the narrative
In late 2017, I was given the opportunity to work alongside national columnist Vicky Mochama as co-editor of the fall issue of The Ethnic Aisle, a digital magazine about race in Canada. Vicky brought up the opportunity among a digital space we created for ourselves as Black female writers across Canada, herself having worked with the magazine in the past. When she mentioned wanting to exclusively commission the work of Black women, I jumped at the chance. We purposely chose a theme that our work is least likely to cover: joy. The work that blossomed from our call for pitches was transformative, and something fellow writers happily and enthusiastically responded to with memories, anecdotes and ideas about brighter futures. From the sense of community forged in Sharine Taylor’s experience at busy, character-filled salons to Huda Hassan’s take on the importance of Black internet humour in trying times, it felt new, refreshing and liberating to write and edit pieces that didn’t centre Black pain.
This was our way of pushing back against the types of stories Black women are relegated to covering. We’re often tapped to make works that are meant as conversation-starters at best, and reductive at worst. It isn’t enough to champion for diversity in media if you marginalize the work of Black women in a brand-new way: by asking for it only in response to the injustice du jour.
But re-shaping digital spaces isn’t always possible. So more than anything, it’s important for Black women to take time away from these spaces when they need it the most.
Because self-care is about more than sheet masks and lighting candles; it’s also about removing yourself from conversations that are hurting you—even the ones you feel most obligated to be a part of. Part of having privilege means being able to disconnect from “the bad,” checking in and out at will depending on how much one can take. That’s something people who aren’t in marginalized groups can more easily do. But Black women should strive to give themselves permission to do this, too.
So, skip the comments section, turn off video autoplay and step back from conversations when it feels like too much.
Our lives depend on it.