Column: White people don’t understand the trauma of viral police-killing videos

The calls and emails started coming in: “Dr. Williams, are you available for commentary? Have you seen the recent shooting?”

Another unarmed black man has been killed by law enforcement. Another life is snuffed out. One more human being who died before his time. This is not a nameless, faceless person. This is real person like my father, uncle or son. These people who perished were a part of someone’s family. They were loved by someone, they had hopes and dreams.

I don’t want to watch it. But I feel like I have to. I need to give reporters an informed and responsible commentary on events.

In Baton Rouge, cops straddle a guy pinned on the ground, put a gun to his back and pump bullets into him. His life ends. That one still haunts me. In Charlotte, a man lies bleeding as his wife screams for help. She asks if anyone has called an ambulance. The police wander around with indifference as his life drains away. This is hard to see.

People ask me if the problem is getting worse. No, this has been going on all along but now we’re capturing more of it on video. How is this affecting the black community? “How do you think,” I want to say. We are sad, angry, and traumatized. We’re living in terror. This racial trauma can cause symptoms like anxiety, depression, phobias, acting-out and feelings of hopelessness (e.g., Carter, 2007).

The trauma of exposure to these videos sits on top of layers of trauma that go all the way back to slavery. It is all one and the same. It starts with the kidnapping of my ancestors from Africa and “slave patrols” – bands of white men hired to police communities for slaves who tried to escape, and a forerunner to modern American law enforcement (Turner et al., 2006).

Our country’s history goes on to include the Civil War and subsequent 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery (except for those convicted of crimes,) followed by the systematic criminalization of black men. We then had Jim Crow laws, segregated communities, police brutality during the fight for civil rights – historical trauma. There is also the experience of ongoing discrimination at the individual level that leads to daily stress and contributes to early death from ailments like cardiovascular disease. On top of this we have community trauma that includes racial profiling and, now, police murders caught on tape and broadcast on social media — where often nothing happens to the killers. The trauma is real, and it is cumulative.

I close my eyes and sometimes have flashbacks of these killings. When I see a police car I feel terrified. They are supposed to protect and serve everyone, but because of my race I don’t really believe that includes me or people like me.

According to Dr. Jonathan Kanter, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, white people underestimate the severity and impact of these videos on people of color:

“We see the videos and we are authentically horrified and saddened by what we see. But many of us have the ultimate privilege of changing the channel, clicking on another Facebook post. We can make it go away if we choose and the horror of the scene is quickly forgotten. We can leave it behind and go about our day. And most white people don’t attune to just how different an experience it is for black people.”
— Dr. Jonathan Kanter, University of Washington

Kanter notes that white people are so coded not to associate themselves with being black that it is easy to distance from it. “That person getting shot doesn’t look like me, sound like me or act like me.” It can be like watching a horror movie. “It’s not about me.” Most white people in the United States have no black friends to even talk to about any of this so there is no easy way to get their perspective (Ingram, 2014).

If you are a white person, try this simple empathy experiment: Imagine every one of those police killings you’ve seen in the last several years, but change the images. Make the man getting shot look like you, your brother or your son. Make the girlfriend or wife look like your wife, your sister, your daughter. Imagine that these videos unpredictably show up in your Facebook stream, or assault you on the evening news, without warning, week after week. There seems to be no end to them, and there seems to be no way to predict when it will happen. Imagine that you can’t hide them from your son or daughter if you have one, because you’re scared to not tell them about it. Imagine that you feel you have to expose your child to the videos, because they may not be safe if they don’t know what the world is really like.

Now imagine driving down the street with a broken taillight and getting pulled over by a police officer.

The empathy experiment could go on, and it should, because the differences don’t stop there. Add in the layers upon layers of trauma that are a part of the black experience in America but not a part of the white experience. Try to imagine all of it, to really shift perspectives, and understand what it is like to live the experience of these videos as a black person in United States.

So should these videos be released? They have to be in order to show the public what’s going on and hold law enforcement accountable. I remind myself that there are good police officers, but these videos can help us see which ones aren’t doing their jobs. Despite the pain of viewing, many people of color want the videos to be shown for the same reason Emmett Till’s mother chose to have an open casket funeral – so the world could see what horrible torture had been done to her little boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

We need the world to see what is being done to our people to help bring it to an end. And it’s not just black people – these things are happening to Hispanic people, Native Americans and the mentally ill. The stigmatized and disenfranchised among us. I feel solidarity with all of them.

Try to shift from your experience of sadness and horror that you can switch off, to a chronic experience of terror, hopelessness and injustice that has no off switch. You can’t hide from it, or make it go away.

That is just a small portion of the trauma experienced being by black in America.

Monnica Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut where she also serves as director of the Laboratory for Culture and Mental Health Disparities. Her research includes mental health disparities for communities of color and race-based trauma.