There are many studies that assert that people like watching cooking shows because it’s nearly like they’re tasting the food in real life. The viewing experience draws on sensory inputs beyond just sights and sounds. Subconsciously, you can smell the zest of lemon hit the air when the Barefoot Contessa opens her oven door to baste a roasting chicken. And your brain can all but taste the tender meat when she takes that first, satisfying bite. This phenomena makes the show feel more personal and real; It enhances your memory of it. It’s evidence of what we experience in media consumption every day: the cathartic joy and pain that come from watching some representation of yourself on the other side of a screen. Even when watching a character like Walter White, you can latch on to enough of his humanity to become invested in his journey.
“The media” is not just all fictional accounts though. It’s also news stories and “ripped from the headlines” adaptations. While wanton violence against Black bodies is nothing new, reports of it are being released with ever-increasing regularity. You’d practically have to starve yourself of all social media, news and television if you wanted to avoid confrontation with these disturbing images and depressing stories.
The physiological manifestations that these stories affect can be as strong or stronger than that of a cooking show or your favorite drama— an experience that mimics in your body all the responses you’d have if the tale you were reading or watching were actually happening to you.
This is worth bearing in mind the next time a report pops up of an unarmed Black person being killed by a figure of some authority.
Consider: the experience of the Black news reader. Imagine that while we are reading these accounts and watching these videos, our hearts are pounding like it’s us sitting in the driver’s seat as the officer approaches. That our skin burns and chest aches as if it were our bodies pitching forward while bullets tear through them. That it is our minds cycling rapidly through depression, disgust, anger, and resignation as we lay dying while officers stand idly by, or rush close to plant evidence on us, or scream expletives at us, even as we are pleading for life. As if it is our heart being split in two while we grieve our child’s unjust death.
This pain is emotional, but not just emotional. It is metaphorical, but not only metaphorical. It is precise. It is palpable. It throws your guts into a vicegrip. It leaves you breathless and worn and exhausted.
So yes, as happy as I am that some light is being shed on the systematic violence against the Black body … as glad as I am to finally see news stories that reflect a reality that’s been in existence for centuries … as great as it is that some of my friends are a bit more informed of our community’s truth … as pleased as I am that my cries for justice are met now with slightly less disbelief…
… It is traumatic as F*&K to be a Black person who has awareness of what’s going on constantly foisted on them.
I mean that literally. We are dealing with prolonged exposure to violence against victims with whom we intensely empathize and identify. That is the perfect recipe for the vicarious experience of trauma. We are being gunned down every day, and we experience each assault as if it were our own. Again. And again. And again.
I’m not saying exposure doesn’t play a role in shifting cultural norms and beliefs. I’m not saying the truth-telling should stop.
But shit. It hurts.