My roommate was watching “When They See Us” in our living room this weekend. Because we have an open floor plan, you can see the TV from pretty much everywhere. I was filled with rage and anxiety but I wasn’t even watching. I probably won’t ever watch it. And I feel bad about that. But I have a rule. I don’t watch “sad black things.”
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I’m not alone in this. My friend Hannah doesn’t watch many either. I went to her for a little validation because she’s one of the dopest black women I know.
As a psychologist, she probably has an even deeper understanding of why people might consider not watching these films, even for the culture. I wanted to pick her brain about her own experience but also the science behind it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
LaToya Tooles: First, have you seen “When They See Us”?
Dr. Hannah Jones: I have not seen it.
LT: OK. Why not?
HJ: I know it is going to be a stellar work of art and storytelling because it’s by Ava DuVernay. And she holds and tells our stories, black stories, really well. So I trust in the production. I trust the truth of it and I don’t feel ready to subject myself to the pain of absorbing it in such a real, visceral way.
LT: I feel really bad because there are so many black stories, what I call “sad black things” that I think are important and good. But I haven’t seen them. I always opt out because I’m afraid to hurt myself.
HJ: I can relate and it’s kind of a hard decision. One that only you can make for yourself.
LT: So how do you decide? What are the things that you weigh or consider when you’re deciding to watch or not?
HJ: It’s not always a conscious choice. Sometimes there’s just that moment of “no” and then scrolling past. And then sometimes there’s a more conscious decision, like with “When They See Us.” I believe that this is a necessary piece for many people to watch and I wonder if my credibility is going to be questioned if I don’t see this and enter the conversation about it immediately. And I know that I’m not in a place where I can take that in a meaningful way that’s constructive. And I also don’t know if I have to be. And I know people, particularly white people and nonblack people, who I think need to watch it first and be educated and understand the experience so that they can have more context for a lot of the conversations we’re having right now about justice and the treatment of black folks in America.
LT: I just feel like such a hypocrite because I’m like “White people, you need to see these stories. I’ma be over here watching cartoons.”
HJ: I mean I hear that, but I don’t think it’s hypocritical because I live those stories. I already have knowledge of these experiences in my DNA, in my own life experiences that I’ve walked in the day-to-day.
LT: Do you have any movies or things that you clicked on or watched and you’re like “Oh, my bad.”
HJ: The first thing that comes to my mind, just to put some weight on it real quick, is the shooting of Philando Castile. That week was a heavy week in the world with the shooting of black men. I saw the video of this black man and he was bleeding and clicked on it without thinking and was immediately immersed in that man’s experience.
I don’t think I’ve ever watched someone die on camera.
I wouldn’t say that I regret having watched it but I wish I hadn’t had to. One thing that I learned since then is that I don’t have to subject myself to the imagery and the recreation of black bodies dying to understand that it’s happening and to do something about it.
LT: I’ve started to recognize that my physical body is a good indication of how my mind is doing. I’m curious, are there physical body sensations that indicate we are experiencing grief or are taking in media we should pause on?
HJ: Absolutely. And it looks and feels different for different people. But for all of us, whenever we are faced with traumatic or stressful material, even if it’s not us experiencing it directly, we have a stress response. Fight, flight or freeze. You might say “I feel agitated, angry, hyperactive. I have a stomachache, headache or other body aches. I can’t sleep at night or all I want to do is sleep. It feels like my systems are shutting down. My heart is palpitating and my palms are sweaty.” Those are different physiological responses that communicate to us that our bodies are coping with trauma and we can experience them just as viscerally, if not even more so, when we’re observing someone — especially someone that we feel a connection to — being harmed.
LT: So what do you do when you’re experiencing that?
HJ: I guess specific things to do might include ways of helping your brain remember, “I am physically safe in this moment.” For me, that might look like calling a loved one or a friend and having them talk about something mundane. It might look like slowing down and focusing on my breathing. What it feels like for air to be going into my nostrils and out through my mouth and what it’s like for the air to fill my belly. Paying attention to the objects on my left and on my right and the feel of the ground under my feet, just to remind myself that I’m physically here in this space. I am not currently in danger.
Broader ways of coping with stress responses can include physical activity, which is really helpful for circulating oxygen and getting it to the brain as well as, just for reconnecting you to your body. Because something that can happen is that our brains and our bodies get separated and you start to feel disjointed, disoriented and confused.
Another thing that can be done is engaging in spiritual practices. And I suggest going to therapy that can be ongoing for help coping with being faced with images like this day after day.
LT: I was just thinking about this for myself because I turned on Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” and I danced in my living room until 11:00 when my other roommate came out and was like “Hey, could you keep it down?”
I mean, please do not interrupt me while I am Beyoncé-ing.
HJ: Yeah! I need this right now!
LT: Because I actually find that my body is probably the first indication for me that I’m not really connected to my emotions or my thoughts. But when my body feels jittery I know I need to do something.
HJ: And that’s really important information. I think that is just as important, if not more so than having a verbal cognitive understanding of what your emotions are. Our bodies have a lot to say and I think sometimes even more than our words. Sometimes when I’m in that space and I’m a little bit stuck I also turn on Beyonce’s version of “Before I Let Go” and I do the dance steps. So, you’re not alone.
LT: Good good good. I’ve become a member of the Beyhive and I don’t know what to do with myself because it’s a new thing.
HJ: Good luck!
LT: Thank you. I actually am enjoying it. I kind of wish I had joined the Beyhive earlier.
HJ: Let me know if there’s any kind of member discount.
LT: I will. I’ll give you a hookup. Always.