The Ethics of Displaying Black Trauma

Let’s unpack the impact of our favorite media.

Remember Nick Cannon’s recent hot take on slavery? No, not that one.

This one:

Do you remember the context? This was about the time massive slave movies were captivating theatre audiences. Lincoln, Django Unchained, and 12 Years a Slave, had come out in quick succession. For better or worse, Cannon’s opinion stirred up a national discussion about the impact of black cinema. Some agreed, others thought he made much ado about nothing, At the time, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

I’ve since changed my mind.

It might have been Mike Brown’s death. Maybe it was Trump’s presidency. I can’t remember exactly when I reached the end of my rope, but I’ve slowly fallen out of favor with stories that center black trauma and experience to sell compelling stories. Today, the art isn’t separate from experience; seeing these stories just throws more salt into open wounds.

Let’s note: I’m not the only one that feels this way, and this isn’t the first time we’ve had this discussion. Black trauma has been linked to American entertainment since white people made lynchings into parties. However, with more social, economic, and political power, Black people have successfully alchemized pain into fortune, fame, and community influence.

Today, these stories hold a mirror to our society and its ills. But, I asked myself: how exactly is it influencing society? How do we tease out the pros and cons, the norms and values, and how these stories reshape the world we live in?

In other words,

what are the ethics of creating and imbibing Black trauma?

I love a good ethics question.

I remember a lifetime ago when an early college professor showed me that exploring ethics — similar to physics, my chosen field at the time — was a rational exercise. Instead of relying on only cultural norms, leadership, or religious upbringing, we can determine what is good and bad by using our faculties.

So, I inhaled the field. I thought about moral thought experiments, learned about topics like the trolley problem and effective altruism, and even changed my field of study to align my work with my values.

It wasn’t until I started fieldwork research, however, that I was introduced to the next step: moral grey areas. I’ve written before on the difficulty of moral priorities when researching impoverished communities, and how you make moral decisions is the critical question you use to guide any type of professional work. I loved these lessons: though ethical questions can lead you down the right path, the answer might not be as simple as you think.

In our radically changing world, questions of ethics have only become more important — and more difficult to answer. We are focusing too deeply on the narrow and predictable consequences of technology, society, and our economy. We must think more deeply about the virtues, outcomes, and norms we set by the things we decide to create.

However, it’s much easier when we have an example to wrap our minds around.

What are the ethics behind making, and displaying black trauma, like the recent miniseries When They See Us?

First, let’s harness a moral framework for determining the ethics of creating and imbibing this cultural tour de force. While researching this topic, I happened upon Morten Rand’s sage (and long!) post on Using Ethics in Web Design. If you want a crash course in thinking about ethics for the web, there’s no better tool to start.

He outlines four separate moral philosophies experts have used to negotiate ethics for millennia.

Consequentialism.

This is arguably the most mainstream ethical framework. This framing focuses only on what occurs because of the actions we take, and usually, people only care if the benefits outweigh the costs. This framing underpins fields like economic utilitarianism, policy development through cost-benefit calculations, even moral decisions during the research review process.

However, there’s one important blind spot of this ethics framework: It rarely thinks about the future impacts of its outcomes.

Here are questions that represent this philosophy:

What are the consequences of your decision? Do they improve the common good of those affected?

Deontology.

This framing believes something is ethical if the act follows a set of established rules. When following laws, cultural norms, and normalized professional standards, we’re deciding right or wrong based on the rules we establish. What’s one of the most famous concepts in this frame? Immanuel Kant’s Categorical imperative, which says you should only act if you would be okay with everyone else in the world doing the same action.

The blind spot of this ethics frame? If there aren’t agreed rules or norms for action, the theory loses its power to guide ethical behavior.

Here are questions that represent this philosophy:

What norms and expectations are you establishing? Are you upholding your duties of care?

Virtue Ethics.

A good definition of this framing feels a bit tautologic: “ A virtuous person is one who acts as someone who holds a defined set of virtues.Take Aristotle’s 11 moral virtues he discusses in the Nicomachean Ethics: Courage, Temperance, Liberality, Magnificence, Magnanimity, Proper ambition, Truthfulness, Wittiness, Friendliness, Modesty, and Righteous Indignation. We can ask if our actions align with the person that we want to be, and make decisions accordingly about how ethical those actions are.

But, the idea actually goes a bit deeper. The idea is, your actions don’t just shape the outcomes and norms of the world; they shape you as a person. Like Cristopher Nolan’s Batman: It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.

Here’s a question that represents this philosophy:

What type of person do you become because of your actions?

Capability Approach.

The last example goes even further. It focuses on the world we would be creating by doing the things we plan on doing. As explained in the article, “The Capability Approach makes us think carefully about where that path leads and what happens to the people who interact with our creations when they follow us into that future.” Martha Nussbaum, one of the philosophy’s founders, offers ten central capabilities that we can work to increase by actions we take:

  • Life,
  • Bodily Health,
  • Bodily Integrity,
  • Senses, Imagination, and Thought,
  • Emotions,
  • Practical Reason,
  • Affiliation,
  • Other Species,
  • Play,
  • and Political and Material control over one’s Environment.

Here are questions that represent this philosophy:

What world are you building for the end-user? What capabilities are you granting or enabling?

Lots of theory, I know.

But, by learning the nuances of these frames, we can learn different ways to view the impacts of the world we live in. Trust me, it makes a lot more sense to apply what we’ve learned.

So, back to the story.

If we wanted to, we could fill a book with each ethical analysis. Unfortunately, neither you nor I have that time. Instead, we’ll simply give a taste of what each perspective offers this situation.

First, if you’ve lived under a rock, here’s a short synopsis of the story from Wikipedia:

When They See Us (originally Central Park Five) is a 2019 American drama web television miniseries created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay for Netflix, that premiered on May 31, 2019. The series was based on events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and explores the lives of the suspects who were prosecuted and their families. The five juvenile males of color, the protagonists of the series (Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey), were convicted by juries of charges of rape, assault, and related crimes in two separate trials in 1990. They were sentenced to maximum terms and Korey, at 16, was sent to adult prison.”

Let’s break it down.

Consequentialism. What are the consequences of creating, and watching, When They See Us? Do they improve the common good of those affected?

At its core, the story is a dramatization of the horrid experience that black men experience in American society. The story serves as a colored historical narrative of these young men’s experience. When making such a nuanced piece, there was great care in ensuring Black creatives were behind the scenes producing, filming, and overall constructing the art. Because of this, institutions were reformed: each of these creative gain work, community, employment, and more with a direct focused on mainstream Black art.

However, telling such an emotionally charged story is a double-edged sword because of the emotional stress it causes. For the black people who’ve been bathed in factual and fictional media with a unique presence in black trauma, it merely reminds them of a system they can do little to change. Some — including me — believe they can’t even stomach the article in the first place.

What’s the cost of traumatic knowledge? Is it worth the retraumatization of Black people, in order to tell another compelling story about racist society?

Deontology. What norms and expectations are established by creating this series? By making the series, are the creators upholding their duties of care?

As we’ve stated before, black trauma in media has been a norm for a long time. It’s hard to find stories with black people that don’t represent a deep narrative of oppressive struggle. Though When They See Us reflects this narrative, it flouts these norms by reflecting these boys as the humans they are. By putting these black boys — and the actors around them — in the spotlight, they create new norms that honor people against a rigged system.

Additionally, the people who make the art rarely offer public resources for people who are retraumatized by the experience. In fact, the unique experience of mental and physical care specifically related to violence porn is generationally unique; it’s a cultural experience that our elders had to bury the trauma young adults are slowly working to unravel.

What new norms can be set by different narratives? If these narratives continue to be told, how can they be married with experiences that care for struggling black folks?

Virtue Ethics. What type of people, and society, do we become by allowing When They See Us?

Let’s use Shannon Valor’s framing of technomoral virtues for this exercise: Honesty, Self-Control, Humility, Justice, Courage, Empathy, Care, Civility, Flexibility, Perspective, Magnanimity, and Technomoral Wisdom. Arguably, some of these virtues are at odds with others.

By emphasizing courage, honesty, perspective, and empathy, certain other virtues such as care, technomoral wisdom, and maybe even justice, are flouted. The story creates people, and the world, that imbibe the feeling that the story to be told must be shared with the world — no matter who and how it hurts.

When we watch certain media, how does it shape us as humans, and as creators and imbibers, what values do we prioritize by bearing witness?

Capability Approach. What world are you building for the end-user? What capabilities are you granting or enabling?

So, this is an interesting one. Clearly, some people’s capabilities are flouted because of how they internalize the trauma, can cause a loss of bodily health, integrity, and life. Of course, it can cause negative emotions because of the attachments we form with the young boys, like anger, frustration; however, by learning about their decades of oppression, we offer the opportunity to grieve the experience they’ve been through — because, at some point, some learn to move from anger to a form of acceptance.

However, other impacts are bound to occur because the story is told. By telling stories like these, it catalyzes people’s opportunity to take further control over their environment. Vis-a-vis an extremely compelling story, the series offers knowledge about the racist policies that led to these boy’s wrongful convictions, and that knowledge causes people to demand justice in unexpected ways.

For instance, it caused the lawyer who wrongly prosecuted the five to become a social and professional pariah. She resigned from the Board of Directors of the sexual assault centered organization Safe Horizon, and was dropped from her book publisher because of the social media outcry.

What new world does When They See Us create? Is it the world we want to live in?

Clearly, we can dive deeper.

The answers are rarely black and white. There are many more outcomes than the ones we covered. Unfortunately, this article doesn’t offer solutions for a better world. Sorry about that.

What it does offer, however, is new tools and perspectives for making that world better. We’re a part of a complex system of causes and effects, of conflicting rules, norms, and values; and forming the right questions about how to make our world better are hard enough.

Surely not all the answers will be what we expect, nor will they be easily attained. Once you reach your answer, you might not decide to act the way you expected. But that’s okay.

For example, I decided not to see When They See Us — for now. You might reach a different conclusion. Now, you have the tools to make that decision in the first place.

But, don’t hurt yourself trying to reach your ideal; the revolution must be created with care. Slowly, but surely, aligning our actions to our ethics will help us all become better passengers on Spaceship Earth.

Let’s figure it out together.

You made it! I can’t thank you enough.

I can feel it; you have a lot to say on this topic. My ear is yours.

If you want to know more about how innovation+design can help you guide your path, come talk to me. We’ll find your way forward.

we think about transformation + liberation.

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