The Dangers of Exploiting Black Pain

Jordan Moss Illustration

Illustration by Jordan Moss

Often, after widely reported instances of racial injustice and discrimination, there are periods of upheaval. Among the Black population, the seemingly never-ending spate of brutality elicits mixed reactions — ranging from justified anger at the societal systems that allow racial prejudice to go unpunished, to the numbness, sadness, and trauma that hits each time that yet another Black person becomes a victim of unwarranted violence from law enforcement. These vile and violent events, which span across centuries, are now, however, being filmed and documented on a much wider scale.

Discriminatory acts against Black people have culminated in near universal Black pain. But with that pain comes its near-constant exploitation.

The Dark Side of Allyship

In the fight against injustices faced by Black people, allyship from those of other races is vital to the cause. However, a not-insignificant number of self-proclaimed allies who claim to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement often do so for personal gain. Several brands and corporations have recently been put on blast on social media for releasing statements of solidarity even as they have failed to embrace diversity — even after being called out for these bad practices in the past.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen some employers owning up to their unfair treatment of Black employees, with promises to “do better” in the future. A number of media outlets have also come under fire for sensationalizing news stories about Black victims of police-related violence to garner higher ratings and drive audience engagement. There are countless other instances of exploitative practices and behaviors in corporate America, now part of a regular pattern and playbook each time an unarmed Black person is murdered by police.

Performative allyship

This regular pattern is also evident in the way that the resounding support for the Black community wanes just as outrage slowly starts to dissipate. What happens to the promised support from institutions and individuals capable of making an impact in the fight against racial injustice? Will the media, social media warriors, and the corporate establishment that pledged their commitment to the cause — and have the power to create meaningful change — ensure that justice is served?

Performative allyship has gradually become part of a rinse-and-repeat cycle where the pain and trauma of Black people becomes corporate profit or social collateral. The issues that brought about this pain — discrimination, marginalization, and violence — are ignored until they can again be capitalized on and profited from.

The dire situation and endless cycle raises a pertinent question: Why is Black pain so easily exploited?

The Culture of Pain

While Black pain can also be discussed in a broad political and social context — as it has always been a tool for encouraging advocacy for just causes and igniting hope during periods of political turbulence — the undesirability of the circumstances that have brought pain to Black people should remain the unwavering focus.

Pain and trauma unfortunately form a major part of the Black experience in America, and the existence of this pain goes beyond physiological or psychological distress. The Black experience of pain has also unfortunately been abused and manipulated over the years for commercial, aesthetic, and cultural profit. The blatant exploitation of Black pain pervades the areas of art, popular culture, and politics — so much of Black culture, imbued with this pain, has been appropriated.

A recent instance where Black people’s outrage was seen to be taken advantage of, was at the Democrats’ proposal for an extensive reform of the US Police system. In this instance, lawmakers — draped in stoles made from Ghanaian kente fabric — knelt in silence at the Capitol for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The act was mocked and criticized for mimicking that of ex-cop Derek Chauvin who pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck for the same length of time as he pleaded for his life.

It is widely known that Black pain is profitable, as much for the shock value it invokes as anything else. Movies and TV shows that portray Black people’s struggle during the Slavery Era and the Civil Rights Movement, make millions. Videos and television shows like Cops, too-often depicting violence against Black people, attract wide audiences and thousands of views, likes, and retweets when they are shared on social media. The gruesome appeal of the trauma faced by Black people in America continues to be preyed upon for profit. The real problem, however, lies in the fact that those responsible for this exploitative behavior do little to correct the injustices and the prejudicial treatment faced by those who are being exploited.

In her book African Americans and the Culture of Pain, Debra Walker King, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida, succinctly sums up the culture of pain as it exists among Black people. “Pain is employed as a tool of resistance against racism,” she writes. “But it also functions as a sign of racism’s insidious ability to exert power and maintain control of those it claims.”

What Happens When Black Pain Is Exploited?

The Black Lives Matter movement has made positive strides in the fight against anti-Black violence, injustice, and discrimination. Exploiting the trauma of Black people is the antithesis of everything the movement stands for, as it trivializes the struggle for racial equality and likens it to a mere quest to garner public sympathy. Black people do not desire to have an even greater part of their life experiences tinged with trauma. Their outrage must be recognized for what it is: A call for radical change in every system that allows racism to thrive.

Apart from the desensitization that arises from the constant exploitation of Black pain, it also perpetuates the stereotype that Black people are to be measured by the degree of their trauma. There is so much more to being a Black person than our pain. As a people, we will reach our full potential only when there’s fair treatment and equal opportunity. Not solely in the aftermath of anti-Black violence.

It’s unfortunate that we still live in a society where the exploitation of Black pain and trauma is normalized. The need to make profit from our struggle — one which has cost Black people their sanity and their lives — is one that is deeply entrenched in capitalist roots. Not only is it counterproductive to the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s also an inhumane act.

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