Reading and Writing About Racism: Burnout

This is my first post to the Salad Bowl; so please let me know if I did something wrong. In this post I'd like to discuss racism* and "burnout" as it affects us both as producers (writers) of media, and as consumers (readers) of media.

Last week, the magazine Matter published "The Racism Beat" by Cord Jefferson. In the piece, Jefferson discusses his experiences writing about racism in contemporary American media. He talks about how being contacted to write about "another" story of an American saying something racist and stupid caused him to think about how media deals with the issue of racism and his position as a writer of this. As I read through the piece, one thing became apparent; Jefferson was suffering from burnout.

Burnout is a term used to describe feelings of exhaustion or lack of purpose in our work. It often manifests itself in the feeling that our work is pointless or has no real beneficial effect. It often leaves us feeling both mentally and physically exhausted. Burnout is especially known to hit people working for social justice issues because it involves of the lives of marginalized people we care deeply about. Our emotions run deep when we deal with injustice against people we care deeply about. When we deal with powerful and engrained social systems that work to oppress and marginalize certain people, our work becomes very difficult and seemingly impossible. As People of Color who produce and/or consume media dealing with racism, we become especially susceptible to burnout. Not only do we deal with racism everyday in our own lives, but we also then have to deal with it in our interactions with the media; whether we're producing it or simply consuming it.

The media has a particular way of addressing and talking about racism. There is often a certain "formula" that most media outlets follow when they cover racism. Jefferson says;

Or maybe it wasn't that I didn't have anything to say. Maybe it was the realization that writing anything would be to listlessly participate in the carousel ride: an inciting incident, 1,000 angry thinkpieces, 1,000 tweeted links, and back to where we started, until next time. Perhaps it was a feeling that writing anything would finally be too redundant to bear, a pursuit of too many sad and obvious words to heap onto so many other nearly identical words written down before, by me, by thousands of others.

I'm hesitant to call it "exploitation," but the media has a certain exploitative way of covering racism that seeks not to inform or educate, but to exploit the issue to draw in readers or viewers. Highlight some dramatic or easily identifiable instances of racism, draw in readers who will be outraged or surprised by the incident, incite debate (argument) over the issue, then rinse and repeat. This isn't about the "factual" nature of the story; it's about the how the media controls the telling of the story in problematic ways. Maybe some writer will use the incident as a springboard to discuss an issue more in depth, but that will be quickly be forgotten by the next story.

The media is perhaps one of the more difficult places to work against racism because of the nature of the medium. The media filters and reconfigures stories of racism to fit certain already established narratives. It focuses on certain stories because it those stories will draw in more readers, leaving other stories uncovered. When we're the ones writing about those incidents of racism, we have to conform our stories to these narratives. When we're the ones consuming the media, we will end up seeing the same basic story over and over again. These narratives serve to simplify the understanding of the casual reader. A reader doesn't really have to "read" the story and think about it, he already knows what's going on and what the meaning is. There is no place for nuance. There is no place for depth. There is no place for critical thinking. It's all about "the cycle." As Jefferson discusses, the media isn't really interested in stories outside of these already established narratives.

When we read and write about racism in the media we experience not only the aggression of the racism covered in the story itself, but we also experience the aggression of the problematic ways the media controls the discourse around racism. We end up taking too many trips around the media carousel and need to get off to feel grounded and to stop feeling so dizzy. The media is both a friend and a foe. It provides us with information about the goings-on of the world around us, and for some of us a platform to write and discuss racism; but it also practices strict hegemonic powers in controlling the discourse around racism that can be oppressive and counter productive.

Burnout is real and we must be prepared to address when it rears its head. Burnout happens not because we don't care or are uninterested, but because we become emotionally invested in these stories. We become emotionally invested in stories about "our people." We live in an era when we are almost constantly connected to the media through the Internet. While I was doing social justice work training, the subject of burnout came up frequently. We were not taught what to do if we experience burnout; we were taught what to do when we experience burnout. In our relationship with the media we are especially prone to burnout because of the problematic and exploitative ways the media covers racism.

As producers of media that deal with racism, when we become burnt out we have to ask ourselves; "How much to we want to feed into this?" It feels like we're contributing to something that doesn't always have our best interests in mind. How might we transcend the narratives that dominate media coverage of racism and write something more meaningful and significant? Where is the place where we can properly address racism? Or, do we just give up and write about something else?

As consumers of media that deal with racism, when we become burnt out we can simply tune out and choose not to consume such bits of media. But this is often difficult to do. We still want to know about these stories and we still want to be engaged in the larger discussion of racism in contemporary society which is usually predicated on media consumption. This is why whenever we produce or consume media dealing with racism we have to be aware of how the media carelessly controls the narrative of "racism stories" and how the repetition of these problematic narratives wears on our conscious about the realities of racism experienced by people everyday beyond the webpages of news sites leads to burnout.

How we actually deal with our own burnout is personal, but wherever we are in regards to our relationship with the media whether its amicable or antagonistic; we should work to question, counter, and change these narratives of racism so that we might more adequately come to understand and ultimately work to change contemporary racism in America.

*Although this piece focuses on racism, I hope people working in other areas can find it relatable.