In the past month, the U.S. has seen widespread protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands of police violence. Protestors are marching for justice and for the abolition of systemic racism, and calling for a long overdue change in the ways in which our country has treated people of color since its foundation. This is something that can only be done if we band together — in person, and online.
Our social media timelines have been inundated with information, which, due to the subject matter — especially video footage depicting violence and death — can be overwhelming, and has led many people to log off, with some citing “feed fatigue.”
Techopedia defines “feed fatigue” as "social media users’ tendency to pull back from social media when they become overwhelmed with too many social media sites, too many friends and followers, and too much time spent online maintaining these connections." Right now, however, the fatigue is due to the saturation of the specific kinds of content on their feeds. Namely, posts about racial violence and systemic racism.
Complaints over this type of feed fatigue have been met with backlash, and understandably so. After all, Black people deal with racism every single day with no choice of "opting out" for a few hours. The desire for a return to "normalcy" is a desire that’s fueled by white privilege, a longing for a willful blindness that actively embraces and encourages racism and racial violence. Let’s not forget that the “normal” past is one that was created by white supremacy; a return to that reality should be unacceptable to all of us.
Right now, there’s a lot of information out there, not to mention the arguments and discussions taking place in the comment sections. Even white people who actively take part in anti-racist work and strive to be allies are having a hard time figuring out what actions to take — is #blackoutTuesday okay or not? — and what facts are relevant. It can be hard for people to process, Joseph Flynn, the associate director for academic affairs at the Center for Black Studies at Northern Illinois University, says: "Being inundated with that day in and day out, and on television, causes this fatigue and temporary inability to engage."
Flynn adds that "feed fatigue" is related to something called “white fatigue,” which, he explains, is “a quasi-form of white resistance in which white folks are understanding that racism is wrong, but get tired and frustrated with conversation about race because of its complexity."
This type of white feed fatigue, then, can be seen as a type of white fragility, which is loosely defined as the defensiveness white people experience when confronted with facts about racial inequality, particularly their own part in it.
Black people and other communities of color affected by racism may also be experiencing a different kind of feed fatigue right now.
“Generally speaking, our bodies are designed to handle stress in spurts. Stress or fear or anxiety is helpful in getting us to act on something when we feel like it needs to be acted on in that moment,” explains Riana Anderson, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on Black mental health. We’re not built, however, to handle chronic stress, she says. It can, and does, harm mental well-being.
Black communities are forced to confront the effects of racism every day; that alone is an enormous burden. Additionally, the last several months have created a kind of hyper-awareness around the very personal and dire effects of racism, as the deaths of several Black men and women have been broadcast on a global stage, and as a worldwide pandemic — one that has disproportionately affected the Black community — have upended our lives. “[Our bodies] have been over-stressed for four months straight,” Anderson says. “The idea of fatigue is really normal.”
In the midst of all of this, Black people may suddenly be finding themselves at the center of an increased amount of attention — some well-intentioned, some not.
Black people have been inundated with messages from white people and aspiring non-Black allies on their social media pages and directly, which can be overwhelming and harmful. “There are many times when well-intended and well-meaning white people make statements of white guilt, or express that they don’t know what to do.... [effectively placing a] heavy burden of their own guilt and shame upon a person that's already in grief and in trauma,” Mariel Buquè, PhD, a trauma therapist, previously told Refinery29.
Others may be feeling stressed by expectations of how they should be behaving online right now. "For Black people, anxiety can come from having posts critiqued by other Black people because they don’t seem “angry enough,” “sad enough” or not enough of some other emotion," writes Christen A. Johnson for the Chicago Tribune.
"I wish that there was some more sensitivity to what everybody is trying to do and attempting to do, especially among Black folks," Kishonna Gray, an assistant professor in communications and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago told the Tribune. "If there are Black folks who are trying to do their best, I want to make sure that we recognize that."
With other types of emotional fatigue — say, compassion fatigue, in which people (especially those working directly victims of traumas) become exhausted and unable to feel compassion for others — the advice is typically to take a break from the work that's tiring you and spend time on self-care.
Black people and non-Black allies understand that right now, stepping away or “taking a break” from anti-racism work is not an option. “Black Lives Matter is not just a hashtag,” Layla F. Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy, previously told Refinery29. “It's really thinking about how we must now take on the responsibility of making this a long-term thing.” As she writes after the first week of journaling exercises in her book, “On Day 7, we do not take a day off, because BIPOC do not get to take a day off from (your) white supremacy.”
That’s especially true for white people and receivers of white privilege. You’re not a bad person for feeling drained or fatigued by what you’re seeing on your social media feeds. But it’s critical to examine that reaction and to use it to gain a deeper understanding of your complicity in white privilege and a system that’s designed to oppress non-white people, so you can start to break down these beliefs and ways of thinking that are hampering your ability to do anti-racist work.
There’s a place in this conversation for self-care. No one can continue to do the work effectively without protecting their wellbeing, says Vaile Wright, PhD, the American Psychological Association's director of clinical research and quality. Dr. Wright points to the well-worn airplane analogy: When you’re in crisis, you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help someone else with theirs; you won’t be able to help anyone if you’re gasping for breath.
"One of the big indicators that someone has hit that stage of fatigue is when they start to lack empathy," Dr. Wright notes. "They start to either blame the victim or tell themselves it's not that bad, or they just have a hard time empathizing with these stories." And, of course, having empathy is critical for anti-racist work. Once you stop feeling it, you may be tempted to break from your activism work entirely — and that’s something the country cannot afford.
"It takes a lot of energy to be introspective, to hear other people's hard stories, and to really face trauma — and for Black people to share personal stories of trauma in the hopes of influencing change," Dr. Wright says. She points out that energy is a finite resource, which means it’s essential to allow yourself to take needed breaks to replenish your energy, so you can be the most effective ally and advocate possible.
For Black people in particular, Dr. Anderson says that taking social media, news, and email breaks is critical. "There's so much data saying that pulling away from screens at this time will be impactful to your anxiety and stress levels," she says.
"We have to give ourselves permission to both say no and to think about where our energy will be best spent," Dr. Anderson says. "We have to keep ourselves alive in a global pandemic, and we also have to keep our livelihood and well-being as strong as possible, so making a decision on where you want your energy to go requires some planning and thought."
Dr. Wright agrees. While she understands the desire to educate ourselves, she says that after a certain point of consuming media, you're hearing the same information over and over again. "That keeps you in a state of hyper-arousal where you can't ever get a break from the stress," she explains. "It's critical to disconnect."
One trick is to set a certain time in the day where you're allowed to check the news and social media, preferably not before bed. Also remember that posting on Twitter or Instagram is not the end-all-be-all of activism. Yes, it's helpful at getting messages and relevant information out there — but it’s just a beginning. It’s also important to take actions such as donating or speaking up when you see microaggressions and overt racism play out in real life, and using whatever privilege you carry to shield those without it.
"After this pandemic, after this violence, we need you well, we need you here," Dr. Anderson says. "How can you maintain your wellness at this time to ensure that you will be here for the next fight?"
Also recognize that mental health is not a straight line. Some weeks, you may be feeling strong and resilient, and ready to attend every protest, read every news story, call out every microaggression you witness without pausing for breath. Then there may be a day when you wake up feeling worn out and overwhelmed. On those days, check yourself. Is this harmful to your mental health? If so, take a step back and take a breath. Go for a run, call a friend, play with a dog, meditate, do whatever you can to set yourself right — now might even be a great time to start therapy if you haven't before.
And yes, it's okay to take a break and unplug from social media, but still continue to do the work. Read books, watch TV shows, and listen to podcasts that are all dedicated to telling stories of Black joy. Donate to organizations doing the work. Support Black creators. The opportunities for white people to use their privilege for good, and for Black people to support their communities, are endless.
What white people shouldn’t do is publicly center their own fatigue or burnout. This is a time to amplify Black voices and experiences.
Being able to put down your phone to get away from this kind of content is a privilege. But picking up something else, something helpful, something that will make a difference, is progress.