From people praising digital activism to others requesting silence, from black squares saying #BlackLivesMatter to street protests, all the way to brand debacles, the horrific death of George Floyd and its surrounding discourse on systemic racism have struck a chord with audiences across the world. We are at crisis point and, hopefully, this is a watershed moment that can force people to actually change the status quo. One of the most prominent discourses at the moment is that of silence as complicity with oppression, together with that of performative allyship or ‘fake’ social media activism. This post is about navigating the tensions within those discourses. It compares the current response to #BlackLivesMatter with attitudes towards #MeToo, and looks at different beliefs when it comes to showing support. It doesn’t have a straight answer, and it welcomes feedback and more conversations.
We are witnessing black people share their lived experiences of racism, how these have affected them and continue to affect them. I am not qualified to talk about racism per se, because I am white and have had the privilege of not experiencing it.
As someone who never hides what she is passionate about, I have wanted to speak out but I was also aware of different perceptions of speaking, silence and performance. And I wanted to think it through.
What I am qualified to talk about – because of my research and experience – is social media, online subcultures, digital activism and their relationship with the world we live in. So this is what I will talk about, because a lot of people are questioning how and if they should address the protests, the death of George Floyd and systemic racism in general.
This post looks at the engagement with anti-racism from the past few weeks from an observer’s point of view, and it’s probably more useful to read if you’re white on non-black – black people know these things already. It concludes with further resources for donation and education.
#BlackLivesMatter Then And Now: What Changed?
The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag became a thing in the summer of 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting 17-year-old black teen Trayvon Martin. The online campaign and movement was co-founded by three black community organisers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
The organisers questioned Martin’s death and viewed it as a devaluation of black lives after his killer’s acquittal. Garza wrote a Facebook post titled “A Love Note to Black People” in which she said: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter”. Cullors replied: “#BlackLivesMatter” and the movement – or network, as she wrote – was born. It took off even more in 2014, and the hashtag used and the initial stages of the movement are narrated much more clearly in this article by Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain and Meredith Clark with interviews and tweet activism campaigns (thanks fellow pole dancing academic Joy for the reco!).
I remember that, during the first appearances of #BlackLivesMatter, those in my network who deeply cared and engaged with racial issues went to protests and shared resources. Yet – and I may be wrong – from Europe, I didn’t see the type of engagement I am seeing now. Now, everyone seems to be involved.
This time though, as the founders themselves have said, the movement feels different. Now, my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram timelines are filled with BLM content and racial justice issues. Now, a lot of white and non-black people who didn’t engage with current issues are sharing something that I didn’t see many white and non-black people share in 2013. I think there are two reasons for this that I can talk about.
#1: Social Media Platforms’ Fast Growth
The first reason is the exponential growth social media platforms have had in the past few years, as well as people’s different attitudes towards using them. Will Smith recently said: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” Black people have dealt with this sort of trauma throughout their existence, and they aren’t angry because this is new, they are angry because this is the last drop.
With social media, the effects of systemic racism, and single episodes of racism as well, are getting shared, filmed, analysed, commented on. The video depicting the death of George Floyd (which I won’t discuss in detail because we all know what happened) was also particularly horrific. It showed people the extent of police brutality and its embedded racism. This forced a lot of people who wouldn’t want to engage with racism-related issues to at least admit that something was wrong.
A variety of experts are arguing that by cutting off the middleman (aka the journalism industry), a new civil rights movement is reaching new audiences. Now, white people no longer have the chance to just say: “Nah, that isn’t happening. You might have misinterpreted it.” White people can’t gaslight black people anymore into thinking certain behaviours aren’t racist, because the videos talk. And they go viral.
In 2013, the biggest social networks were Facebook and Twitter. Just a year earlier, Facebook had bought Instagram for $1 billion, and the app was just taking off. 2013 was two years after the Arab Spring, and commentators were still trying to figure out whether social media were a scary tool that would mess with your data and privacy, or a tool for raising awareness about activists’ causes.
In 2020, we know that they can be both. Most of us have come to terms with the fact that, either for work or for personal relationships, we’ve got to be on social media. We are also, I believe, less shy or fearful about speaking our mind on social networking platforms. We’ve got more platforms to use, with bigger audiences: Facebook is still the biggest social network, but Instagram and TikTok have grown fast, while Twitter isn’t as big as it was, but it’s taking steps to point out when the US President is breaking its community guidelines.
#2: Coronavirus: A Further Example of the Extent of Racism
The second reason is, inevitably, the Coronavirus pandemic. Because of the pandemic, we have felt angry, frustrated, powerless, anxious, scared. A lot of people are on furlough – if they’re lucky – or jobless. Most of us aren’t commuting, or going out, or seeing friends. We’ve been alone or seeing very limited amounts of people for months. As Nigerian poet Ben Okri told the BBC, this has given people a new understanding of what freedom is, as well as more time to think.
The pandemic has shown how black and BAME people are disproportionately affected by the virus in both the UK and the US. Here in England, a variety of experts have pointed out that while the exact reason for higher BAME deaths doesn’t seem clear yet, the locations, living conditions and type of jobs connected with BAME communities might be playing a part in this disproportionate result. And of course, even if this was not openly mentioned by the UK Government, structural inequalities are also to blame – which might give a reason as to why the Government has engaged in what Labour called a “cover-up” of the report on BAME deaths.
The murder of George Floyd happened at a time when the world is watching even more, and where that systemic racism and racial injustice are even more apparent due to Coronavirus. For many white people who have tried to turn a blind eye, it’s now literally impossible to stop watching. The world simply can’t afford to turn a blind eye. It’s been too much. And people are rightly angry, sad, frustrated, fed up.
Is #BlackLivesMatter The New #MeToo?
Some people’s reaction to #BlackLivesMatter taking over the news and our timelines reminds me of some men’s reaction to the #MeToo movement – incidentally another hashtag led movement founded by Tarana Burke, a black activist, but gone mainstream after white actresses shared it.
At the time, I read a lot of: “Wait, so are all men bad? #NotAllMen!” and also: “bUt dOeS iT mEaN i CaN’t HiT oN wOmEn AnY mOrE?” Men really struggled with the idea that they were the problem. Which didn’t mean that Mike, 31, from Hackney who works in a female-friendly start-up was the problem. It just meant that, generally, male privilege resulted in men not having to worry about and fear a lot of things women worried about and feared, and that they would largely benefit from female oppression. It didn’t mean men couldn’t be feminists, or that they weren’t “nice guys”, it just meant that society had a lot of unlearning to do, and that behaviours that seemed acceptable – like hovering over your female colleague at work with your casual unwanted sexual references and advances – were a symptom of issues between the genders that had been going on for too long.
Now, that “Are we the bad guy?” feeling has extended to the whole of white people, who have gone: “aLl LiVeS mAtTer” and: “iF tHeY pRoTeStEd pEaCeFuLlY wE wOuLd LiStEn.” The looting statement is particularly problematic because these manifestations of public unrest hardly happen in a vacuum and they are often connected with people feeling fed up with inequality, oppression and violence (see: Rodney King Riots in LA, the Brixton Riots in London etc – without mentioning the first Pride, which was a riot). Statements that don’t acknowledge where the riots come from are damaging. They diminish people’s anger, sadness, frustration, years of systemic racism. They centre the issue over white people who are upset because they feel attacked over a movement that doesn’t claim white lives matter less, or that they are all horrible, but that it’s time to change systems of racism white people benefit from.
So people have been reacting in multiple ways. Other than completely diminishing and rejecting black people’s feelings (or threatening to send in the army), a lot of people across all backgrounds have been talking about how staying completely silent is complicit with oppression; others share new posts raising awareness every minute; others protest in the streets; others still have been having private conversations, but having them nonetheless; and brands, like L’Oreal, have been pouring out their support for racial equality but got called out for not practicing what they preach.
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I wanted to give @lorealparis 48 hours before writing this to see if a public apology was possible. But their choice to ignore me and not acknowledge the emotional, mental and professional harm that they caused me since sacking me in 2017, after speaking out about white supremacy and racism, speaks volumes. So does their choice to not engage with the thousands of black community members and allies who have left comments of concern on their last two posts, in response to their claim to support the black community, despite an evident history of being unwilling to talk about the issues that black people face globally because of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is a movement for the people, by the people. It is not here to be co-opted for capital gain by companies who have no intention of actually having difficult conversations regarding white supremacy, police brutality, colonialism and systemic racism. It cannot be reduced to a series of corporate trends by brands like L’Oréal who have no intention of actually doing the work to better themselves or taking ownership of their past mistakes or conscious acts of racial bias. I would not have been sacked if I had said what I said and was a cisgender, straight, white woman. It just wouldn’t have happened. If you want to stand with black lives matter then get your own house in order first. This could have been a moment of redemption for L’Oréal, a chance for them to make amends and lead by example. We all get things wrong, we all make mistakes, but it’s where you go from there that is a signifier of who you are. L’Oréal claiming to stand with the black community, yet also refusing to engage with the community on this issue, or apologise for the harm they caused to a black female queer transgender employee, shows us who they are – just another big brand who seeks to capitalise from a marginalised movement, by widening their audience and attempting to improve their public image. Brands need to be aware of their own track record. It’s unacceptable to claim to stand with us, if the receipts show a history of silencing black voices. Speaking out can’t only be “worth it” when you’re white. Black voices matter.
When #MeToo happened, men and women had to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations. Exes messaged girlfriends apologising for behaving in ways that, they then realised, weren’t ok (whether that was for genuine contrition or to sleep at night). Sexual harassment policies became something that every workplace needed to at least address. And while you can argue that harassment still happens, it’s not uncommon to hear of pre- and post-#MeToo conversations, movies, behaviours etc.
I hope that, if anything, this situation will force white people to have those same uncomfortable conversations. To search within themselves – not because they need to text that person they think they were racist with, or to share an Instagram story saying “Hey black friends, I support you.” But to take their action offline, question racist work policies (e.g. not calling someone in for an interview because of a black or BAME sounding name) and to read more about systemic racism instead of asking their black friends to reassure them that they are nice people. Which brings me to the next point.
Limits of Digital Activism
Now, because of social media, we are all being called to take a stand and to notice. This is resulting in a lot of conversations that people have found uncomfortable, or difficult to navigate – and in what, I believe, is a very obvious limit to social media as a discussion space for complex issues.
Everybody copes with the heightened news cycle in a different way: some people engage with activism offline, others with mental health conditions can’t cope with being always on, others still function by sharing all they can. Just like with #MeToo, not everybody wanted to share their story, or their opinion. But hopefully, they took note that something was changing.
I personally believe in posting in solidarity and in promising to do better. Not because it “looks good”, but because the people in my network have suffered for their employers and friends not expressing solidarity.
As Hayley Nahman noted however, social media is a tool for self-promotion. And a lot of people have posted because they felt pressured to, in order to protect their brand, and that is neither genuine or helpful. Nahman pointed out the paradox of white people accused of horribly racist incidents then posting a black square with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Brands and single users taking a stand because they feel forced to take a stand isn’t activism or engagement with thinking, change and the issue of racism: it’s social self-protection. Damage control.
As a digital activist myself, I firmly believe in digital activism as a means for changing the Internet and social media and for providing resources and tools for discussions that people didn’t have access to before. But racism isn’t just a digital issue, despite how racist algorithms can be. So while the Internet is a great space to amplify black voices – especially if you have a big network or platform – posting #BlackLivesMatter and then going on with your life doesn’t mean you’ve done your bit and can stop worrying about whether you’ve internalised racism. Hashtags are great for virality, not complexity. And digital activism has its limits.
This is why #BlackOutTuesday backfired, and I, like many others, have gotten it wrong. As Aja Romano wrote for Vox:
“Instead of productively contributing awareness to the cause, the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag led to a litany of complaints about the nature of supportive behavior online. The showiness of people posting about how they’re not posting anything has served to derail and obscure actual BLM content through inconsiderate use of the hashtags. Ostentatious stands by white people and other bystanders have dwarfed conversations and stolen attention from actually informative posts related to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.”
Fear of messing up your social media feed isn’t what should stop you from posting. We all have a platform we can use now, and it’s important that we use it to raise awareness of issues that matter to us. But it’s also important to be mindful of what that means, particularly for the people involved. Sharing videos of George Floyd’s death without a trigger warning – an event that will most likely traumatise the people you think you’re trying to support – doesn’t make you an activist. Professing your support for racial justice as a brand doesn’t mean anything if you don’t actively implement those policies in your work, life, relationships.
The relationship between silence and complicity is complicated. Centuries of silence and of thinking racism isn’t a white problem have brought us here. But a social media post isn’t what will improve the situation, dismantle systemic racism and send the problem packing.
I once went to a feminist and gender studies talk that promoted sisterhood and LGBTQIA+ rights – but then an anti-trans person in the audience essentially denied the existence of trans women and a speaker’s right to be there with her question. Instead of acknowledging the hurt and damage made by the anti-trans speaker’s statement, the organisers just said: “Next question?” As a result, there was an uproar, the audience members and panel members felt unsafe, the room felt heavy until a young black activist proposed the whole room should leave, and we all did, until the anti-trans person refusing to accept the environment she was in was escorted out. Once again, it was left to the most vulnerable in the room to take action, and despite professing sisterhood and support, the space itself and those in charge did not stand up for those who were being discriminated.
Similarly, professing support for your black friends when everybody is trying to appear to be championing black people means nothing if you don’t act upon daily instances of racism in your network – or even inactivity in hiring, championing and listening to black people.
So, as the below Twitter threads by poets Vanessa Kisuule and by author and journalist Yomi Adegoke show, people and brands are rushing to say something, anything, and coming out as glib and offensive (like many celebrities have). Plus, even more worryingly, expecting black people to have their own hot take on George Floyd’s death, when they’re probably processing their own trauma about it, shows that we are getting social media reactions quite wrong. A donation or private messages can help more than a performative tweet.
We can’t be surprised that when we demand that every single person respond to the current situation that many of those responses will be glib, thoughtless or downright egregious. Not everyone has something useful to say and it seems strange to me to insist they do.— Vanessa Kisuule (@Vanessa_Kisuule) June 2, 2020
While it appears true that, at the moment, being racist or not being seen as being anti-racist is an image problem for people, brands, activist, businesses, people, we need to do more than posting for the sake of posting.
Let’s Make The Last Few Weeks More Than A Trend
It’s understandable that, in the face of a cruel display of complete disregard for human life and abuse of power, and of a hurtful and traumatising story, we feel that we cannot stay silent. But this is a feeling that we need to hold on to beyond this week, beyond the screenshotted donations or the “what can I do” messages sent to our black friends at a time when they don’t really need our questions.
As white people, we have work to do on ourselves and on the society we live in.
White people – and I put myself in there – need to stop asking for reassurance that we’re not the bad guy. We need to acknowledge that, historically, we’ve done a lot of harm even if we ourselves weren’t directly involved. We need to actively engage with the uncomfortable feelings that current debate is making us feel, because we can’t erase what we have done in the past. But we can educate ourselves by reading, listening, signing petitions, donating, having conversations (without asking our black friends for the emotional labour of educating us).
We need to use the same outrage we’ve felt at the death of George Floyd to actively change our little corners, whether that is our office, our gyms, our dance studios or that one episode of racism at the supermarket we didn’t call out. In 2020, taking a stand against racism shouldn’t be a political decision, or a personal one: it should be normal; it should be something we all agree with, that doesn’t stop with a brand update.
Hopefully, the nth display of systemic racism and violence won’t result in more business as usual. Hopefully, the conversations we’re having now will be more than a social media trend.
If you’ve gotten this far, here are some resources a variety of people have been sharing if you want to unlearn things, educate yourself and support racial equality. These are mainly for white people – black people already know all of these and have put most of these together (for free).
- A list of updated resources including lawyers helping protesters, bailout funds and associations to donate to, resources to teach your children about race can be found here
- No money? No problem. This YouTube video below by Zoe Amira includes art and music from black creators. It’s one-hour long and all its revenue will be donated to a variety of BLM organisations. All you have to do is let it play on loop whether you’re listening or not, with sound on or not, and turn off your ad-blocker for the ads in the video to work.
- More ways of supporting when you can’t donate via this Instagram graphic.
- Books you can read here.
- The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic
- Where does “Whiteness” come from? This IG post is a quick intro.
- Where does fear of black people in America come from? A really interesting thread updated with links in this Tumblr post by Claire Willett.
- Racism in the UK – things to know here.
- How to help the George Floyd protests from the UK in this IG post.
- For my fellow Italians – a reminder we faced discrimination in the US too. Let’s do better. “How Italians Became White” in the New York Times by Brent Staples.
- Sign this petition for the UK to stop exporting tear gas, rubber bullets and shields to the US
- In Defense of Looting By Vicky Osterweil in The New Inquiry
- Important acknowledgements for dancers in this IG post. This is particularly important to me as a white woman who teaches twerk, and the whole pole dance community should read this.
- We Need To Rethink Our “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” Approach To Activism by Yomi Adegoke in British Vogue.