What feels like resistance to you?
On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, when I opened my instagram feed, I saw something strange. At first I thought it was a glitch. Post after post featured the same completely black box. After a week filled with violent posts after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, I expected to see more of the same sensationalized violence, but what I saw, a wash of black squares, was ironically chilling.
College friends, people who I had known in highschool, clothing brands, and celebrities alike, posted their own versions of a black box unmarked or altered. A movement that I thought to be initially quite beautiful, the dark was inescapable.
Beneath each post was one of a number of hashtags. Some featured #blackouttuesday, the tag officially settled on by the public, but as with any social media campaign, it sparked controversy.
Apparently in the hours I slept before opening my feed in the morning, a social media storm had spread. As the trend had sprung up so quickly, some unclear on the actual movement adopted a different hashtag, the more prominent #blacklivesmatter. Subsequently, the organization’s hashtag that is used as a social media informant became inundated with black squares, and caused many to become enraged.
One of the first truths that I learned was not what the movement intended to do, but rather that it went wrong.
The opening line of an article published in Forbes that morning said, “Before you participate in Blackout Tuesday, keep this in mind: It’s not working.”
What seemed like the biggest campaign for social activism that I had ever seen was. . . not working?
A thought that occurred to me was that in days prior, social media swelled with high quality information. A writer for the Guardian agreed: “Whereas 24 hours earlier, users had been posting legal information, names of pro bono lawyers and bail funds, filming videos of wanton cruelty and abuses of power, now they were shtum, save for the sanctimonious black squares.”
The kind of media activism rising out of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery felt unprecedented. Mia Santiago, an organizer based in Ohio said,
“Because of this influx of new comrades, the way information is shared around protests has fundamentally shifted.. . . I was naïve and not at all well versed in security culture at the time of my first high-risk protest in 2017. The people showing up today, a large number of them teenagers and young adults, are not. . . . The people showing up at the statehouse every day this week have been careful, covering their faces not only due to the pandemic but to avoid detection. While I sent unencrypted messages and left location tracking on through my phone, I see meme accounts showing new protesters how to avoid these missteps all over my Instagram feed.. . . we are watching teenagers and their parents alike being radicalized and finding their voice all at once in the street en masse.”
In other words, the reaction to public protests and Black Lives Matter on social media had been not only overwhelmingly positive, but also exemplified a cultural shift in attitudes towards activism.
A Monmouth University Poll found that 76 percent of Americans and 71 percent of white people called racism and discrimination a “huge problem” in United States, which was a 26 point increase from 2015.
It felt like social media may for once be making a positive change.
So, what went wrong with blackout tuesday?
What was originally a movement led by major music influencers intending to put a pause on business as part of global protests, became a chaotic distraction. Led by Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, two black women working in marketing, blackout Tuesday was meant to highlight racism in music culture. The founders wrote in a statement, “The music industry is a multibillion dollar industry,. . . An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable.”
However, as the protest took to social media, it quickly surpassed its original intent. Other performers became involved and began calling for more action against racial injustice. Many adopted the music metaphor prevalent in social media of “muting” their feed, and black out tuesday quickly became a protest that effectively put a pause on sites like instagram.
The idea of posting introduced debate about what muting actually is. One twitter user tweeted, “My Instagram feed this morning is just a wall of white people posting black screens,. . . like … that isn’t muting yourself, babe, that’s actually kind of the opposite!”
The intent to disrupt normalcy turned into something more divisive; a day fraught with differing opinions and contentious conversation straying far from its inception. In an interview for Wired, an activist notes, “Five or six years of work, all those resources, all that work and documentation—and now we have millions of black squares?”.
On the one hand, standing in solidarity is a worthy cause. Posting can feel like a good idea as it can be a proclamation of allyship. It is especially compelling to participate when the intent seemed to work, instagram shut down for a day.
Yet, many had mixed feelings. In addition to the potentially dangerous quell of truthful information, another strong criticism came from people who saw their friends jumping on the bandwagon as an act of performance, void of the thoughtfulness prevalent in other more substantive posts, or acts of activism in real life.
Performative activism is “action that’s rooted in what other people say you should do.” It is “Action that’s rooted in managing how other people see you or think about you. . . in trying to be good or right. . . in maintaining or preserving status, capital, belonging, image and comfort”.
Some have noted that accounts who’ve appeared to do little else to support the movement have suddenly posted an image of a black square or have changed their profile picture. In an interview for the New York Times, Tariro Mzezewa, a travel reporter for Styles Magazine said, “We’ve all seen performative and insincere allyship in the days since George Floyd died in police custody, and some of us may come at something like this with some degree of skepticism.” So maybe this unity isn’t quite as helpful as it appears to be.
To return to a sentiment from Santiago, the power of what we face now is that it is happening in real time. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s more difficult to know how a situation will play out.
Julia Simmons, a college student, said, “for me personally, i didn’t partake. but i did make a post originally and then upon further reflection deleted it before anyone saw it. but a lot of people did partake and i think they did have good intentions and there is something to be said about the power of visibility? like to see all of the people (whether it’s lip service or not) choosing to publicly support the cause does have some sort of power. it’s just also abt considering what kind of effect you really want to have and making sure to listen to the real leaders and what they ask for in terms of allyship and campaigning”
It can feel nearly impossible to know how to respond to big cultural events on social media. At once individuals are called to action, and at the same time criticised regardless. When in doubt, Julia chooses to amplify the voices of organization leaders who she believes are posting truthful, powerful information.
For me, trying to get it right meant removing myself from the blackout tuesday campaign.
That isn’t to say I got it right, but it also might not be that important whether or not my friends notice that I didn’t post a black box.
Ultimately, I found comfort in the conversations I was having with individuals close to me. Anuja Jaiswal, a coworker asked, “Is this the conversation we should be having?” She wanted to know whether discussing individual behavior on social media was really important when it came to the systemic racism and police brutality plaguing the country. Perhaps the echo chambers social media creates also distract from larger issues at hand.
Although, Anuja noted that for activists unable to be at protests, remaining vocal online has been integral to her participation. Sometimes, it feels wrong to stay silent, and as Julia noted, it is powerful to use our voices for strength.
In another conversation, Zyaira Speller, a student, and coworker said, “Activism is whatever resistance feels like resistance to you.”
Get new ideamix content delivered straight to your inbox.