We all know that social media is inherently performative. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve “done it for the ‘gram” before, focusing more on curating the way I am perceived than living out experiences in full. However, as I scrolled through my feed this week, I was hit by the realization that this culture of performativity isn’t necessarily all bad.
Online activism is evolving. What was once encapsulated by solid colored profile pictures in solidarity with a cause has become sharing matched donations to bail funds and encouraging followers to keep the thread going, or tweeting educational resources and book recommendations. The former, though well-intentioned, was by definition a performative act. The latter, though still performative, at least tangibly furthers a cause. So much so that within four days following George Floyd’s murder, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a small Minneapolis bail fund, received $20 million in donations.
I started writing this column early last week, with renewed hope that this culture of online performativity could have positive results. A few days ago, however, I woke up to the Blackout Tuesday trend on Instagram and felt like we’d all taken a step back. In accordance with the trend, users shared plain black boxes to their profiles in an effort to show solidarity and shine light on the racial injustice that’s become characteristic of our country.
I have a number of issues with this practice. For one, anti-racism is not trendy. It will likely make people uncomfortable, and is a process of continuously checking yourself and your biases. Secondly, this method places non-Black users at the forefront of the fight for justice, taking up space unnecessarily while actively suppressing Black voices and the spread of vital information. You know what’s more effective than posting an empty screen to let everyone know that you’re stepping back to uplift Black voices? Stepping back and uplifting Black voices.
I’ve been reading "Between the World and Me," a book that was recently recommended through a Twitter thread because it shines light on the challenges of growing up and raising a Black son in America. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the book’s author, writes, “But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic — an orc, troll or gorgon.”
We are so focused on the politics of personal exoneration that we sometimes forget that our activism is most valuable when people aren’t looking. My complicity in racist culture has been most evident when I’ve held back from engaging in challenging conversations with family just to maintain peace, or when in high school, I and other Arab Americans tossed around the N-word like it was ours to use. As the bare minimum with regards to social media activism is evolving, our own actions must evolve as well.
Sharing links to mutual aid funds and local organizing efforts is a good place to start, but don’t forget to go beyond that by questioning the subtle ways anti-Blackness is ingrained in our communities and working proactively to understand the history of the oppression of Black people that our public education system reductively glosses over. Keep sharing and retweeting but also financially supporting grassroots organizations, engaging in challenging conversations, buying from Black-owned businesses over major retailers when possible and checking your own internal biases.
On the flip side, don’t judge or shame friends for not sharing enough; not posting does not necessarily indicate apathy. Let’s be mindful of how we choose to be active and conscious in pairing what we share on social media with how we engage within ourselves and elsewhere. Don’t tag 10 people who should do better — just do better.
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