Affecting real change in the age of social media hyper-activism

Does posting a black square contribute to solving systemic racism and police brutality? 

What difference does it make to tag ten friends in an Instagram story? 

While striving for social justice, these are the questions that we must ask ourselves. When activism is done solely to boost one’s social image, it is performative, devoid of any real meaning.
Emilya Gebru

The past few weeks have seen a whirlpool of social justice activity, prompted in large part by the death of George Floyd––an unarmed black man who was tragically murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. In the U.S. and across the world, civil unrest is reaching unprecedented levels as people take to the streets demanding justice for Floyd and countless others lost to police brutality. As a result, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continues to gain massive momentum in a social media frenzy as hashtags, awareness posts, and discussion flood the internet.

But Black Lives Matter is not a product of 2020. People are suddenly “hopping on” this campaign, but let’s not discount the activism that Black Lives Matter has done in the last decade. The movement was founded back in 2013 by three black women––Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi––in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. Since then, BLM has evolved to organize and strengthen black communities impacted by violence. It is not simply a trend to be forgotten about in a week.

When we solely post black squares for #BlackoutTuesday or call on our friends to participate in a social media game, we detract from the movement itself. Sure, such gestures can bring awareness to certain situations. But they do virtually nothing to spark legitimate reform in serious matters.

Junior Annalise Thomas believes that such performative actions do not equate to being an activist. “What is this black box supposed to achieve? What are you even saying? How is this helping?” she says. “Posting that doesn’t automatically mean you’re not a racist or that you’ve done enough.”

Unfortunately, though, performative activism allows us to believe that posting and tagging is enough to participate. Without taking any additional measures, this cycle of complacency will continue to harvest no change whatsoever.

Tagging ten people on an Instagram story lasts 24 hours. Users will most likely remove a black square in a couple weeks or so since it interferes with their “aesthetic.” For allies who truly want to contribute to a movement, posting online is the bare minimum. It is important to recognize that a movement is long-lasting and intended to make concrete change, not a brief moment of awareness.

With that, it is also important to note that allies, in this case non-black people, should not be part of the primary vanguard pushing for change. At protests and rallies, we are guests of black people who directly suffer from systemic oppression. So, it is particularly distressing when people like social media influencers treat protests as photo-ops or as an opportunity to virtue signal “for the ‘Gram.” Protests are not tourist attractions, and allyship is not meant to incite selfish praise.

For the Black Lives Matter movement—or any movement—successful allyship must be about centering and amplifying the voices of those impacted.

It may seem that in the last few weeks, social media has pushed us, especially allies, to outwardly show our support. But that feeling comes from a place of privilege as black people live through systemic trauma every day.

For Junior Yande Faye, the movement right now is all too familiar. “I was at a Black Lives Matter protest two or three years ago, and I was just at one at Lakeforest Mall today,” she says. “Why is it still taking this long for people to realize the injustice going on?”

For Faye and many others, such a movement holds relevance to their everyday lives. Imagine how frustrating it is to see people diminishing the movement to just another social media trend. “It’s really degrading seeing some of my friends post one thing and move on, when we have to worry about this every day,” Faye says.

One can argue that performative actions such as black squares, selfies at a protest, or even solidarity statements from corporations, are done with good intentions. But none of it holds any weight until we translate these good-faith efforts into real actions with real outcomes.

We need to realize that all the black-out posts, videos of police officers doing the Cupid Shuffle, and photos of Democrats wearing kente clothing propagates a false notion of aiding the movement. Social media activism is an important first step to recognizing the problem, but it cannot be the last. Real change comes from action, and we must put the “active” in activism.

The word “activism” for students like Thomas, is not about condemning racism or oppression, but being proactive in creating change. “It is not enough to only speak out against it,” Thomas says. “You have to educate yourself and make sure you know what you’re talking about with how severe this whole issue of police brutality is and the brutal history behind it.”

It is easy to simply denounce systemic racism, but there are more substantial ways to advocate for change. If you cannot change the law, vote. If you cannot vote, protest. If you cannot protest, donate. If you cannot donate, sign petitions. And if you have signed all the petitions in the world, initiate productive conversations with those around you and further educate yourself and others. And none of these actions are mutually exclusive.

As legendary political activist Angela Davis once put it, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” When we acknowledge racism and injustice, we need to do more than retweet, share, or post. We need to commit to fighting against it.

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