Last week on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter I found myself inundated with social media posts about Amaud Arbury and George Floyd, and it made me feel uneasy in a way I didn’t expect. Yes, shock and outrage in response to the coverage of the murders themselves, but also a sense of unease at the sheer volume of content my peers were posting and the intent behind it.
I mean, this was good right? Truly awful crimes had been committed against black individuals and people had the right to be angry and aghast and to publicly express their emotions as such. I too feel sadness and outrage at the dehumanization of black lives and the fact that their killers are often not brought to justice. But days after every major news outlet had published front-page articles about Arbury and Floyd, people were still making posts on social media to “protest online” or “spread awareness” and that just didn’t make sense to me. You had to be living under a rock not to be aware. So what were these posts really about?
I first want to say that my discomfort and criticism of the response to racism and police violence is in NO WAY an attempt to downplay the issues themselves or the fact that they merit many different levels of response. I am proud of my friends who have made concrete calls to action: those who have protested (safely) or participated in antifa resistance, provided the contact information and call scripts for their local representatives, donated money to groups fighting racial injustice, or gave personal examples of the ways in which they support the minority-led businesses in their communities. My criticism is not of you.
My discomfort is in watching my mostly white, liberal, millennial friends posting like it’s the ally-ship Olympics to see who can share the most articles, lists, or graphics letting other white people know what they’re doing wrong and emphasizing white guilt. It feels a bit cringe, like the left wing equivalent of tweeting out your thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting. An acknowledgement that there is a problem and a signal that you care, but an action ultimately without any risk or consequence to yourself and therefore meaningless. A social media statement of personal feelings of outrage or perhaps shame that goes no further is a performance. I understand that there is and always has been much about social media that is performative, but this felt more offensive when juxtaposed with posed thirsty selfies or cute pets or photoshoots of perfectly baked loaves of sourdough on a personal page otherwise “unmarred” by political content.
If you still don’t understand my discomfort here, I’d suggest listening to Akilah Hughes in the first six minutes of the What a Day podcast from last Wednesday part of which is reproduced below:
The video of George Floyd’s murder was haphazardly retweeted into the feeds of black people everywhere to say ‘look at this horrible thing a police officer did to a black person’, but the voyeuristic nature of sharing black human beings murdered like it’s a normal thing on a Tuesday didn’t bring that guy back. It didn’t stop racism, in fact, racism didn’t end when we all saw Mike Brown laying in the street or when the Amaud Arbury video went viral, or when Eric Garner was choked to death over a few cigarettes, or Walter Scott getting shot to death … Are there people on earth that are unaware that black people fear the police because the police disproportionately kill black people?
Do we need videos to prove it, and do the videos ever result in justice? We’ve had smartphones that shoot videos since what, 2005? We know this happens. Awareness isn’t the point. We don’t share white death like this … The video footage is short-hand for desensitization. Ask yourself why you’re even comfortable looking at a video of someone being murdered. Then ask why you’d share it with everyone you know. If it was a dog you wouldn’t. So, what’s the reasoning? For what reason should we share footage of a person being murdered? I’m traumatized. Black people are traumatized.
So when I say ‘don’t look away’ I don’t mean ‘consume black death like it’s a meme on TikTok’. I mean ‘look in the mirror, look at your family, look at the community you live in, look at your friend group, look at the wealthy white woman with the rescue dog in the dog damn park, and don’t look away’. Because we know what the problem is. No one is unclear on what the problem is. So where’s the justice?– Akilah Hughes, What a Day, May 27, 2020
It’s alarming how all of a sudden everyone is an online activist. Yet I wonder how many of my friends who have this week used the #blacklivesmatter or #blackouttuesday hashtag have also never voted in a midterm election (only 35.6% of those age 29 and younger did in 2018 compared to 66.1% of those age 65 and older). Or ever written their local representative. Or donated regularly to charity. Who are all these Instagram activists in their offline lives?
I will agree that social media has a use in initially spreading awareness of situations before the mainstream press has picked them up. But we’re beyond that now. Awareness has been spread. If you still want to help, it’s time to move on to calls to action. Posting a black square on Instagram doesn’t actually accomplish anything. If your protest starts and ends with posting a black square captioned #blackouttuesday don’t pat yourself on the back for having done something and stop there. Don’t only care about social justice when it’s “trending.” It’s not cool or brave, it’s self-centered and transparent. We call that virtue signaling.
And then there are the businesses and institutions that have put out many vague statements condemning police violence, or expressing horror at the loss of innocent lives, and affirming support for racial equality. The music industry is participating in #theshowmustbepaused to halt new music releases for the week (to some bewilderment and head shaking from black artists). My inbox is flooded with messages from Airbnb, Etsy, Lyft, Nextdoor, and the UC Berkeley administration, some of which have questionable histories of racism. While it’s uplifting and encouraging that these often apolitical entities are speaking out on what is seen as a political issue, again I find myself wondering if these are hollow promises and more for optics.
There should be no shame in acknowledging that you haven’t done much (yet). Once you realize that there is much more you can do, be willing to do at least a little bit more. There are hundreds of articles, lists, and other resources out there if you want to better educate yourself on how to be anti-racist, on how to be a better ally, on how to combat police brutality. If you don’t have money to donate or large crowds give you anxiety, then order dinner from a black-owned restaurant tonight and tip generously (here’s a list of black-owned restaurants in the Bay Area). Amplify the voices of your black co-workers. Make sure you’re ready to vote in the next election, and help others get ready too. Speak up when your family members or friends make a racist or an ignorant joke or comment. Encourage others to do the same. Not everyone has to do everything, but everyone can do something.
If right about now you’re thinking “Ok, Eva, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is,” please do reach out (seriously) and ask me to share what I have personally done to fight inequality. I’d love to talk about it one-on-one (and also hear what you’ve done or help you get involved!), but I’d like to make this post less about ME and more about how we can all be be socially conscious and better in our activism.
I know that this is a hard time right now for everyone for different reasons, but there is always something you can do. Don’t just intend to do good or look like you’re doing good. ACTUALLY do good. Sometimes that means showing solidarity and visibly participating in a movement on social media. But more often it can mean helping anonymously in the background, or keeping your own mouth shut to amplify the voices of others. In these times when the change we desperately need is real change – not virtual – hold yourself accountable first.