Yesterday was #BlackOutTuesday – a trend that started in the music industry and quickly spread across social media with people sharing black squares and effectively muting their accounts for 24 hours in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter cause.
Scrolling through Instagram, you will have seen post after post of plain black squares. Some with hashtags and insightful comments, but most completely blank. It was a stark and unavoidable image – but many people believe that the campaign missed the mark.
While the intention may have been one of solidarity and support, many saw the black squares as a continuation of the silence and avoidance that perpetuates racism in the first place.
‘I don’t want your black squares, I don’t want silence,’ wrote one woman on Twitter. ‘Retweet us, share information. No I don’t want your hot takes but I still want the active spread of information to occur.’
‘The black squares and your silence are utterly useless if you are not lifting up Black voices!!’ added another.
‘Share info, share posts or handles, retweet us. You don’t need to add commentary. Just share.’
The problem for many is that the message very quickly became performative. A jumping-on-the-bandwagon form of solidarity.
Actress Emma Watson – who is an active and vocal advocate for the #MeToo movement – has been criticised for posting three black squares, with some saying she posted three so it wouldn’t mess up the aesthetic of her Instagram grid.
(She has since released a full statement in response to widespread backlash.)
Many Black people have been quick to point out that the silence of people in positions of power – people with privilege and huge platforms – is literally the opposite of what we need we right now. So posting a black square and ‘muting’ your account is not the gesture of support that you might think it is.
In addition to the futility of silence, the black squares have also been actively stifling important messages from campaigners.
Using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter alongside a black square means that when people search for the movement online they are inundated with these images, rather than information about protests, petitions or how to donate funds.
The problem with using social media for ‘activism’ is that it can very easily become about the person who is posting, and the image they are trying to present about themselves – rather than the cause they are attempting to elevate.
It’s all too easy to post a black square on your profile to present the impression that you are engaged in the current conversation – without doing any of the work to educate yourself about the wider context, or find a way to actively help.
BlackOutTuesday recorded more than 20 million black squares posted on Instagram, which is more than double the amount of signatures on most petitions that are actually calling for change.
So, of all the people posting a black square, how many are actively petitioning for justice, and how many see this as the latest social media trend that will never be thought of again after 24 hours?
Social media can be an incredible tool for inspiring change and galvanizing people who otherwise would not have engaged.
Over the past week we have seen plenty of considered, thoughtful and useful posts from white people all over the world – using their privilege to amplify marginalised voices, share important information and call for people to act.
But the heart of activism always has to be the people who you are trying to help – and social media can quickly skew that focus.
It’s incredibly jarring for Black people to see endless posts that claim to support the fight for racial justice from people and brands who have never spoken up before and may never speak up again – particularly when those posts aren’t saying a thing.
Black people are sharing helpful content, petitions, information about charities and how to protest – but these actually effective methods of support are not being re-posted with anywhere near the same frequency. Which again suggests that the posts are more about the poster, and less about amplifying Black voices.
Writer and editor of The Good Immigrant, Chimene Suleyman, summed up this sentiment in a tweet: ‘White people posting black squares like they’re doing the next ice bucket challenge.
‘You have to ask yourself why declaring “I am not racist” is more important than amplifying black and brown voices, or actively standing up to racists, or educating other white people.’
To log back on after 24 hours to see normal service resume on the timeline – selfies, sourdough, sunbathing – sends the message that the fight for racial equality is a fleeting trend, rather than a persistent, lived reality for millions of people.
If you have posted a black square without comment or any accompanying information that could be useful, this isn’t meant to shame you. It’s an opportunity to react and improve your response.
The sentiment behind the black squares is, overall, a positive one. But there are better ways to use your voice and speak out against injustice.
Don’t just post the current trend and then pat yourself on the back, satisfied that you have done enough. There is so much more work to be done.
What to do after you have posted a black square
There is nothing shameful in not knowing something. Do the work to become more informed.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Natives by Akala, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo are great titles to start with.
Share and re-post information
If you don’t feel comfortable adding your own commentary to this discussion – that is fine.
Follow black writers, activists and influencers on social media and re-post the work that resonates with you. (With a credit and link, of course).
Here are some of the key petitions you can add your name to:
Colour of Change petition to charge all officers involved with George Floyds murder be charged with murder
Change.org petition for justice for George Floyd
Black Lives Matter, two petitions you can sign to help black communities dealing with coronavirus and demanding racial data
Donate time and money
There are plenty of resources highlighting where best to donate funds.
You can donate to Floyd’s family, via their GoFundMe page, which was set up by his brother, who writes: ‘This fund is established to cover funeral and burial expenses, mental and grief counseling, lodging and travel for all court proceedings, and to assist our family in the days to come as we continue to seek justice for George.
‘A portion of these funds will also go to the Estate of George Floyd for the benefit and care of his children and their educational fund.’
You can even look up local Black-owned charities and organisations that would benefit from you volunteering your time or services.
Normally we’d be pushing you to go to a protest to make your voices heard, but in light of coronavirus we’re very conscious of the need to socially distance.
So, if you do want to go along, make sure you take as many precautions as you can to stay away from other demonstrators.
And you’ll just have to shout that bit louder.