Black lives

“The Issue with Digital Activism: The Case of Black Lives Matter”?

“Breaking your silence is the first step towards a long journey of striving for equality and social justice.”

Following the recent killings of Oluwatoyin Salau, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, there has been an upsurge in activism as many non-black people are confronting the realities of racism that have been ignored for centuries. The multidimensional nature of activism becomes prevalent, especially amidst a global pandemic. These outlets include social media visibility, physical protests, spreading awareness through difficult conversations, signing petitions, donating, fundraising, and contacting legislators and politicians. Whilst there are protestors on the street, others who are unable to join them are supporting the movement through authentic allyship. However, it may be easy to slip into performative activism – a form of activism that is done to increase one’s social capital over a genuine devotion to a particular cause also referred to as ‘slacktivism’. But these modalities are not enough, it reduces the entire movement to displays of perfunctory advocacy hidden under the veil of pseudo-solidarity. 

What becomes dubious is the fact that this newfound activism inundating all social media platforms seems to be sudden; spreading across like wildfire through the echo chambers of ‘reposts’ and ‘retweets’. Whilst this has been a relatively recent development in contemporary times, these injustices and systemic inequalities maintained through social structures have existed for centuries. Even so, many people have chosen to stay silent before the latest killings and instances of police brutality. Why has it taken a social media trend for people to finally speak up against decades of oppression faced by black people? Why have people woken up only now?

Social media has been used as a tool for advocacy and to disseminate important information about protests and educational resources. However, it can often act as a protective shield – enough to create the perception of being “woke”, but also act as a scapegoat to bypass accountability for concrete actions. For instance, the #BlackoutTuesday black box highlights the optical and illusory nature of such activism. The original intention was to put a pause on the music industry specifically, but this gesture swiftly became a trend and overshadowed vital information being shared with the #BLM hashtag. This resulted in #BlackoutTuesday having 28 million posts on Instagram whilst #BLM stunted on 21 million posts and petitions being nowhere near such numbers in 2020. Thus, a key aspect of social media behavior that has been influenced by consumerism is the lack of curiosity – we are no longer seeking information or context. In this sense, the performative is a fundamental characteristic of how social media platforms operate- people select the content that contributes to the perceptions of the way they want to present themselves. However, posting about the recent killings is not enough – to be a productive ally requires substantial education on issues that surround white fragility and privilege, the colonial past, and how one can contribute. We need to make sure that the movement is not capitalized upon in the form of being ‘trendy’. 

The pandemic has highlighted how oblivious and opportunistic celebrities can be. Despite having big platforms which can influence millions of people, it seems as if many of them have not grasped the gravity of the issue and are only committed to doing the bare minimum. Words of solidarity seem extremely embarrassing and ironic coming from celebrities that have thrived on black aesthetics and cultural appropriation to further their own careers. This is not activism. It is an approach chosen by celebrities that conveniences them. It is a hollow gesture at its worst and virtue signaling at its best. This approach devalues the entire movement and inevitably underscores why things have reached a breaking point. 

This urgency of showing (fake) solidarity towards #BLM on social media seems to have emerged only now – six years later since the Black Lives Matter movement began. For instance, Amazon has faced many criticisms for the unethical treatment of its employees in recent years but issuing a statement for BLM is almost an insult to the movement. Similarly, L’Oréal’s tweet on standing in solidarity with the Black Community is juxtaposed by the lack of representation of Black models such as Munroe Bergdorf who was dropped during a campaign. These antics amount to corporate gaslighting, where companies have co-opted the movement to their agendas of appearing to be politically ‘woke’. 

Celebrities and corporations were quick to jump on this trend with varying responses ranging from wanting to dismantle white supremacy to using a more indirect and non-confrontational approach. All this was enacted against a backdrop of hypocrisy, with many celebrities sustaining their existence upon racial oppression through the likes of promoting skin tone enhancing creams and fast fashion that oppressed minorities. Examples include Kendell Jenner photoshopping herself against a damaged property as if she was in a protest and Priyanka Chopra displaying solidarity on her social media whilst notoriously being known for campaigning for skin-lightening creams. 

What can we do?

Many activists have called out such performative activism as being unsustainable and ineffective for the broader movement. Decolonizing our society, questioning our biases, and acknowledging our privilege is a continuous process of making our society anti-racist. We need to do more than addressing an issue and actively seek solutions to those problems. Taking activism further requires unlearning what we have learned about racism rooted in the colonial past. It takes a conscious effort to understand social structures from a postcolonial lens. Racial oppression of 400 years cannot be wiped away in a single day; it requires moving beyond the black box and keeping up the movement after protests have been quelled. This could potentially be manifested in the form of supporting black businesses, donating to black charities and organizations, and most importantly, voting.

Simply doing nothing does not do anything either. In a society that is taught to perpetuate a culture based on individualism, we are often told to resist a group mentality. However, whilst this apprehension is justified, at least something is better than nothing. I urge you to involve yourself in the movement, even if you feel that you may come across as unoriginal for reiterating something that has already been said. Sharing something is more valuable than staying mute. Breaking your silence is the first step towards a long journey of striving for equality and social justice. There is no excuse to not engage.

Samiya Usmani is a Sociology and Social Policy undergraduate student at the University of Bath. Born and raised in New Delhi, Samiya migrated to the UK in 2017, achieving academic success at A level before progressing to university. Having moved around the globe, Samiya understands the importance of multiculturalism. With a keen passion for social research work, Samiya has hopes of influencing policymaking after she graduates – possibly within the civil service sector. Her curiosity for understanding the world in which she lives in is what drives her love for academia. Her research interests include human rights, race relations, social activism and political participation. In her free time, Samiya enjoys listening to podcasts, reading books, and playing the ukulele.

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