Post a Black Square, Become an Anti-Racist: Performing Black Lives Matter Activism Online

By Rachael Nuckles

In the fall semester, my conference work surrounded girls’ feminist activism as it manifested in various media formats. I began with the zine-fueled activism of the 1990s’ Riot Grrrl network, moving towards girls’ blogs on sites like Tumblr, personal websites, and eventually to their use of social media platforms like Twitter in the wake of #MeToo. This work showed me the double-edged sword of modern-day activist participation. To put it shortly, while social media sites make crucial information readily accessible to the everyday activist within moments of posting, these platforms also allow what some have termed “Clicktivism.” Political scientist David Karpf writes an excellent article on this phenomenon, explaining that participating in an activist movement or group now “entail[s] nothing more than a mouse click” [1] which results in “vanishingly thin relationships” between the clicker and the cause. 

I am reminded of this as I navigate my own social media, all featuring a variety of people both participating in or rejecting the current Black Lives Matter protests. On both ends of the spectrum, posts proclaim loudly one’s stance; whether the person falls in the “All Lives Matter” camp or within what I truly believe is the right side of history, posters are quick to defend their beliefs which are supposedly evidenced by the post they shared. Inevitably, using Karpf’s term, many of these posts are the result of a thin relationship to activism.

Sharing an article is easy. It allows the sharer to feel as if they have done their part without them having to endure any real consequence for their action. This type of activism means one doesn’t actually have to identify with the cause, just play the part. For one glaring example, consider the recent Blackout Tuesday event in which users of social media began a chain of posting black squares to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to the posts, many chose to use this opportunity to promote black-created art, black-owned businesses, and other vital resources for on the ground protesters. Meant to disrupt white business-as-usual, these squares were inevitably used by some to visually represent the poster as a supporter of BLM without the weight of responsibility that comes from more thick participation in activist movements. In some arenas, posting the square could mean you “fit in” with a group, that you would be perceived as “not racist,” and, ultimately, that you had visually marked yourself as an activist in solidarity with BLM. 

Yet, after Tuesday, many who posted their black square of solidarity fell silent about the cause. After visually signifying their activist intentions, many posters returned to their privilege, sharing selfies and uplifting quotes like “can’t we all just get along?” No mention of BLM, no sharing of black creators, and no resources for getting involved. As many others have said before, this type of activism is merely a performance. To hop on a cause as it “trends” does not equate promoting true change. Civic cultural scholar Sangita Shresthova writes a chapter on one of the first, most well known online activist movements of the recent past, Kony 2012. Remember how easy it was to say you cared, when really all you had to do was share a video? As Shresthova describes, it is an “illusion” to think that “surfing the web can change the world.” [3] Online activism alone can never accomplish the widespread change needed by many activist causes.

In truth, online activism has powerful potential. We have seen the power of hashtags such as #MeToo promoting change with the recent convictions of rapist Harvey Weinstein. Recently, we have witnessed significant changes in George Floyd’s case as a direct result of mass protests. Charges were brought against all four officers involved with the murder of Floyd, and Derek Chauvin (who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for approximately 9 minutes) received an updated, second-degree murder charge for his role. Much of this is thanks to online organization promoted by #BlackLivesMatter and the hashtag’s accompanying organization. However, a hashtag is simply not enough. These few positive outcomes are not cause to stop protesting on behalf of the causes these hashtags represent. Online activism must also transform into activism in one’s daily life. A conviction doesn’t come solely from sharing articles and posting “solidarity.” It comes from a combination of efforts, all joined in a common cause. 

I hesitate to completely disapprove of online-based activism because sometimes it truly is all a person can do. As I discovered in the fall, social media and other online platforms are often used by teenage girls to participate in activism they otherwise would not be able to access. Media Scholar Jessalynn Keller notes that blogging, tweeting, and sharing are often “accessible to girls in their everyday lives, making it a desirable way to participate in feminism.” [4] One of the girls interviewed in this article, Rory, says “for those of us who can’t drive two hours to protest…or whip out $100 whenever a worthy charity comes along, blogging is the next best thing.” [5] Additionally, we cannot ignore the connectivity provided by sites like Twitter. Recently, I have noticed this platform’s use in spreading information quickly and to large numbers of people. My recent research of girls’ media use supports this, showing how easy it is for young activists to spread information in real time for those on the ground. [6]

We are in a crucial moment. We either fight to change the oppressive systems that disproportionately affect Black lives, or we remain complacent in white supremacy and injustice. For me, it’s as simple as that. Right now there is no space to simply perform activism; we cannot pretend, we can only be. Performing activist behaviors, going through the motions to appear involved without holding yourself accountable daily, is equivalent in many ways to remaining silent; to remain silent is to actively choose to disregard the rights of others. I, for one, choose to stand up and use my privileged voice until everyone has a fair chance at life. 

Below is a compilation of resources (which I found via Instagram user @mengwe) for those who wish to also stand up and use their voices:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1d3k85EwQ2s_rs6XaA-HPVO3W4zYHGCaf/view?fbclid=IwAR0-0cbgKD9IZ_g7DpjYG7zDnMC5iRwSHPucd-qRFMJ8ubNqpEu-a_LGlkU

Endnotes:

[1]Karpf, David. “The Technological Basis of Organizational Membership: Representation of Interests in the New Media Age.” In Representation: Elections and Beyond, edited by Nagel Jack H. and Smith Rogers M., 215-35. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhtrg.13. 218.

[2] Karpf, 219.

[3] Shresthova, Sangita, Henry Jenkins, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Arely M. Zimmerman, and Elisabeth Soep. ““Watch 30 Minute Video on Internet, Become Social Activist”?: Kony 2012, Invisible Children, and the Paradoxes of Participatory Politics.” In By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, 61-101. New York: NYU Press, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt180401m.5. 67.

[4]Keller, Jessalynn. “Making Activism Accessible: Exploring Girls’ Blogs as Sites of Contemporary Feminist Activism.” In Girlhood and the Politics of Place, edited by Mitchell Claudia and Rentschler Carrie, 261-78. NEW YORK; OXFORD: Berghahn Books, 2016. doi:10.2307/j.ctt14jxn16.20. 265.

[5] ibid.

[6] This article has a great example of teenagers using Twitter in order to spread real-time information about a sexist, girl only dress code assembly during school. During the assembly, girls were able to speak to each other in real time and speak out against this event. Of course, while this is just one example, we can apply this framework to view potential activist uses of social media in other spheres. Keller, Jessalynn, Kaitlynn Mendes, and Jessica Ringrose. “Speaking ‘unspeakable Things’: Documenting Digital Feminist Responses to Rape Culture.” Journal of Gender Studies 27, no. 1 (2018): 22-36. doi:10.1080/09589236.2016.1211511.

Rachael is a Midwesterner at heart finishing her first year as a masters candidate in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence. Her thesis work will complicate the notion of the feminist wave and the construction of feminist icons while exploring the influence of the Riot Grrrl network of the 1990s in more contemporary forms of feminist activism. Some of her side interests include women’s rage, performance studies, and “cancel culture.”

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