An Empty Square Is An Empty Gesture: Make Yourself Useful Or Get Out Of The Way
We all woke up this morning and saw them — a cascade of black tiles, fist emojis, #blackoutTuesday. Is this a social media blackout? Because it looks like a smokescreen to me.
The genesis of this idea, #TheShowMustBePaused was launched by two Black women, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang. Blackout Tuesday originated there, within the music industry — a call from Thomas and Agyemang that companies not conduct “business as usual,” but rather use this time to figure out how to best support the black community, and the uprising occurring across America. It was meant to be a day to put profit on hold and center Black lives. You can read the specifics here, #TheShowMustBePaused.
I am not a Black woman, and I am not a part of the music industry, and I will not use my voice to speak to their intentions. I am here to talk to you about what this day turned into in the hands of white Instagram users, something I undeniably am. And let’s just scream this right out of the gate: the excruciating point that this movement launched by Black women has been co-opted and overshadowed by white people is not lost on me, and I certainly hope it isn’t lost on you.
Somewhere along the line, the verbiage around this idea became a “social media blackout,” a call to non-Black people to step aside, and leave space for Black voices. But then somewhere, the plot shifted — the new idea being to post a single black tile, with a message supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests exploding all over the country this week. I do not know the means by which this became a part of the collective internet hive-mind, but its proliferation has been staggering, and I simply cannot understand why we are falling for it.
The first thing I can’t understand is why people think that advocates and allies going silent is an effective means of support? Should you stop posting selfies, or promoting your white-owned business for a few days in the face of this uprising? Absolutely. (Also, WERE YOU REALLY NOT DOING THAT YET?) But should you TAKE THE DAY OFF, leaving an EMPTY SQUARE behind you? Folks, that’s not solidarity. That’s resignation.
This is also a really easy out for people who don’t care enough to take action. Imagine if everyone who posted a black square donated $20 to a Bail Fund, and shared the information about them. THAT’S NOTHING AND IT’S STILL MORE THAN YOUR BLACK SQUARE. Instead of posting a black square, follow five Black activists, spend money at five Black-owned businesses, call five police departments to demand justice. Imagine being a Black person, fighting for your right to LITERALLY JUST BE ALIVE, watching your white friends perform a social gesture without doing any actual work to help?
I’ve also had white friends express to me that they aren’t sure how to vocally engage in active support of Black life without stepping on Black voices and speaking out of turn. That is a valid concern, and it’s something every one of us should carry around as a filter every damn day, but it doesn’t absolve you of the need to do the hard work to confront the racism within yourself and around you. We will screw up. We will speak out of turn. We will get called out and it will feel uncomfortable as hell. Sitting with that discomfort and learning from it is your duty as a human being. Also, none of this is about how you feel. No one needs to see your solidarity. They need to see you fight. To quote Camonghne Felix, “Your friends are dying. Your guilt is irrelevant.”
This blackout is especially dangerous when you consider the fact that cable news networks and the social media accounts of newspapers we are supposed to be relying on for NEWS continue to promote photos of police kneeling with protesters in faux solidarity. It is likely because I was raised as a Jew, and spent all of my formative years being trained to recognize propaganda, but you all need to think for a minute about why a cop would kneel down with protestors for a photo, and then follow an order to tear-gas the same group of people 20 minutes later.
It’s especially disappointing when you realize that these same news networks are focusing their coverage, time after time, on “wHo Is DoInG tHe LoOtINg,” rather than hold a militarized, out of control police force accountable for following orders that are considered crimes of war in overseas conflict, during a protest AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY.
Black thought leaders are getting called in for interviews having to dissect whether destruction of property is a valid form of protest, rather than centering the movement, talking about the sanctity of Black lives, the disproportionate instance of Black death, and the fact that the majority of this nation is simply begging the police to stop killing people.
In many circumstances, the social media feeds of protestors on the ground, and the activists and organizers who are supporting them are our only un-filtered glimpse into what is actually going on. In many instances, it’s the only way protestors can get information about violence heading their way, curfew hours changing rapidly, and where to get much-needed help when they need it.
As a friend said to me this morning, “Governments abroad block internet access, but here they ask people to stop using it as a way of protesting voluntarily. Brilliant.” Our President announced yesterday that he’ll invoke a 200 year old law in order to bring the military into cities that request it to silence protests. Is this really the day to stop sharing information and screaming for justice? A wall of black tiles today isn’t a vigil, it’s a smokescreen.
Truly, if the point of this blackout is to be quiet and make room for black voices, then BE QUIET. If you think your voice has nothing to add, DON’T ADD ANYTHING. Don’t dominate the conversation while simultaneously saying nothing.
As an Instagram user, you understand how hashtags work. The Black Lives Matter hashtag has become an invaluable resource for activists and allies to share information. Today, it is a wall of black tiles. Using BLM hashtags on empty posts literally erases the work of the people you are claiming to support. That’s not advocacy or allyship. It’s flaccid at best and obliterative at worst.
As white people, we need to figure out how to make ourselves useful in this fight, while we keep the focus on the people it’s about. You can support people how you see fit, but it’s my thinking that the only place a white person should get in the way is at a protest.
Make yourself useful or get out of the way.