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Black Squares Don’t Save Black Lives

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blackout tuesday
A sample of #BlackoutTuesday Instagram posts (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Even as protests rage worldwide, the performance and narcissistic half-hearted self-flagellation of white liberals and corporations has known no bounds. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others before them at the hands of the police, as well as the ongoing violent suppression of protest, it remains infuriating that Black struggle is so often met by nothing more than a  “We Hear For You.”

The recent “Blackout Tuesday” is a terrific example. Originally envisioned as “#TheShowMustBePaused” by Black music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang as a way to disrupt the industry and draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, it was hijacked into an avenue for white celebs and corporations to make themselves feel better. For all its good intentions, it mostly clogged up social media feeds with plain and meaningless black squares, sweeping away and subsuming more useful content spread via the BlackLivesMatter hashtag. And that’s after erasing its Black creators. In many cases, people simply posted a square black image with no caption and left it at that. It was all lip service and performative nonsense that buried more essential information. Thankfully, some proved willing to listen to those telling them it wasn’t enough, and the imagery became accompanied by links to resources for education (some even opened up the company coffers to back up their words). But that campaign is just the most prominent example of many meaningless gestures by complacent white people and companies, ranging from the insulting to the downright embarrassing.

In the latter category, you can find things like the wave of TikToks of people lip-syncing to Macklemore’s “Same Love” (I’m not joking), or the viral video of EDM producer David Guetta sampling Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech ahead of a bass drop, in (admittedly hilarious) moments so absurd that they feel ripped straight from a Sacha Baron Cohen sketch or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. While it feels fruitless to point out that “Same Love” is about marriage equality and not racism, it feels like an appropriate marker for this trend — all surface-level comparisons amidst a refocusing of the spotlight of struggle and protest onto how bad white people feel about it.

One such example of meaningless conciliatory gestures is this video of people “renouncing their white privilege,” demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how privilege works. Worse still is the sharing of videos of cops taking a knee, supposedly in solidarity with protesters. This doesn’t mean anything, especially when those same cops take to brutalizing protesters as soon as the news cameras go away. This kind of “allyship” is all an act that only serves to amplify the self, not those you’re supposedly supporting. Ellen DeGeneres saying that things need to change doesn’t mean much while she’s still friends with war criminal George W. Bush. Companies that have been historically complicit in the racist abuse of their employees saying they feel bad without demonstrating any internal change doesn’t mean anything either.

There’s a delicate balance to walk between showing support and self-aggrandizement (and for some, it’s dangerous to say anything), but the plainest, most obvious difference between the two is superficiality. Don’t just say you hear us; do something. Don’t just support Black people when it’s making headlines; support them all year-round. Even if you’re cautious about appearing to be a narcissist, showing you’ve taken actionable steps is crucial, and far less harmful than being silent or thinking that lip-syncing to “Same Love” is activism. There are so many resources available even just on that feeling — take writer Michelle Cassandra Harper’s steps on non-optical allyship.

Even during a pandemic, if you can’t be on the streets (as many vulnerable people can’t), there are myriad ways you can help, even without opening your wallet. Creative YouTubers have utilized ad revenue to donate to Black Lives Matter on behalf of those who can’t afford it. You can call representatives, distribute information, make signs. So many people worldwide have already done so, with a huge outpouring of support for community-established bail funds and mutual aid and unprecedented momentum behind the movement. Black squares, slogans, and espousing white guilt are all meaningless if not backed up by action and tangible support. If you’re an ally, it shouldn’t just be about you or how you feel; it should be about how you can help.

Links:

Non-optical allyship guide: https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/non-optical-ally-guide

Mutual aid and bail funds: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/bail_funds_george_floyd

GoFundMe for the family of Belly Mujinga, a British rail worker who died of Covid-19 after being spat on: https://www.gofundme.com/f/rip-belly-mujinga

More places to donate: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1yrbSmMhv01VZpxhw-zViE2hYQZkixFiG6QGyreDaLMg/edit#gid=123144556

More YouTube videos monetized for BLM: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqws4vy_Bzkz_Jj-Er-NrGD6gn1D9E_yo

Support Black Lives Matter: https://blmovement.shop/

Other ways to help: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/




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