You are not doing the activism you think you’re doing by reposting a black square. I guarantee you that the Black person you think you are helping does not have enough energy to engage in discourse or even hold space on Instagram. And while social media use has only increased during quarantine, performative activism has begun to suffocate the very voices activists have been striving to highlight, begging me to ask—who is this work for? Because I know very few Black people who can safely say they’ve benefited from the continuous intake of trauma porn, mortality-rate statistics, or seeing our disenfranchisement commodified for the world to finally reckon with.
It’s irrefutable that online activism is just as significant as protesting. Since many people don’t have the ability to attend protests (especially amid a pandemic), posts about accountability disrupting the timelines of the intolerant are absolutely necessary. But when social media activism becomes so widespread, we’re forced to ask—are we reading all these infographics or just regurgitating?
Some have been calling the past few months an infodemic; others say we’re living through an unprecedented moment of reckoning. In my opinion, colorful gradient 1080px posts tackling the gender binary and institutional racism are simply a good first step. What we are currently witnessing is in no way the revolution. Canva cannot and will not ever be the platform to push radical thinking. The aestheticization of Black death is just one issue I have with the corporatized artistic freedom the platform grants individuals, and their company has yet to even publicly recognize their role in social media activism.
We all partake in online activism in an effort to close the knowledge gap, sway the conservatives in our lives, and just generally feel like better people after hitting the repost button. And that right there is just one of the issues—because the sharing of anti-racist rhetoric should be selfless. Once online activism became about curation and who has the largest platform to spread their work, its path quickly diverged from radical thought. The online activism we saw as radical just a few months ago has been co-opted by non-Black people, and I don’t know how to get back on track. Or if I, as a Black woman, should even exert my precious time and adhere to the twisted notion that Black women will save the world.
Instagram has become a reformist echo-chamber, even though a lot of the posts literally say “reform is inherently anti-black.” Everyone now has the means to understand the oppressive nature of America, but many still choose to not radicalize themselves and work within the same oppressive structures. The same people who were posting beach photos amid multiple national crises are now engaging in anti-racism, which means nobody is actually engaging with radical discourse as well as we all initially thought. If everyone across class and racial lines is absolving themselves, why are we still stuck here? It's truly a conundrum, but what's interesting is that the revolutionary thought we all seem to simultaneously be pursuing is working with the invisibility of institutional racism—rather than against the performance and social contract that allow these very systems to thrive. Nobody needs to know you’re reading White Fragility; your fragility is showing when you post a picture of your favorite quote.
I say this all with the firm belief that online activism is more beneficial than no activism. I cannot even remember what my feed looked like before this year, and I’m glad—but there must be room for critique. We must constantly question what is at stake in certain virtual reproductions. In a culture of assimilation, what does it mean to simultaneously live within a racist society and disavow oneself of internalized biases? Is this even a possibility on social media platforms with algorithms devised to suppress Black and queer creators in the name of protection? The structural integrity of online activism is rapidly devolving, and the proof is undeniable with the reporting of false information and the sharing of posts created by highly questionable verified individuals. With every passing day, the performativity embedded in the work of others is being exposed. So many people repost infographics about holding your friends accountable—all while being friends with known assaulters and racists. And even worse, nearly everyone reposts guidelines to being a better ally without taking any of their own advice.
It’s no longer an issue of taking accountability, because we are all more than capable of being honest; many would just rather not confront the fact that the anti-racist infographics cluttering their socials are just as cherry-picked as the personas they’ve stolen from queer, Black, and brown cultures.
As I scrolled through Instagram for the first time last week, I stumbled across a graphic explaining why Black people need to get out and vote. The more I interact with social media, the more I come to terms with the fact that Black people have been shouting from the top of our lungs since the beginning of time and none of our words have ever been absorbed in their entirety. Anyone who actually engaged with anti-racist literature would know that voting is anything but the answer—especially when voter suppression is the norm in our society. Binary systems simply do not work.
So for now, instead of running the risk of emotional drainage, I will once again limit my screen time. The fact is more people have an inkling about what it will take to create a world where Black people can live and thrive, and nothing less than a radical political transformation is acceptable. We all want to use our virtual space to devise more positive constructions of race and sexuality, but in the due process we’ve fallen short of our initial goals.
Illustration by Zac Freeland for Vox.