At least once a month, I mindlessly swipe through my old high school classmates’ Instagram stories and see some cute, pastel-colored bingo card with their Venmo listed underneath, along with the name of a charity or organization their sorority is supporting.
The process usually starts with someone repeatedly stating the importance of donating to a charity that benefits young children or a marginalized group. Then, a cute template of a bingo card with small amounts is listed. The bingo template is gradually reposted until all the spaces are filled. It’s an easy and interactive way to utilize social media to support a cause. But what’s problematic about this, especially now in the wake of the protests for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?
The problem here isn’t with colorful Instagram story templates or supporting causes like Service for Sight or Camp Kesem or the Make-a-Wish Foundation. In the last week, people that usually vehemently post about topics like that have gone completely silent.
The inherent crux of the issue here is people picking and choosing when and which causes or organizations to support—particularly when it benefits them in a way. The problem lies with people who label themselves as “charitable” or “activists,” that are usually extremely vocal about social justice—but now are completely silent about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though social media has been vital in spreading the word about movements, social justice, and other key information, it also enables the dangerous growth of performative activism.
Performative activism can manifest in different forms, but one of the most simple versions of it is just reposting an image about a certain movement to voice your support, and that’s it—like reposting a #BlackLivesMatter image without any intention of enacting long-term justice or change. Performative activists hit the repost button as a means of “absolving” their guilt—or feel like that’s all they need to do to be an activist.
We’ve seen performative activism in celebrities, large companies, and others—who usually have the means, privilege, or platform to donate or contribute to a greater cause. Rather, they’ve remained silent, donating small amounts (like that long-standing thread on Twitter of big-name celebrities matching a $50 amount).
In the same vein, many white celebrities and large, predominantly white universities have posted vague Instagram posts about seeking equality—without addressing anything about systematic racism, police brutality, or George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, and countless other individuals who have lost their lives to police brutality.
For non-black people to post about “seeking peace and equality” without directly acknowledging America’s horrific history of systematic racism and violence, these posts are essentially useless. Virtue signaling is defined along the lines of feigning outrage at a situation in order to promote your own “positive” morals or virtues. Virtue signaling is inherently driven by the goal of being seen and reacted to positively by an audience. There’s no follow-up action when it comes to virtue signaling—just empty words and promises.
Instagram trends in the last week have been widely criticized as simply performative or acts of virtue signaling. From the “tag 10 friends who support #BlackLivesMatter” story trend” to posting a black tile with either #blackouttuesday or #BlackLivesMatter as a caption, these trends are seen as an easy way to seemingly voice your support without having to take other action.
On June 2nd, Jamila Thomas and Briana Agyemang, two black women in the music industry, organized Black Out Tuesday on Instagram to allow those in the music industry to pause in posting, and to stand in solidarity with the black community. Thomas and Agyemang intended to use the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused to create a more honest, open dialogue. On Tuesday morning, the world woke up to millions of black squares on Instagram under the #BlackLivesMatter tag.
The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram, which previously contained vital information about protests, links to bail funds and petitions, and countless other valuable resources, now was drowned out by black tiles.
I scrolled down my Instagram feed on Tuesday morning to an endless stream of black tiles captioned #BlackLivesMatter from mostly white classmates in high school and college. At this point, news about George Floyd’s death had been circulating for a week. Many cities across the nation had established curfews. Countless cities in the U.S. and beyond had been protesting, rallying, and marching for days in solidarity with the black community. Organizations such as the Minnesota Freedom Fund, Black Visions Collective, National Bail Out, and other local bail funds had shared PayPals, Venmos, and CashApps to which people could send funds.
Many of these blackout posters have remained completely silent throughout the last week, and now are choosing to vocalize their support in the quickest way possible. Almost as a way to absolve their guilt, or give themselves a pat on the back by at least vocalizing their support for the black community in a way.
On Earth Day, my Instagram feed and stories will be filled with picturesque vacation photos with emoji-filled captions about loving “Mother Nature,” without addressing topics such as climate change or environmental racism. The Women’s March will mean posts of usually white females in pink hats, holding glittery signs with cute puns. Even the Notre-Dame cathedral burning last year turned into a convoluted “Guess what, I’ve been to Paris!” posting competition amongst those who’ve been privileged enough to travel.
It’s completely detrimental to watch activists or supporters only be passionate about causes that support them in a way. I’ve watched white classmates write about how voluntourism opportunities in the Global South “changed” their lives, usually when posting pictures of them holding brown or black children.
Beyond posting on Instagram about #BlackLivesMatter, there are many ways to utilize your privilege, platform, and voice to stand in solidarity with Black Americans now. You can sign petitions, donate to bail funds, attend protests, and share important information. Buy books or art to support black artists and authors; eat local to support black restaurants across the nation.
To all white people and non-black people of color now: take real and meaningful steps in demanding justice. Don’t just hit the repost button.