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Lithium White people, read this before you take a social media break

Aug. 28, 2020
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The devil works hard, but he works even harder on the internet. Social media being toxic went from hot take to cold hard fact, to the point that it’s been scientifically proven that taking breaks from it does the mind good. Right now, however, with users becoming more overtly vocal on social issues, a social media detox is also essentially a “detox” from politics. For BIPOC—whose very existence has been politicized—such a break isn’t possible. 

The fatigue you feel from your morning Instagram scroll is only a minuscule fraction of the centuries of systemic oppression that BIPOC continue to endure. Of course it’s still true that social media is a dystopian hellscape brain-fryer; no one is asking you to read Twitter threads 24/7. You still have the right to take a break from the constant stream of (often aggravating) information. Besides, it’s counterproductive to already wear yourself out when the fight is nowhere near over. What’s important is that you ask yourself what the real reason is behind you taking a break: are you just inching away from uncomfortable conversations? Social media is toxic because its capacity for anonymity and disinterest in content moderation has made it an avenue for hatred and outright violence. Not because it’s now political—nor because it’s become a platform to have these overdue conversations. 

Your allyship will have blind spots because you benefit from privileges that the people fighting alongside you do not have. It is up to you to acknowledge this and use your privilege to uplift the BIPOC whose voices often go unheard. When you get called out, take it as an opportunity to better yourself; realize there are bigger systems we are against. A white feminist isn’t always a white person, but a person in service of whiteness. These realizations can be difficult to come to terms with—they were for me, even as a person of color—and you will want a break. That said, a break shouldn’t mean stepping away from the internet altogether, but being more selective in where you direct your attention. In the political era of trolls, where chatter is weaponized to talk over and essentially censor dissent, disengagement, to an extent, can be crucial.

Feelings of rage are warranted, but as Jenny Odell wrote in her book How to Do Nothing, “[Its] expression on social media so often feels like firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke.” This is especially true if you aren’t a direct victim of the systems enabling the issues you are angry about. Obviously, you can still be angry, but airing it like a PSA is more often self-serving “proof” that you’re a good ally.  Action is what counts, though—words are often merely performative.

While a social media break can mean deleting some apps for a couple days, it can also mean refraining from taking part in this culture of hot takes and instead taking more time to learn and think. Whatever you’re feeling and thinking now, thousands of others also have—even longer or more intensely. The current state of the internet, with its propensity for instant gratification, does not encourage listening. It takes too long, and time is too scant a resource to waste. Listening has become radical; with the speed in which the news cycle operates, it is even more radical to do it slowly. When you see a pastel-colored Instagram post about anti-racism, don’t just accept what’s given to you at face value. If you can, find the source and read the full text. So many others have compiled resources, from books to films to podcasts. As a white person, you need not be the mouthpiece for BIPOC, but it is your responsibility to educate yourself. Listening means knowing your place in the conversation.

This isn’t to say speaking up online isn’t helpful. Any kind of protest is—even the ones at the dining table. The internet is a breeding ground for radical thought; I was radicalized on the internet, just like many people my age. But it is important to acknowledge that social media is only a starting point. Your activism should not stay purely virtual forever. That said, the role the internet plays in social movements should not be wholly dismissed. It’s classist to shame people who have no other means to learn. Avenues like academia aren’t accessible to everyone, and there are so many marginalized voices who would be left unheard if not for social media. 

At the same time, social media is an echo chamber, wired to only show you what you want. It gives you the false impression that there’s no work left to do because everyone around you already shares your line of thinking. But racism isn’t over just because there are no misplaced uses of the n-word on your timeline. Expressions of personal frustration, in this context, are just virtue-signaling, especially since you aren’t reaching the people whose minds need changing. Examine the space you occupy on the internet; look at the people whose attention you have. I’ve always believed there are people who pick things up from the grievances you post, whether they engage with it or not, so it’s imperative to speak up. Personally, I know a lot of peers who didn’t speak up before but are breaking their silence now, and I always think about them whenever I post—they’re angry, now what? What next steps should they take? How can I help them turn this rage into action, only through Instagram stories? As an ally, it isn’t your job to antagonize and further alienate those who are only beginning to learn; if they’re willing to learn, you should be there to help. If angry hot takes are the norm we are trying to subvert, kindness is radical.

Examine internally, too: now that you are no longer overtly prejudiced, how are you covertly still upholding oppressive systems? Have you acknowledged all the privileges you benefit from, especially on class and race lines, and the blind spots they give you?

Of course social media isn’t praxis, but it greatly affects how we construct our reality. By redirecting your energy and attention on the internet, hopefully your activism will become more action-oriented and productive in a way that translates offline. I’m not asking for silence in the sense that you stop speaking up, but in the sense that listening be valued over the moral ascendancy of tweeting the right thing at the right time. Social justice is not a fad to earn you clout. If you are not willing to step back, to use your privilege in service of someone else besides yourself, then why are you speaking up? Is it to actually “spread awareness” or just to absolve yourself of guilt, to avoid the discomfort of being called out? Is the frustration you feel because of rampant social injustice, or the fact that your myopic bubble of privilege has finally popped? 

Illustration by Julia Tabor.