Photograph taken in New York City, May 2020, courtesy of Serichai Traipoom.
If you've logged onto social media today, you probably have come across something called "Blackout Tuesday," in which black squares are shared on Instagram in an attempt to express solidarity with those protesting the murder of George Floyd.
If you want to show your Instagram followers that you are committed to being actively anti-racist, and that you stand on the anti-racist side of history, that's great, and you should. But Instagram is not simply a feed, it's also an archive. As you always should, take a moment to consider the implications of what you post—especially now, when black people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are dying at the hands of the police, and peaceful protestors are being shot at, run over by, and abused by a violent, militarized police force.
#Blackouttuesday may seem well-intentioned, but there is some conflicting discourse happening—not everyone is on the same page about what it means to use the hashtag while posting a field of black on their feed.
If you want to take action, you have to be anti-racist, which takes effort, resources, and time. Posting a black square and nothing else can be construed as an empty, performative gesture, rather than a legitimate act of solidarity with those who are suffering right now.
Consider your audience. Imagine someone who's not familiar with this trend or hashtag. They log onto Instagram, and they scroll, only to see blank post after blank post. They look to the captions for more information on why suddenly everyone—from brands like Fenty to celebrities like the Kardashians to even your regular, non-famous friends—is posting a black square. They click the hashtag #blackouttuesday, and what do they see? There's likely not going to be a lot of information there on what this hashtag means and why it's being used, just an endless loop of the same thing. That's confusing for someone who may not even know what the purpose of this hashtag was to begin with, and infuriating for someone who's logging onto Instagram to discover valuable information about the protests.
Many of these posts feature the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in the caption. That hashtag is an identifying link that compiles information for activists looking to update one another on the protests and provide educational resources on the subject. People are trying to find information on #BlackLivesMatter and they either can't, or it's becoming more difficult to find because that hashtag is clogged up with plain black squares that don't share resources associated with the movement in the caption.
Transparency is needed right now, and it would be counterproductive to be silent—especially since it's a primary election day in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Maryland, and many more states. It should also be noted that the President of the United States has threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would deploy active duty military to police American cities. If this happens, and people on the streets bear witnesses to this and share photographic evidence on social media, there needs to be space for all of us to see what happens. We can't see that if the relevant associated hashtags are filled with black squares.
The hashtag #blackouttuesday was started by two black music executives as a social media initiative for members of the music industry to address the ways in which the industry has capitalized off of black culture while benefiting from white supremacy and "to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent." It was also originally known by another hashtag, #TheShowMustBePaused, which was an initiative to get people to put a hold on their "business as usual" programming on their social media feeds. This means putting a hold on "regular" posts, like throwbacks to vacations you can't take right now because we're living in the middle of a pandemic or the breakfast you made for yourself this morning. It does not mean encouraging complete silence in a moment where what every single one of us needs to be doing is using our voices as loudly as we can to demand change.
If you're someone who doesn't want to see what's going on, and all you want is for Instagram to go back to gym selfies and front-facing comedy videos because you are tired of seeing people post about their outrage or their educational findings, then seeing a bunch of black squares might be an easy way for you to feel relief. But think about who doesn't get to opt out or take a break from thinking about all of that—black people. It is a lived reality to be constantly reminded of the violent nature of the police. Just think about how taxing that is, compared to how uncomfortable you might be from seeing updates on a few days' worth of protests.
Seeing that same black square over and over again (especially if there are no links to resources in the comments or tags of the photo) also gets repetitive—to the point where it feels numbing to look at, and ultimately bores the person doing the scrolling so much that they just put the phone down. Instagram and Twitter should be flooded with resources and calls to action for much longer than just a few days. (Meme account @patiasfantasyworld has a great explainer for this on her Instagram Stories and grid.)
If you're sharing something on social media right now, and you think that posting the virtue signal instead of broadcasting resources on how to protest, donate, or vote is an act of solidarity, then that's a willfully ignorant position to take. It's especially infuriating to see that post from someone who waited until now to speak out and thought a black square hashtagged with #blackouttuesday" would be enough. Social media can be a powerful tool for peaceful protest and activism, and unwittingly censoring black voices from being amplified on the platform (especially because the algorithm is often going to promote posts with trending hashtags towards the top of the feed) is harmful.
Here's what you can post instead: books you recommend people read to learn how to become actively anti-racist and engaged in politics that support the Black Lives Matter movement; phone numbers and emails of elected officials you want people to contact and demand change from. Think about whose voices you are centering. You could even post an archival photo of a protest if that is in line with the message you're sending. The bottom line is, remember—Instagram is a visual platform. When you see the same black square over and over again, ask yourself, what does that actually encourage you, the person with the phone in your hand, to do? It's certainly a symbolic gesture, and symbols have a place in activism, but right now what's needed is action, and sharing a simple black square symbolizing your position as someone who condemns racism isn't enough.
If you've already posted your black square, and you had good intentions with doing so, there is no harm in taking it down, admitting your mistake in the caption, and sharing some resources on how people can actually do something real to help.