activism Black Lives Matter Influencers racial politics Racism Social Media

One Year on From “Black Square” Activism, Have We Learned Anything?

In order to actually create change, we need to leave "Black square energy" back in 2020

Banseka Kayembe

It’s officially been a year since our Instagram timelines were flooded with Black squares. It was one of the strangest social media phenomena, probably because this was the first time white people were being expected to say something about what normally regarded as “black issues” like police brutality. Suddenly, not just normal people, but random stars from TOWIE and Love Islanders felt the need to say something, mostly a neat little Black square, normally coupled with a cringeworthy hashtag like “I understand that I will never understand”. Saying you’ll never understand an issue probably isn’t the best start to solving it. 

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In the morning of that day, if you hadn’t posted a Black square, you were a blatant racist who clearly didn’t care about Black people. By the afternoon, if you had posted a Black square you were a performative twat who cared more about not looking racist, more than actually dismantling racism. It’s fair to say, if your first foray into talking about racism was putting up a visual image of silence, it’s probably not the best effort you could have made. If you are Black, you were probably then bombarded with texts and messages from every white person you’ve ever locked eyes with, in an attempt to rectify their perceived lack of consideration. 

The Black squares became one of the biggest flops in social media history- and if I’m honest despite it being widely acknowledged that it was a pointless act of performatism, much of the discourse around social justice and activism continues to give us “Black square energy”. From thinking influencers can impact social justice, to overlooking collectivism and solidarity as tools of social change, there’s a lot still for us to unpack. Despite finding it a painful, slightly harrowing time as Black person, the Black square debacle became a starting point for me and hopefully lots of others, to seriously consider what really makes social change. 

Here are a few points I think are worth carrying forward, in our approach to demanding change. 

Saying something online just to prove you care isn’t always that helpful   

Social media by nature, encourages us to put forward the best version of ourselves; we are very much individuals competing against each other. This includes projecting the image we want everyone to see of us. You might sometimes want to react really quickly by sharing something or making a statement on your channels, before you’ve actually done some critical thinking about that issue. 

I’m guilty of this too, and those DMs from random people asking you why you aren’t talking about a certain issue can sometimes put undue pressure on people to say things they have no knowledge of. 

There’s no shame in saying that you’re not sure about something, and want to do more reading and research on it before speaking. I’d rather you did that than said something by reflex that was pointless, or actually just completely wrong. The phrase “silence is violence” probably doesn’t apply if you’re taking the time to understand an issue before you speak. 

What people do online, doesn’t equate to real life

Social media, especially during the pandemic has completely warped our sense of perspective. It is perfectly possible for people to shove an infographic in their stories or share a TikTok video, without having really digested that information at all. Many of us share things because we want people to know we’re thinking about those issues, or to show that we care. 

That doesn’t mean we’re doing further learning offline, or engaging in discourse in real life. It doesn’t mean we’re going to a protest or that we’ve written to our MP. Social media can be a good tool to organise, or a springboard for real life action, but take with a pinch of salt what people post online, especially regurgitated infographics and quotes. It’s easy to repost something, but it’s much harder to make a sustained collective effort to make change. 

Pressuring influencers/celebrities to speak about important issues is a waste of time

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but honestly I can’t emphasize this enough. Influencers especially are tools of profiteering – they exist to make money via their social media channels. They are also tenants of individualism; the notion of a few wealthy individuals at the top “with influence” using their power for social change is pretty much completely at odds with how most social change happens. Their whole reason for being is very at odds with social justice. 

It hurts of course to see perhaps some influencers you admire seem to not care (and again, they may care but it’s just not on social media). But honestly, we don’t need them to create change. The type of people power we need won’t come from random influencers with a million followers, but from ordinary people organising and working together to pressure for policy and political change. 

Education offline is absolutely essential 

Without realising, I think a lot of us have become reliant on learning new things through 30 second TikTok videos, and Instagram infographics. Whilst these educational resources aren’t necessarily useless, it isn’t good for them to become the be all and end all. You’ll never get a well rounded, or nuanced knowledge of an issue through short online resources. Books, but also documentary series, podcasts and even art can be amazing tools to better your understanding. Some of the best political education I ever had came from reading plays and poetry. You can really sit with the knowledge, mull it over and think critically when you’re engaging in long form information. 

The business model of social media is very much that you are encouraged to stay on the app, by interacting with new information so you don’t get bored. The longer you keep scrolling and engaging with different content, the more money they make. This makes it harder for you to delve deep into an issue, leave it, reflect on it and then come back.  

Creating solidarity between different groups is important for long-term change

Some have commented on the limited capacity allyship has to create change, if it doesn’t include a shared set of commonalities or interests between different groups. For example, whilst police brutality is an issue for example that affects the Black community very acutely, we have also seen that over policing impacts working class communities in general, and women in Clapham Common holding a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard were also impacted by disproportionate policing as well. Though different groups have nuances in their experiences, we also all have a lot in common, and we have a shared interest in questioning and dismantling some systems that oppress most of us. 

The Combahee River Collective first coined the term “Identity Politics” in 1977,  not as a way to separate us into different groups with nothing in common, but to recognise the overlapping systems of oppression that impact all of us. It’s about finding unity amongst different marginalised communities and driving change that will positively impact all of us. Identity politics becoming too individualised, whereby we are firmly in groups that apparently have nothing in common, actually frustrates our collective capacity for change rather than facilitating it.  

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Will the revolution be on social media? I honestly have no idea. What I do remain optimistic about is our ability to learn more and recognise most of us are facing similar challenges. It’s within most of our interests to dismantle the injustice that impacts all of us- and that’s a great basis for activism moving forward.

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