As posts about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests continued flooding my social media feeds, I plunged into a deep crisis about to post or not to post. If I decide to post, what would be the right thing to say? Is reposting enough? As a non-Black person, should I be prioritizing my own voice or leaving space for those in the Black community? On the other hand, what would people think if I didn’t post? Is silence really a weapon?
After days of reflection, I decided that my platform for expression would be through writing this article. While I was initially skeptical about internet activism, talking to my interviewees have completely changed my thoughts on the matter.
When asked about her BLM post on social media, Amy Tian –– a third-year in the College –– responded, “I reposted my friend’s post after reading it. She never really uses social media so it was really shocking to see her post this powerful monologue of how she’s feeling as a Black woman.” Tian added, “what strikes me about her post is she said silence is complacency.” Similarly, third-year student Sophia Wang stated, “I remember the day the news of George Floyd was out, I was just so shocked… I was almost paralyzed and realized I really had to do something.”
As seen from these responses, the murder of George Floyd sent a shock wave through social media platforms. Not only was it shocking to see the clips of Floyd’s murder, but also to see our close friends respond viscerally. This shock factor led many non-Black allies to raise their voices and ensure that posts about the murder and relevant calls to action spread like wildfire.
However, posting was not an easy task for my interviewees. Tian is the president of the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative and regularly posts about environmental activism on her social media. Nonetheless, she said, “Race is something that is difficult to talk about… I feel like I’ve never made a post this explicit, not just calling upon others to do things, but also calling myself out.”
Wang also stated, internet activism is not easy, but more importantly, should not be easy. Upon discussing the #blackouttuesday movement, Wang argued, “the idea oversimplifies the matter of Black Lives Matter… Not that it has bad intentions, but it easily becomes empty formalism.”
Thus, reflecting on whether the post was too easy to produce may be a good start to recognizing unproductive internet activism. While social media provides the invaluable opportunity to spread information and organize movements quickly, it is critical that we are constantly adding new ideas and information to the existing discussions. In fact, even the greatest wildfires burn out if they stop collecting more fuel.
Even though internet activism plays a huge role in supporting the BLM protests, shaming those who are not posting can be gravely counterproductive.
“People are policing other people’s silence. That is not okay,” emphasized Lauren Leggett, a first-year board member of the Organization of Black Students (OBS). She added, “Some people are processing, and true movers of change would rather have someone silently learning than loudly expressing harmful and uneducated ideas. We need to heal and educate ourselves privately and show up in solidarity in public.”
Leggett shared her own experience of delaying her participation in internet activism after the trauma of Floyd’s murder. She said, “I was too engulfed with pain to even think to post about George Floyd’s murder… For many of them [UChicago students], this was their first time thinking about and truly understanding the trauma of being Black in America and it showed. These are students at a top university and my own peers. As a Black woman, how is that supposed to make me feel, other than more traumatized than before?"
Similar opinions were shared by Tyari Heard, the President of the OBS. She urged allies to, “think about just how often we see images of Black people, Black bodies, Black suffering [on social media] and how that has been so normalized.” She emphasized, “This can be even more traumatizing.” When the deaths of Black people are constantly sensationalized on the internet, “Trauma is creating trauma.”
Therefore, in order to create a safe space for activism on the internet, it is important that allies are giving one another time for careful learning and reflection. “It’s not just the famous people talking anymore,” Wang pointed out. Social media is giving everyone the platform for free expression and change, but this comes with great responsibility. When posting on social media, we have to be extra reflective about what the images are provoking, what messages they are spreading, and who the audience is. Without such reflections, social media can easily become a traumatizing space for those who are still grieving and healing.
Clearly, internet activism is neither an easy nor simple task. However, it is hard to deny the value of it –– especially during this time of social distancing. Therefore, I asked the OBS representatives for advice on how non-Black allies can contribute to BLM productively through internet activism.
Foremost, Heard expressed the importance of accurately historicizing the current protests. “George Floyd’s death caused a huge reaction, but it was not a breaking point for virtual activism… It has been continuing; it hasn’t stopped,” said Heard. She also encouraged allies to think about, “the history of media in America, like propaganda and how images of Black people are spread.” These are the first steps to humanizing the suffering of George Floyd and, “realizing that this is a real life, a real death, and not just a match,” said Heard.
Heard also warned allies of the temporality of internet activism. She said, “People probably won’t even be caring about asking these questions for too much longer. So, posting and creating content to help educate others further is important.”
Leggett also emphasized the need to use social media as the catalyst for real-life action. She stated, “Post initiatives and action items. We don’t need words; we need you to show up and advocate with action.” Moreover, “focus on your own growth and lead by example. That’s how you become a true actor of change,” said Leggett.
Finally, education could not be emphasized enough. Leggett urged allies to, “Educate yourself profusely and, as always, LISTEN TO BLACK WOMEN.” Heard also stated, “We have to research and if we already have, create graphics and become mini content creators.” As UChicago students who are already exposed to racial theory and influential Black thinkers such as W.E.B. Dubois, Franz Fanon, and Audre Lorde, this seems like a particularly relevant advice.
Lynn Chong is a third-year in the College.