Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
It has been almost three weeks since protests began following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. What has followed has been momentous. Protests have spread internationally in support of Black Lives Matter and have already accomplished an impressive amount. Derek Chauvin, the officer responsible for Floyd’s murder, has been arrested and his colleagues have been fired. The statue of the notorious slave trader Edward Colston has been toppled in Bristol. The ‘no-knock’ warrants that brought about the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville have been suspended. Thousands have attended marches, signed petitions and donated to relevant causes. The air has felt heavy with hurt and with hope. As the activism continues to swell, so too does a tremulous sense that this time might be it, the time that we wholeheartedly commit ourselves to dismantling racism.
It is right to celebrate the progress and solidarity the movements have already brought about, but at the same time we cannot neglect to recognise the way Black Lives Matter has been subverted and co-opted by powerful white voices online. This is not to say the outpouring of support for protests from various strata of our online society is not a good thing. Everyone who has a voice should be speaking up against the injustices faced by black people and many have used their platform to do so.
Yet, there are a handful of people for whom BLM seems to present purely an opportunity to cultivate and preen their online image. These figures harness the attention surrounding BLM and divert it back to themselves, posting images of their own naively smiling face under which they use the BLM hashtag or pen an overwrought but ultimately facile caption about how much they care. Worse still, the influencers who have attended protests seemingly only for the purpose of using them as an exciting new backdrop for their next insta, an excuse to don the clothes they tragically won’t get to show off at Coachella this summer. These influencers have co-opted the protests to shamelessly continue elevating their own voices and in doing so continued to deny black people the space to make themselves heard.
Then there are people with a bit more self-awareness, who took a day off from their usual content to post a black square in its place. The black square signified a recognition that this is an issue which subsumes all else, a respect for the gravity of the situation. But alone this is not enough. The next day these influencers returned to the safe comfort of advertised partnerships with skinny tea companies and yoga practices, feeling gratified they had done their bit, confirmed their credentials as a decent person. In these cases, blackout Tuesday was no more than an act of performative virtue-signalling which lacked any real substance or engagement.
Confronting the entrenched racism that perpetuates white privilege was never supposed to feel comfortable. We have sat back in feckless complacency for long enough. Anti-racism is not a trend to temporarily subscribe to, a hashtag to slap lazily under your photos. It is a commitment to long-term overhaul on a personal and systemic level. It is using your platform to engage in educational interaction, to raise awareness, elevate black voices and implement change.
George Floyd’s final words were ‘I can’t breathe’. For the majority of white people this is inconceivable, but the oppressive weight of racism suffocates black people daily. Those of us fortunate enough to have breathing space and shouting space too, must bellow until our voices are hoarse and then some more.