For many Instagram users scrolling through their feed on Tuesday, it seemed as if nearly everyone decided to post the same picture: a plain black box. While many of these blackout boxes were posted without a caption, others used the hashtag, “Black Lives Matter.”
While there’s a scheduled blackout for the music industry planned for June 2, many Instagram users were unaware that the trend would also be applied to social media, which caused some confusion, especially when it came to using “#BlackLivesMatter” in the caption.
To show support amid the protests following the death of George Floyd, Instagram users were told to share the black boxes with the hashtag, “Blackout Tuesday,” “Black Out Day 2020” or no hashtag at all. Organizers specifically wanted posters to avoid the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag in order to prevent that hashtag, which is used to share information and resources, from being overrun by black boxes.
With the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag, Instagram users could easily click on the hashtag and get the most recent information on protest locations and the latest updates from supporters on the ground in cities across America. However, with blackout pictures using the hashtag, useful information was substituted with a sea of black.
As one user online explained, “My initial thought is it feels dangerous… because once you click on the BLM hashtag you’re directed to an overflow of black images, instead of other more useful content people could look at for information.”
Black Out Tuesday Might’ve Been Confused With ‘The Show Must Be Paused’ Campaign
With users online wondering what started the blackout trend on Instagram, journalist Ivi Ani explained on Twitter, “People are posting black screens for blackout Tuesday and using the black lives matter hashtag instead of the original hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused- the initiative started by 2 Black women working in the music industry to disrupt the industry. BLM tag wasn’t initially used.”
Jamila Thomas, senior director of marketing at Atlantic Records, and Brianna Agyemang, a former Atlantic Records employee, created this call to action. Thomas wrote in a statement to music industry colleagues on Instagram on Friday, “Your black executives, artists, managers, staff, colleagues are drained, traumatized, hurt, scared, and angry. I don’t want to sit on your Zoom calls talking about the Black artists who are making you so much money if you fail to address what’s happening to Black people right now.”
Since Thomas and Agyeman’s announcement, numerous major records labels have pledged to join the movement on Tuesday. Columbia records shared on Instagram, “We stand together with the Black community against all forms of racism, bigotry, and violence. Now, more than ever we must use our voices to speak up and challenge the injustices all around us.”
What’s Supposed to Happen on Blackout Tuesday?
People are choosing to observe the blackout on June 2 in different ways. The organizers of “The Show Must Be Paused” suggested that the music industry “not conduct business as usual” and take the time to reflect on ways to support the black community.
Interscope Records announced via Instagram that they would not be releasing any new music during the first week of June and suggested to their followers to text “FLOYD” to 55156 to voice opinions against police violence and/or donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, as well as many other foundations.
As for people posting black boxes on Instagram, the goal is the same. Users online are hoping if there’s nothing but a sea of black pictures on Instagram, it will force people to take the time they spend on social media to think about how they can help black people, check out Color of Change or read up on the ACLU.
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'Blackout Tuesday' on Instagram was a teachable moment for allies like me
This week I discovered the extent to which some of my attempts at allyship were hurting, not helping, the struggle for black liberation. As a queer woman of color, this was a difficult pill to swallow. But I wasn’t alone. #BlackoutTuesday forced a lot of us wannabe allies to confront the ways in which our allyship can be misguided and, frankly, lazy.
On Tuesday, as Americans across the country searched for ways to express solidarity with black people, #BlackoutTuesday took social media by storm. It was an ostensible display of allyship — posting a black square with the aforementioned hashtag — with a promise not to post anything else that day and instead take the time to think about the ways in which many nonblack Americans benefit from structural racism.
While Tuesday morning saw a great many Instagram feeds flooded with black tiles, by the evening, many of these posts had been deleted, with people attempting to make amends.
While Tuesday morning saw a great many Instagram feeds flooded with black tiles, by the evening, many of these posts had been deleted, with people attempting to make amends. I was one of these people. There was an important lesson to be learned, if people were paying attention, and it had nothing to do with policing behavior or judgement. Rather, the #BlackoutTuesday debacle was a reminder that being an ally, sometimes, means making mistakes. But a true ally doesn’t give up when corrected; a true ally listens and course-corrects without shame or resentment. I say this as someone who’s wished, on numerous occasions, friends and family would do the same when I point out their transgressions, but who can still gets defensive if I’m not being thoughtful about it.
This all started with an initiative introduced by two black women in the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, as a call for their colleagues to halt business for a day and use the time to reflect on how white people in the industry exploit and make money off black talent. But the campaign swiftly took on a life of its own and snowballed into #BlackoutTuesday, whereby the whole world was apparently supposed to stop and reflect.
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Two problems quickly arose. The first was that many people posting their black tiles as a sign of solidarity were using the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM. This well-meaning display of solidarity was drowning out crucial information for organizers and protesters. The second problem was that, on a more theoretical level, silence is not really the preferred mode of allyship for something like police brutality. And as many black people explained, showing up, seeking out discourse about racial injustices and listening to and elevating black voices were much more important to many activists than inaction and reflection.
“It’s an easy trend to jump onto, it’s easy to understand, it doesn’t take a lot of effort or energy, and, visually, it’s quite powerful if you’re just scrolling and all these people have black screens,” said Katie Petitt, a black activist who founded the nonprofit Current Movements. But Petitt, who previously worked as an organizer with Black Lives Matter, D.C., and Movement for Black Lives, D.C., noted that the Instagram hashtag also lacked analysis and nuance. “There’s the historic nature of the silencing of our voices as black people and in this movement of ending police brutality and having justice in this country.”
Invariably, as the backlash swelled Tuesday afternoon, warring factions emerged. The dialogue became reductive, self-righteous and at times hostile. A number of people on my feed railed against those who participated in the “performative allyship” of #BlackoutTuesday — the irony, of course, being that these condemnations became equally performative. Quickly, the whole thing started to devolve into a game of “Who’s the better ally?”
As the backlash swelled Tuesday afternoon, warring factions emerged. The dialogue became reductive, self-righteous and at times hostile.
When I first noticed there was controversy around this, I sought out black perspectives. One such voice was that of Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a black activist, thought leader and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which seeks to tackle police brutality through policy advocacy.
“Look, social media is a critical tool,” Cunningham said in her video on the topic. “It is a tool to educate people about white supremacy. It is a tool for people to learn and reflect on their own anti-blackness. It is a tool for people to be able to advocate on behalf of victims of police violence, racism and actually do the work that it takes. It is also an important tool for activism organizers to stay connected.”
In the video, she encourages people who want to be allies to be actively engaged and, instead of falling silent, to uplift black voices. One of her suggestions was to follow #AmplifyMelinatedVoices on social media channels. “If we all get on our Instagram and everything is black, we’re not talking about the things that matter,” she said.
So instead of falling silent, I listened to the words of these activists and followed their lead. I sent my contacts an email template addressed to the Minneapolis Police Department, demanding all four of George Floyd’s killers be held accountable — an email I sent, myself. Then I found and changed my Instagram bio to a link that produced an automatically generated email, demanding accountability over Breonna Taylor’s killing — another email I sent. I did research about which organizations to support and settled on the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP, and the Black Visions Collective (one of the groups Minnesota Freedom Fund redirected donors to after being overwhelmed with donations).
In a post apologizing for my misstep, which actually helped occlude black voices rather than elevate them, I shared these organizations’ information and urged others to consider donating. I sought out and shared content from black thought leaders, about allyship, activism and the struggle more broadly.
And do you know what? It took about a third of my day. That, in and of itself, was a huge wake-up call. Doing the work of anti-racism in a deliberate way takes time, energy and resources. (I mean, of course it does.) It was absurd for me to think that a post that took less than three minutes before I’d had my coffee on Tuesday morning would be as meaningful.
But that realization is kind of the point. Allyship is an ongoing process, no matter if you’re supporting LGBTQ communities or black Americans or Muslim Americans. “A good ally looks like someone who’s really done their work around understanding what white supremacy is, how it’s played out in their lives and how they’ve benefited from it,” Petitt said. “And not just white people, right? All nonblack people can embody white supremacy.”
The silver lining here is that people seem to be more and more open to engaging with these critiques. “In the 24 hours that this whole thing had its flow, I’ve seen a lot of really thoughtful [posts],” Petitt told me. Countless people on her social media, she said, who would ordinarily never talk about race, apologized and attempted to course-correct. “And for them to recognize their own ignorance and do it so publicly is no small thing.”
This isn’t about who can perform their wokeness the best. This is about continually seeking out the best, most effective solutions to these systemic problems and not taking it personally when the people in the communities you are trying to support point out problematic or unhelpful behavior. Posting a black square on Tuesday doesn’t inherently make you a bad ally — but it doesn’t inherently make you a good one, either.
Natasha Noman is a journalist who has worked as a writer, producer and presenter for publications such as Mic, Bloomberg and Brut America, with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. She is working toward a master of philosophy degree in South Asian studies at the University of Oxford.
An effort to raise awareness about police brutality and systemic racism, which started in the music industry before being co-opted by countless Instagram users, appears to be backfiring somewhat.
The “Blackout Tuesday” campaign began as a push for a day of reflection from music artists and labels in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis last Monday. But almost immediately after the campaign started, countless Instagram users uploaded solid black squares in solidarity and added a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. That meant the new Blackout Tuesday posts showed up as rows and rows of black squares on the Instagram page for #BlackLivesMatter. Many offered little to no context or information about the movement or demonstrations.
Activists are now criticizing Blackout Tuesday posts that use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag for being not just unhelpful but also counterproductive for those looking for critical information and resources related to anti-police brutality demonstrations.
This was certainly not the purpose of Blackout Tuesday. The phenomenon of people posting black squares follows an effort called #TheShowMustBePaused, launched last week by two black women music industry executives, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang. Thomas, a senior marketing director at Atlantic Records, and Agyemang, a senior artist campaign manager at the Apple-owned music platform Platoon, launched #TheShowMustBePaused as several labels committed to participating in Blackout Tuesday on Instagram. It’s not clear if the #TheShowMustBePaused hashtag or the Blackout Tuesday pledge started first, but the sentiment shared by those in the music industry was similar.
Still, the effort altogether seemed to have a significant impact, especially in the music industry. Companies including Spotify, Apple, and TikTok announced they would suspend much of their regular work Tuesday amid the demonstrations.
“Tuesday, June 2 is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week,” explains the website for #TheShowMustBePaused. “It is a day to take a beat for an honest, reflective, and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.”
In addition to including a statement, the website clearly explains what companies and members of the music industry could do during their downtime on Tuesday. There are links to donate to various bail funds, to the Official George Floyd Memorial Fund, and to the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two white men while jogging. There’s also a link to a petition in support of justice for Breonna Taylor, a first responder who was shot and killed by police while sleeping in her own bed, as well as to the Movement for Black Lives website.
While the music industry’s response was not completely uniform, the industry’s initial support for the effort quickly spread to the mainstream. As of early Tuesday afternoon, #TheShowMustBePaused had appeared on more than half a million posts on Instagram. However, while record labels issued image-based statements — often just white text on a black background — lots of Instagram and Twitter users simply uploaded plain black images and added the campaign’s hashtag. Some also added or used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which led to objections from organizers that Black Lives Matter content was being pushed aside by the plain black squares.
So many of these plain black square posts included #BlackLivesMatter hashtags that when users searched #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram, some could only see row after row of black squares. That meant that other posts, including information about protests or fundraising efforts, were getting drowned out by the trend. Complaints about the issue started early Tuesday morning. Here’s Black Lives Matter activist Kenidra Woods:
By midday Tuesday, the organizers behind #TheShowMustBePaused posted an update on Twitter urging people to not use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag unless it was to share important information or resources. They asked people to “type out Black Lives Matter with no hashtag, so we do not inadvertently mute vital dialogue in a sea of black boxes.”
Some social media users are encouraging people who posted the black squares to delete or edit their posts to remove the hashtag. “If you edit your post to remove a hashtag, your post will no longer be shown on that hashtag page,” Seine Kim, a spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, told Recode. “In some cases, it may take up to 10 minutes for the post to be removed once you edit the post.”
But again, the criticism over those participating in Blackout Tuesday extends beyond the problem of people posting black squares on Instagram and obscuring Black Lives Matter content. Other social media users argue that, regardless of the hashtag, just posting a black square and then logging off gives both brands and nonblack people a way of signaling support on social media without providing any real help.
Others have pointed out that Tuesday is not a great day to go offline, since that’s when primary elections are happening in nine states and Washington, DC. Instead of posting a black square and the hashtag, activists have urged people to consider donating to bail funds and other nonprofit efforts focused on fighting police brutality and helping protesters. If you’re going to a demonstration, Vox has written a guide for how to do so more safely in the pandemic.
In This Stream
Protests in Minneapolis and nationwide following George Floyd’s deathView all 195 stories Sours: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/6/2/21278051/instagram-blackout-tuesday-black-lives-matter
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