At the turn of the 2010s, the ingenious use of social media by young activists during the Arab Spring set the world ablaze. In the blink of an eye, young people transformed social media from a prom picture party hub to an outlet of revolutionary information. Via fledgling platforms like Facebook and Twitter, users shared demonstration sites, tear gas remedies and even tips to avoid identification by authorities should one choose to participate in civil disobedience.
With its unprecedented ability to deliver not only crucial information, but also the sights, sounds and unmistakable aura of social upheaval to the palm of any user’s hand, social media seemed to be the last missing link to achieving real global equality.
In case you missed it, the 2010s were not quite the pax romana we hoped they would be.
Just shy of a decade after the events of the Arab Spring, social media’s stature as a beacon of hope, a catalyst of universal change has undergone quite the reversal. As Generation Z came of age over the course of the 2010s, we watched in real time as the sanctity of information found and distributed on social media was forever compromised. In addition to issues with misinformation, overwhelmingly, the outward facing nature of these platforms spawned a culture of normalized “slacktivism,” wherein the cultivation of the image of being “woke” by privileged groups has taken precedence over the actual substance of the societal issues which predicates such activism. The issues most often co-opted for social clout are related to the continued extrajudicial murder of countless Black Americans. But, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for a country which enjoys its temporary forays into Black culture more than Miley Cyrus.
More so than any other instance of Black-led rebellion seen in the previous decade, the most recent uprisings beginning on May 26 have been characterized by a suspiciously high amount of white endorsement and participation. But, these were not the usual white allies — these were white moderates. In the past week, my social media feeds have been flooded with the feverish reposting of artist’s renditions of the deceased, text posts demanding accountability on the part of all non-Black Americans and of course, the black tiles. Although an increased awareness of the horrors of police brutality appears, superficially, to be indicative of promising social progress, I cannot help but shake my suspicions that these displays — like most things on social media — are just a part of a facade.
While my skepticism could be misconstrued as a selfish attempt to “gatekeep” who can and cannot be politically active, in reality, this cynicism is a byproduct of coming of age in the span of years separating Trayvon Martin from George Floyd, Ferguson from Flint and Obama from Trump. Through these years, time and time again in school, and even in some social situations, I was looked to by my non-Black peers to rationalize why “all lives” and “blue lives” did not matter and why violence sometimes could be the only appropriate answer. And with each repetition of this cycle, with every new Black life taken prematurely, the same peers still refused to educate themselves any further than the information that was already laboriously spoon-fed to them by young Black people like myself, just clamoring to make their people’s humanity known.
As I observed the same people who were once “so concerned” with educating themselves retreat back to the comfortability of their privileged existences at their convenience, I began to see my efforts to inform had not just fallen on deaf ears, but actually replicated the existing system of
Black subjugation to whiteness — where still, Black labor is readily substituted in the place of white effort.
Although many white Americans — particularly Gen Z’ers too self-righteous to recognize their own similarities to their Boomer grandparents — are quick to ridicule the glaring hypocrisies of attempts to appear “of the people” by a Kendall Jenner or Gal Gadot, significantly fewer conversations are being had regarding the abruptness with which they themselves hop on the bandwagon of social responsibility, only to retreat back into the complicit silence of their “normal” existences once their friends stop posting Instagram stories, hashtags stop trending and the media moves on to the next Big Story™. It becomes difficult to read their mobilization as anything but hollow box-checking, particularly when Black people watched the 2010s close with no real progress made to the state of sanctioned murder. Oh, and Donald Trump was elected president. So, there’s that.
The desecration of social media from subversive outlet to vehicle of self-congratulatory displays is pretty well encapsulated with the trend that emerged earlier this week, #BlackoutTuesday. This phenomenon, hauntingly similar to the promotional tactics used for Fyre Fest, involved non-Black people posting an image of a black screen to their social media profiles. What was originally intended to be a mass silencing of the trivial uses of social media (e.g. beach selfies, Harry Styles fun facts) during a time of national protesting proved to be an all too easily accepted invitation for white people to engage in their favorite political strategy: passive silence. Predictably, I awoke Tuesday morning from more participation than I had seen all week. My feed was now populated by more black tiles than a Home Depot, and not to my surprise, the majority of people posting these empty gestures had been relatively silent for the past week.
In theory, this trend was intended to highlight the severity of the issue of police brutality and the importance of listening to Black voices. However, the eye-roll inducing irony of this asinine trend is that it blatantly ignores the usefulness of privileged white voices to the movement. In civil rights history, substantial change has only ever been achieved when those in privileged positions finally feel compelled to stick their necks out for marginalized groups. When white people hold other white people accountable, magic happens. The only thing that has resulted from the proliferation of black squares has been a clogging of crucial hashtags with vacant displays of wokeness — a complete 180 from the example set during the Arab Spring.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The people who jump at the opportunity to conform to what they view as “trendy” give no credence to the historical precedents of social protest. The same people vapidly posting the square because they saw someone cool do it have no discernible political conscience beyond “I miss Obama” posts, and certainly have no grasp on Black history beyond what their APUSH teacher taught them. Posting a picture does not mean you have educated yourself on the complexities of systemic racism. Posting a picture does not mean you will diversify your social circle beyond who you went to high school with. Posting a picture does not change the fact that your boyfriend voted for Trump.
As our collective nostalgia for the socially transformative 1960s indicates, many young people have a desire to be swept up in a movement, to feel as though they are a part of something that will bring about positive change to their worlds. However, my burning (and unanswered) question for those suddenly compelled to channel Gloria Steniem is … where the fuck have you guys been?
I acknowledge that, for those of us who have grown up Black and in America, the issue of police brutality is interwoven into the fabric of our existence. Whereas whiteness functions to insulate people from the harsh realities of our racist country, Black people are met with constant reminders unmatched outside of our community. Despite this truth, so many white people’s collective realization of the urgency of these injustices smells a bit funky to me because … when have Black people ever been anything close to silent about our outrage with police brutality?
The maliciously fatal Minneapolis officer’s actions were, indeed, uniquely deplorable, but did mainstream white America forge a secret pact to just forget the Rodney King tapes? Were Philando Castille, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland just figments of Black America’s imagination? George Floyd’s untimely death is nowhere close to being the first Black death at the hands of law enforcement, so why the shock? Why the refusal to look in the mirror when confronting how such a brutal system has been able to persist?
The amount of white Americans shocked into action by the video is not indicative of progress, rather a pervasive culture of naivety. This newfound fervor towards the Black cause only indicates a laughably obtuse ambivalence towards the last 10 years in America, let alone the last 400. As we find ourselves in week two of national protests and await the Moron-in-Chief’s legislative response. I have grown weary of social media’s role in the social revolution. I have grown weary of the cacophony of voices repeating the same empty platitudes with no actual progress to match.
A phrase which summates my frustration with America’s cyclical mishandling of police brutality is “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” While the issues being protested may not appear the exact same as the ones from 50 years ago, the principles undercutting each conflict remain unchanged. This phrase instantly comes to mind whenever I stumble across footage of elderly Black people marching for similar, if not the same, causes they did when they were our age — revealing the depressing truth that they’ve spent an entire lifetime without real rectification of societal issues. Band-Aid solution after Band-Aid solution.
Regardless of the vogueish popularity of these social media trends in white spaces, it doesn’t appear as though anyone is itching for the displays to end and the change to begin. Because if they did, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. So, white and non-Black America, if you want us to actually take your “activism” seriously, put your money where your mouth is. I would love to be proven wrong. As the privileged majority of the population, real change cannot happen without your efforts. So, let’s hope you’ve got something better dreamed up than Black tiles.
Alexandra Owens can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org