I hate that I’m this person and yet, I can’t help thinking it. I cannot help but be irked by the tsunami of influencers and everyday people essentially blackwashing their platforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s. Except, just as Greta Thunberg was not the inaugural climate activist, George Floyd was not the first person to have lost his life due to racial violence. The tragedy of his death lies not in the fact it is unique but rather that it is yet another name to add to the pyre of lives preventably taken away by white supremacy. Names we are all so quick to share and honour in the immediate now but I can’t help wondering if we will still be honouring them six months, a year, from now.
As Constanza Eliana Chinea wrote: “Are you here to support or are you here for “resources” and education? Cause I’m not a resource, I’m a whole human being, and I center BIPOC not white enlightenment. So are you here for for the moment or are you here in true solidarity for the long haul?”
I wonder how people of colour must feel watching us – the privileged white – undertake this online cleansing of our guilt and complicity that, to me at least, feels almost performative. I do not doubt the sincerity of the intention. I don’t doubt it because I feel it too: this palpable anger and rage and sadness and self-disgust and confusion and guilt and shame that we belong to this world of needless cruelty. And then the further anger and rage and sadness and self-disgust and confusion and guilt and shame that our punishment is the luxury of feeling, of sympathy not empathy, of having to confront tricky emotions instead of a real threat of physical violence every time we leave the house.
I want to believe in the authenticity this online community has been at pains to express this week. I want to believe we really are all going to do better, that this will be the last – because dear Lord knows this isn’t the first – death at the hands of unbridled white supremacy; that THIS time, in some twist of cosmic fate that defies our very human nature, THIS time the recognition of our failure will stick, our resolutions will be upheld and we never will return to a world of blind eyes.
But hindsight doesn’t provide me with much reassurance and my experience with the world (limited as it is) and its new brand of “activism” that is rooted more in capitalist consumerism than anarchic mutiny, does NOT instill me with hope.
As a Tweet I saw from @ihategender read: “Too many aspiring white allies think racial justice is about diversity, “inclusion”, and multiculturalism. No, no, no, sweetie. This is about overthrowing power that benefits you disproportionately, often exclusively. Are you ready to sacrifice access, entitelment, innocence?”
And I am left asking: Is George Floyd to 2020 what Greta Thunberg was to 2019 what #metoo was to 2017 what the refugee crisis was to 2015 etc etc etc ad infinitum. And, if so, is this a good thing? If this online movement gets people informed, involved, invested, whatever the self-serving means, then is it worth it? Is it worth the bandwagoning, the well-meant but harmful posturing, the clever shake-up of branding to reflect the zeitgeist of the consumer?
This might seem like a cynical question that trivialises and demeans George Floyd’s death. Let me make it clear that I am not trying to dehumanise what happened to George, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Michael Brown Jr., Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Emmett Till but am rather questioning the sudden and slightly manic backlash of brands, industries, influencers, and individuals, who have all actively promoted and perpetuated racist and discriminatory ideals yet are now trying to insert themselves into an almost decade-old movement and act like it’s novel.
It feels performative, jarring and, frankly, a little disgusting. What it does not feel, is new.
I listened to Rose McGowan on Louis Theroux’s EXCEPTIONALLY ADDICTIVE podcast, Grounded, last week, and her account of the #metoo movement brought me into an alternate and terrifying reality where the greater good doesn’t exist in corporation-land and human decency is traded for money and power. Essentially, it showed me that profiteering is ALWAYS the objective authenticity is the exception, not the rule. Activism is now a trend and every time we partake in it we are at risk of prioritising aesthetic over action (take a look at most social media profiles and you will see EXACTLY what I mean).
it is validation by proxy, and the mistaken belief that social inequality follows a Hollywood story arc. That is to say, that is has a beginning, a middle, and an end (of which we feel we were a vital part of).
Rose’s searing interview reminded me that when #metoo began “trending” in 2017, the movement itself had been in existence since 2006 – a fact we all conveniently glossed over, a failing of OURS that I don’t think we have owned enough. A decade of silence and closed ears. A decade of abuse, struggle and ignorance – a decade of us refusing to listen. Finally, the RIGHT voice spoke out, the comfort of celebrity was added to the fight and it became something palatable, something we could all jump on board with.
And people made money off of this. Brands, industry moguls, influencers – they commodified this movement for their own personal gain.
We all began sharing hashtags and stories and told ourselves it was “solidarity” that made us do it. We all promised this wouldn’t be allowed to happen again while celebrating Harvey Weinstein’s sentencing: the villain had been slain, peace had been restored. We resumed living, returned to watching movies made by men who have violated the safety of women; we stopped sharing hashtags. We got to feel validated, gratified, a part of something, without having to do any real work. We all shared stories, sure, we all learned to be a bit braver in speaking up and out but in terms of hard graft – what did we do? Most of us sat around and chatted to our likeminded friends about it and then felt better for having got it all off our chests.
This aesthetic has become conflated with activism now. THIS IS NOT ACTIVISM. What it is, in many ways, is even more dangerous than the nebulous manipulations of data analysis, targeted marketing, and corporate greed we battle with every day: it is validation by proxy, and the mistaken belief that social inequality follows a Hollywood story arc. That is to say, that is has a beginning, a middle, and an end (of which we feel we were a vital part of).
However, it was the way Rose talked about the Time’s Up and #MeToo publicity stunt at the Golden Globes that really has me questioning just how authentic our response to George Floyd is. I remember feeling conflicted seeing all of these actors wear black and assume it was good enough, reparation enough, for how little they’d done individually and collectively to protect the safety of others. Rose tore them to shreds and explained how this one gesture was pitiful, calculated, and downright dangerous.
I can’t help but think our response to George Floyd similar. Performative and inauthentic, designed to look and feel like authentic solidarity but in actuality a very real and insidious way of silencing the marginalised voices needed to be heard and passing it off as “championing.” Hollywood, quite literally, took the spotlight away from the problem and focused it in on the (mostly white and privileged) solution. A solution that was NOT action but rather the performance of action.
Blackout Tuesday looked alarmingly similar. A day not to be silent but MUTED, a day for the white community to take a step back and create a space in the clamour for OTHER voices to be heard, for the white megaphone to be OFF for one flipping day and allow a story in which WE ARE NOT THE NARRATOR to be told. AND WE COULDN’T DO IT. Our response was to decide showing our solidarity was more important than listening. We illustrated, in such perverted kindness of spirit, the fact that we still believe our voices are more important than others, clogging up social media feeds with links and thoughts and reshares and black squares. As a Tweet I saw from @ihategender read: “Too many aspiring white allies think racial justice is about diversity, “inclusion”, and multiculturalism. No, no, no, sweetie. This is about overthrowing power that benefits you disproportionately, often exclusively. Are you ready to sacrifice access, entitlement, innocence?”
No, we’re not. Tuesday proved that. Instead of allowing our voices to be overthrown online, we instead tried to “include” marginalised voices to fit into our boxed-off world of access, agency, and power. If you think I’m being too harsh, please ask yourself: where is most of your information coming from? Look at how the resources, materials, and stories from BIPOC communities are being rebranded in the feeds and posts of white people.
And we are not being held accountable! This is what is getting me angry. Because this purging of our guilt and complicity in a system of white supremacy with an online onslaught of liking, sharing, reposting – is this not as fleeting as our dalliance with climate activism last year? When it comes to social – and climate – justice our short attention is only narrowing with each impending crisis.
Because if we fetishise the incident enough, if we live in this hyper-stimulated, overly emotional world of ‘aftermath’, then we don’t have to deal with the fact that we are the ones supposed to be doing the preventing. We keep talking about reaction yet have very little interest in the labour required to achieve prevention.
Last year for me felt like a seismic shift in our planet’s future as environmental protests took centre stage and people in positions of power started talking about what had previously been the uncoolest and most unattractive of subjects: the environment. Climate action became mainstream and suddenly friends of mine and Instagram acquaintances who had never once given a second thought to their impact on the planet were suddenly sharing climate change statistics and motivational infographics detailing how I needed to change my lifestyle to save the planet.
I work for a climate justice NGO so I was in the thick of it (please visit http://www.vita.ie if you’d like to find out more about an organisation who is achieving real and sustainable change and also is suffering in funding thanks to COVID). We have a carbon offsetting platform and so we became almost trendy for a while – Irish influencers began using us to offset the carbon footprint of their travel. This was amazing for us – we’re small, we don’t spend money on advertising, it opened our work up to a whole new audience.
Personally, I was equally delighted, because in my years in various forms of activism I have learned that the only way to achieve any kind of change is by gaining the support of the influential. Just as men are the gatekeepers to the patriarchal status quo and therefore an indispensable ally in progressing feminism, public personalities and influencers have a vital role to play in demanding radical climate action. We need them to put pressure on brands and corporations and to galvanise their otherwise unreachable following. So I didn’t care if these people were jumping on a bandwagon, riding the zeitgeist, trying to satisfy an algorithm or satiate their followers. Once they were spreading the word, raising awareness, and educating by example, I was Machiavellian in celebrating the end rather than agonising over their self-interested means.
Until I saw that this ‘end’ came about ten minutes after a new trend, crisis, fad had come along and words like “longterm” and “sacrifice” didn’t really fit with the brand that climate chic has become.
I know the name of every single person who buys our carbon offsets so I know when someone is legit in their supposed environmental concern. Just like I was seeing acquaintances get edgy pictures at a climate march while still taking six foreign holidays a year and buying fast fashion, I saw influencers – one in particular – take one public stand on the environment and then believe themselves done, responsibility fulfilled.
This person has nearly half a million followers on Instagram. The tone they used when discussing climate change is the exact same tone they’re using now to talk about George Floyd: one of shock, wonder. It is as if the world has been personally keeping this big secret from them – the rhetoric is centred around exclamations of “I didn’t know”, “we need to learn the TRUTH about what is happening” “this is a big problem”. Yes and duh and ARE YOU KIDDING ME. Anyway, after bandwagoning on to the climate crisis zeitgeist of the moment and offsetting one meagre European flight, they never again mentioned carbon offsetting, or even anything within that environmental sphere, on their platform again. I have seen images of them in New York, London, other European hotspots and none of those trips were – to my knowledge – offset. I suppose they could have offset with someone else but, judging by the oversharing compulsion that is the occupational hazard of being an influencer, I’m pretty sure we would have heard about it.
(Just for context, a recent article has shown Ireland to be among the worst five countries in the EU to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Obviously, the responsibility for this remains as much with government and big business as it does the individual but, given our public declarations for a climate emergency last year, this does show there is a disparity between our actions and our words.)
And now, here they are again – this selfsame influencer – jumping in on a conversation that, up until 24 hours ago, I’m not sure they had any idea was being had.
This is why I am annoyed, this is why I have spent two days crying, this is why I am so angry at myself. Because I am watching so many people I know enact this cleansing ritual in which the desire to be seen to support something falls short of invoking any kind of personal sacrifice to actually support something in any kind of practical way. And I am just as culpable in this.
We keep talking about things that are preventable – murders at the hands of police brutalities, suicide, climate breakdown, sexual harassment, direct provision. Nobody is talking about who or what is responsible for preventing them. Because if we fetishise the incident enough, if we live in this hyper-stimulated, overly emotional world of ‘aftermath’, then we don’t have to deal with the fact that we are the ones supposed to be doing the preventing. We keep talking about reaction yet have very little interest in the labour required to achieve prevention.
Look, I know I am being harsh and, in many respects, this time – this public mobilisation – does feel better. I am heartened to see open recognition that simply sharing an Instagram story isn’t good enough; at least this time we are venturing beyond the realm of petition-signing and becoming virulent in our need for action, proactive in our promise to “do better.” But in order to “do better” we must make sacrifices. Are you up to it? Am I? I truly want to believe so but only my actions from this moment forth can tell. In the meantime, I’ve made a checklist of accountability that is part vent, part hysteria, part heart. It is absolutely not exhaustive and certainly not finished. Please feel free to check me.
- If you say you want to “do better” in being anti-racist but continue to support brands that continue to either exclude marginalised voices or perpetuate racial inequality (basically every major fast fashion and cosmetic brand there is) then your words are empty.
- If, in two months time, you’re not still sharing the same number of anti-racist resources, if you’re not still championing the words and work of people of colour on your platforms, then your words are empty.
- If the only time you engage with the BIPOC community is when they are demanding social justice or speaking out on inequality, then your words are empty. That is still a form of ‘othering’. We need to stand and celebrate the wins of the everyday, not just join the fight, put out the fire and then go back to our “real lives”.
- If you are sharing the materials of BIPOC and not crediting them, or encouraging followers to follow them instead, your words are empty.
- If you are repurposing the resources and free labour of BIPOC for your own platforms or optics, your words are empty.
- If you’ve only recently learned and are now speaking about direct provision but are not still there advocating until its closure, your words are empty.
- If you’ve donated once and, even though you intend to, forget to donate again, your words are empty.
- If you do not call out racial prejudice or discrimination when you see it – be it in the workplace or in friendly “banter”, your words are empty.
- If you are not taking the quiet time to educate yourself through online courses – there are plenty – diversifying your news sources, opening up difficult conversations, and sitting quietly in your own discomfort, your words are empty.
- If you are not aware that COVID-19 has had a drastic impact in direct provision centres due to complete and total governmental and public neglect, your words are empty.
- If you do not demand better representation in every industry – from cinema to school curriculums – and support it when you see it, your words are empty. We have to SHOW UP when a movie that depicts BIPOC stories is released, we need to watch in real-time the TV shows representing marginalised voices. We need to buy tickets, leave reviews, turn up and show the industry that THESE are the stories we want to hear. Sadly, we need to show them there is money outside of a white-centred narrative.
- If you are now mobilised in the fight for social equality but are not taking radical steps to fight climate change through your diet, lifestyle habits, and personal travel, your words are empty. Climate change does not affect us all equally and, like every pandemic, COVID INCLUDED, will disproportionately impact marginalised communities. If you are not protecting the planet on a DAILY basis, your parades for social justice mean nothing.