Performative social media is just a step toward lasting, impactful change. Here’s how to start.
Navigating social media in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent national wave of protests has been a frustrating experience for many people — especially if they’re trying to figure out what to do and what not to do. Many people have professed uncertainty over how to publicly respond to the protests, or even whether they should, while others have viewed this very sort of hand-wringing as superficial and performative behavior.
The idea of “performativity” first arose in the 1990s through feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s use of the term to define and distinguish gender as a role of expression — explicitly an impression of someone’s gender that’s constantly being produced and performed by the person. Today, society tends to broadly extrapolate that idea to mean any kind of showy, obsequious performance or set of acts that seem strategically designed to create a positive impression.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates that uncomfortable, turbulent divide more than the recent #BlackoutTuesday movement and the response to it.
#BlackoutTuesday, or #TheShowMustBePaused, is a movement created in reaction to the protests by two black women within the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang. The original goal of the hashtag was to encourage a day of reflection and silence throughout the industry, by refraining from posting on social media and allowing marginalized voices to take the floor. The timeout from social media is meant to allow musicians and industry creatives to “take a beat for an honest, reflective, and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the black community.”
The idea quickly broadened to encompass a widespread social media blackout, mainly one by and for white people declaring they would go silent on their social media channels, presumably in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But instead of productively contributing awareness to the cause, the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag led to a litany of complaints about the nature of supportive behavior online. The showiness of people posting about how they’re not posting anything has served to derail and obscure actual BLM content through inconsiderate use of the hashtags. Ostentatious stands by white people and other bystanders have dwarfed conversations and stolen attention from actually informative posts related to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.
stop posting black squares under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram. it is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online. pic.twitter.com/EIS44aDXXd
— y’all don’t read the room (@anthoknees) June 2, 2020
the posting a black box on instagram has the same energy as tagging 10 friends on your story … my ig feed is full of black boxes but ive not seen abt 70% of those accounts post a single helpful image or useful resource on their stories … purely performative
— loo roll (@woozyyloo) June 2, 2020
A social media backlash to such black-box posts ensued. Many people began tweeting that they were muting anyone who posted under the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag, which in turn caused the word “muted” to trend on Twitter. As the cycle of backlash online usually goes, the announcement of muting someone also began to be perceived as a pointless, hollow show of solidarity, and inevitably incurred further criticism:
— jim (@jimbobsrevenge) June 2, 2020
But how do these meager text posts, meaningless “likes,” and pithy statements on social media impact the work of vocal Black activists and community builders?
“It has been crazy, and I am not entirely pleased about it,” internet community organizer Lace Watkins tells me. Watkins has received an influx of new visitors to her race relations website, Lace on Race, since the protests began. But Watkins says that many of these visitors are not meaningfully joining the conversation. Instead, they’re clogging up the forums with chatter that distracts from the deeper conversations that more engaged visitors are attempting to have.
Watkins, 56, started Lace on Race in 2018 out of a belief that the existing community groups she’d been a part of weren’t emphasizing relational change enough. A San Diego county employee with a background in social work, Watkins had witnessed a breakdown of effective communication about race within her feminist internet community following the 2016 election. She described white women who “locked and loaded on Black women” after Hillary Clinton’s loss, manifesting “fragility, tears, deleting threads, sarcasm, erasure and minimizing and rationalizing — pretty much every bad behavior you could think of.” In response, she and other Black women from her community created new social spaces online to advocate for Black women and educate potential allies on best practices to help do so.
Watkins told me she created her system for community engagement based on a mix of established therapeutic and behavioral models for dealing with trauma, codependent relationships, addiction, and strategic change. Her community members agree to abide by her tenets of deep engagement and a commitment to growth, growing up, and putting ideals into action. Since Lace on Race was founded in January 2018, Watkins has steadily grown a dedicated community through her Facebook community and other platforms — a handful of moderators and about 6,500 people, all committed to engaging deeply and respectfully with one another on the subject of race relations.
“We have an ethos that I call ‘kind candor,’” she told me. “We have what we call a safe-ish space. And it doesn’t flow like you might think it would. It’s not safety for yourself; it’s ensuring that you are safe for your fellow [community members] as we tackle tough topics.” She refers to this concept as the “mask on” approach, a metaphor based on the need to wear face masks to protect others from the novel coronavirus.
Before the protests, the Lace on Race community was relatively drama-free. But with the rise in performative social media in the wake of the protests, things abruptly changed. Her website traffic skyrocketed by tens of thousands of views — and her visitors, and their way of engagement, got messier.
“We got such bad behavior,” Watkins said. “People being rude, erasing entire subthreads when they showed their entire tuchas — all of it.” Most newcomers, instead of respecting the firm community guidelines, “just wanted to lurk and scroll and roll, and make sarcastic, snarky comments,” she told me. “Totally out of alignment with our ethos. Not at all how we roll.”
Most of the traffic to Watkins’s community had come from a long Medium post, written by a white woman and directed at other white people, with a list of small actions readers could take to deepen their understanding of race relations. The post was created in 2017 but went newly viral this week amid the protests. But, according to Watkins, in the intervening three years, the Medium post’s author ironically hadn’t followed her own advice for other white people. That is, she hadn’t done what Watkins considers to be the bare minimum: coming to the Lace on Race community and sincerely engaging with her posts or users.
“We are used to onboarding at most 100 [new members] a week, usually 20 to 50,” she said. “Now a bunch of people come from a Medium article that might as well be called ‘60 million things you can do to feel good about yourself [and] racial justice before your Hot Pocket heats up.’”
Watkins’s frustrations represent, in a microcosm, what many other Black activists, protesters, and social media users have been feeling. The protests have sparked a flood of efforts to educate white people and others about the history and ongoing impact of structural racism, along with suggesting concrete actions to help, whether you’re in the streets or staying at home. It’s also sparked endless self-reflection from white spectators and other bystanders about how to respond. After days of unproductive behavior from many white people and others online, Tuesday’s black-box affair seemed to be the limit for many people.
black people: donate! sign petitions! educate yourself! here’s a million resources for you to do that with ease! please share with your friends! speak up!
white people: ◼️ … that’s enough activism for the rest of my life pic.twitter.com/WIxyK33rn7
— nafe (@skenguin) June 2, 2020
I asked Watkins to give me her perspective on the discussion around performative anti-racist social media use. She shared her thoughts on the kinds of actions that might actually help make a fraught situation — online and off — a little less stressful for everyone. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you tell me a little about how Lace on Race began?
I thought about everything I ever learned about change work. And what struck me is that women of color are in a dysfunctional — and abusive — relationship with white women, and white women are in an abusive relationship with themselves.
You cannot change someone, not durably, without loving them. Not a hearts-and-flowers sort of love, but a no-nonsense, durable, resilient, and reliable love. Because here is the thing, Aja. White women have never learned how to do relationships well. Not even among each other.
What if they knew they were loved? Not talked down to, not a list of what not to do, but modeling a new way [of loving]?
People want action, but action without attendant inner work is not durable. It is not enough to be instructive; not enough to tell white women what not to do; not enough to be proscriptive — we have to be prescriptive. White women in racial justice now know the jargon; they know how to hold space, and “listen,” and they know what not to do — but what then?
I have been battered by relationships with white women. And not MAGA white women; for the most part, I don’t truck with them. I am talking about liberal and progressive white women. And I am not the only one. All [women-of-color] friends, and especially the Black ones, have devastating stories.
Which is why the singular focus of Lace on Race is this: reducing and mitigating the harm to Brown and Black people perpetuated by white people. Because white women by far (like 99 percent) are in [the Lace on Race community], we have gradually focused on the dynamic of white women and women of color.
Quite frankly, white women don’t have to grow up when it comes to racial justice work. White people keep themselves eternal toddlers when it comes to race work. Toddlers can’t be resilient, resourceful, and relentlessly reliable. Only grown-ups can.
So do you think that all of the things people are doing on social media are essentially adolescent or performative?
When I’m being generous, I can think of that navel-gazing as gestation. Have you ever heard of the stages of change? I equate gestation with the contemplation stage. Maybe even — again, if I am being generous — with the determination stage. So [as far as] social media, it really depends on where people are. Social media can push you into the next stage, but it won’t make you jump stages. You can attempt to jump stages, but it will be neither effective nor durable. To use the language of addiction, you will relapse.
So social media can jump-start you from pre-contemplation to contemplation, but without the middle stage of determination/preparation, the effort is doomed to failure.
That is where the interior work comes in, which most people don’t want to do.
Can any social media efforts push you into those later stages?
Yes, to a point. That’s the danger, actually. People get to contemplation, and these days with all that is going on, they have a strong, and understandable, sense of urgency, so they leapfrog over determination/preparation. They attempt action without the tools to take action effectively.
Social media can be a force for good or ill in this [stage]. The urgency [of social media] is basically good, but it is volatile. And if your feed is filled with people taking action, and so is your news intake, you want to get in the mix. And since everyone equates activism with grandiose actions, and the media pushes that too (I am not going to let mainstream media off the hook in this — when is the last time you did a feature on someone writing a letter or taking notes from a book?), there is no incentive to do the work, both internal and educational and relational before jumping into the fray. That is unfortunate.
Put it this way: People want to be woks. They need to be slow cookers. Woks heat up fast and flame out fast. Crockpots are slower. But woks don’t blend and marry flavors (include education and internal work). They just cook disparate ingredients that really have nothing to do with each other, and nothing that binds them. There is no durable love in woks. There is urgency, and a superficial alliance with an ideal or an ideology or a news cycle, but there is no relational element. Crockpots, by contrast, [are] all about internalization and integration. Head, heart, gut.
That is not to say no action. You can do action while at the same time learning relational skills and doing your internal work. But love is the binder. Everything, everything should be undertaken from a stance of durable, no-nonsense, unilateral, unshakable love.
What do you think about social media movements like #BlackoutTuesday?
Honestly, I have never fully understood the endgame of stuff like this. What is it? Awareness? Solidarity? How does it ultimately help the people we say we stand with and for? I suppose there is a place for it, if it moves people onboard the stages. Pre-contemplation to contemplation; now it’s on their radar. If people were truly taking that [reflective] pause, that’s one thing. But I don’t think it produces durable change, no.
The idea that this one action will actually move people to that “honest, reflective, and productive conversation” is a bit … unformed to me. It’s like wearing wristbands. Who really knows what they’re for? And after a day or two, not even the wearer remembers.
And using business/commerce/capitalism to “support the Black community” is … a bit funky. “Supporting the Black community” how? Particularly in the music industry, where exploitation of artists is rife. I suppose if there were a concomitant effort to take concrete steps to support the Black community, which by no means is a monolith, that might have some effect.
If music companies did a dollar-for-dollar [donation] match, if they focused on grassroots efforts, rather than the usual charity suspects, if they pushed resources and made it local, then maybe. If celebrities put their skin in the game and really stepped up in ways that were less PR and more sacrificial, that’s something I could get behind.
But they’re doing none of that. This could be seen displacement of responsibility. And to the extent that that’s true, it could be seen as performative.
You know, [Lace on Race does] financial engagements with community partners. We make our small, basic budget, and then we pivot and give the exact same amount, often more, to grassroots organizations who usually get no love and know how to bend a nickel. Orgs that celebrities won’t touch. Birdie Gutierrez [who hosts a fundraiser for refugees as part of the Facebook community Bridges of Love Across the Border], for example. We raised over $1,000 for her, for her storage unit so she could have a holding area for the work she does with cross-border relief. Not sexy, but crucial. In four months, we raised $8,000, going to about five, maybe six orgs. We are on track for at least $3,000 this month. Our dinky little org. I would love to see celebrities and the industry doing this. but nope.
We vet, we present to the community, and they come through. That’s internet activism.
How do you suggest people approach each other on social media? Should we all assume that everyone everywhere is probably in a pre-change state? Should the average Vox reader — in the literal spirit of #BlackoutTuesday, let’s say — be in a mode of listening and learning above everything else?
Listening to who or what? Learning what? No. They need to have discernment and discipline. They can read the popular books, [Ibram X.] Kendi and [Ta-Nehisi] Coates and [Ijeoma] Oluo and [Layla F.] Saad, and they can also serve at the same time — while they are doing the internal and relational work, and while they are taking the skills they are learning and internalizing out to the world; to their workplaces, houses of worship, neighborhoods, schools, and families. It is possible to do both. [But] reading books without living out the relational and the heart stuff just makes you a well-read racist.
So how should white people and other collective groups of people be responding right now to support Black people, at least on social media, especially if they can’t join the protests?
Usually racial justice focuses on action. I don’t think that’s the right place to start. The first thing I would say is deceptively simple: Support us kindly. Not nicely. Not reactively. Not coming from a place of self-aggrandizement or self-involvement or self-serving.
As usual, the first work is internal. People operate at the first “whoosh” of emotion. But that never holds; it is volatile, it is not enduring. So all these people get cranked up — like with us, we onboarded 3,000 people in two weeks, and we know most of them won’t go the distance — and then they get bored, or something catches their attention — or they hit a wall; a clench.
Trust me when I tell you that doing the work of racial justice badly, or intermittently, or in half-measures, is actually worse than never doing anything at all. Every white person has the potential to be either a corrective experience or a re-traumatization. Those are the only two options. And white people when they come in full of piss and vinegar, throw their weight around, use resources as power moves, talk over and through people of color, and leave when they don’t get their way — welp.
So white people, before they lace up their hiking boots, or coat their throats with honey so they can shout louder, or do any big, grandiose, fireworks-type explosive move, [need] to learn resolve, resilience, and relentless reliability.
When it comes to issues of race, white people sorely lack all of these things. They don’t want to do what they feel is the slog work. You often have to do work that you feel is beneath you — with people who, in your heart of hearts, you feel are beneath you. People you think are sub-threshold human. So you don’t want to listen to them, or serve under them, or take direction from them. Most white people have never been under a Black woman[’s leadership], and it shows. (Part of this is a class angle; most white people in racial justice work are college-educated, and the people they agitate with tend to be working-class. Imagine a doctor taking orders from a custodian. That often happens, and there is real pushback.)
So the first order of the day is a deep humility: People of color know more about white supremacy than you do. If you do choose direct action, be there for the entire process; and no, you don’t get to chair the discussion; you don’t get to be the media spokesperson. The heart surgeon or the litigator might be tasked to get 400 bottles of water, or do peacekeeping, or any number of things. You might not even get to be there at the action at all. Someone has to be the one with the bail money, or doing logistics. What matters here is that you are not showing up with a sense of entitlement as to what you want to do.
The only thing worse than not asking Black people how you can support them is asking, having the Black person tell you, and then not following through exactly as they asked. White people often treat Black people like they treat homeless on the streets. The homeless man asks for a dollar, but you decide what he needs is a hamburger off the value menu, because you don’t trust them to know their own needs. Same here. You need to show up in resilient, robust, and relentlessly reliable ways. It means you don’t ghost, or ignore requests, or, when they risk and tell you of their pain and hurt and fear (sometimes caused by you), you counter and one-up by stating your own.
You don’t do [this restorative work] with any entitlement that you are owed thanks or praise, or a pass. You are a perpetrator because you are embedded in and profit from a system that harms.
You don’t do it and [then] stop because you aren’t getting the feels you want, some dopamine hit because you “did a good thing”; listening and heeding the needs and pain of Black people is literally the least any white person can do. You don’t get mad if they dare ask for more than you think they should have, more than you think they deserve.
One thing white people can do is give money — freely, reflexively, divorced from control. And you do more, give more, than is asked for, because they will ask for a lowball amount. An organization asks for $20? Give them $50. Your friend is too numb and depressed to cook? Cook for them. Send them takeout; don’t feel entitled to a narrative about their pain or even to be asked in. You are there to support, not to be supported.
And you do the internal work before, so there is no clench; no resistance. You give to bail funds, more than you think you can. You stretch. You find grassroots orgs operating on a shoestring, whether or not they are formal nonprofits; most of the cutting edge-work on the ground and in social media [is] not. And you offer true, eye-to-eye relational support, with parity and mutuality at the core.
All of this sounds one-sided, and it is. Good. Black people are not trusted by white people —even though it is white people who have proven themselves, by running or shutting down, by ghosting or blowing up, to be fragile and unreliable and less than resilient. If you are going to ask a Black person to trust you, especially in these times of great trauma and pain for us, you need to show up and stay in. Even when you get blowback, and you feel the anger and frustration is directed at you. It isn’t. It’s frustration and anger at systems and white supremacy.
White people are used to doing racial justice their way and neatly sidestepping the things they don’t want to do. But if you are really going to be a person who is truly ride-or-die, you need to truly stand with and beside.
You come not with a spirit of mayhem or of revelry or of entertainment. You come with a spirit of service. Or else please stay the hell home.
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Author: Aja Romano