When Charmaine Magumbe thinks of the recent conversations being had online about the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, she hopes it’s not just a temporary dialogue.
“I’m hoping it’s not a trend, I’m hoping it’s not a hashtag,” said Magumbe, chairperson at Community Race Relations Committee of Peterborough, Ont. “I’m hoping that they would understand the context of what it is to be Black in a society that has racism.”
Floyd died on May 25 after a police officer from the Minneapolis Police Department kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while two other officers held Floyd down and an additional officer stood guard. After the incident was filmed by bystanders and circulated widely online, international protests erupted calling for Floyd’s justice — and justice for all Black lives that continue to be lost at the hands of police.
Protests sparked by Floyd’s killing, as well as the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, are only a few high-profile examples of what the Black community has been demanding for a long time — justice for Black lives and an end to systemic cycles of racism.
A quick scroll through social media outlets like Twitter shows the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter being used widely, with new tweets appearing every few minutes. The hashtag has been used on Twitter 11.8 million times since it first appeared in 2013 till 2016, according to the Pew Research Group.
In comes optical allyship, a performative form of “slacktivism” that has been criticized by numerous social media users.
The term was originally introduced by maternity author Latham Thomas in 2018, according to author Layla F. Saad in her book “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor.”
Simply put, optical allyship can be thought of as making statements or showing solidarity for mere appearances, without having done anything to address the issue at hand or to dig deeper. According to Richard Lachman, associate professor at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media, this form of activism could be dangerous.
“There is an aspect of social media which is performance,” said Lachman. “Which is, ‘I’m posting something to signify that, oh yes, I’m paying attention,’ but have I made any change in my life? Have I done anything to sort of interrogate my own biases? Have I led to any functional change?”
“And that is absolutely the danger, that it becomes just about sharing, just about signifying something, and not about actual change.”
Lachman says this is in part due to the fact that social media wasn’t designed for activism, but activist messaging has penetrated it nonetheless.
“Right now, we are seeing critiques on both sides of this,” said Lachman. “There are functional uses of social media that are leading to information getting out … the regular user could have a global reach. It’s Twitter, it’s Facebook that are being used for activism because that’s where the people are. They weren’t there for activism, but an activist message can reach them because they were there for social connection.”
“(Social media) is good at getting the word out so we can have this conversation with each other, but the thing it might be bad at is encouraging deeper reflection.”
“It can be (harmful) if you don’t understand what you’re participating in,” said Teneile Warren, editorial assistant at ByBlacks magazine in Toronto. “Optical allyship is also a part of public pressure.”
Warren gives the example of #blackouttuesday to emphasize how the rush to publicly respond and be an optical ally can derail the conversation. The initiative was launched by Black music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, who wanted all players in the music industry to collectively “pause” their work on June 2, allowing time for reflection on how the music industry has profited off of Black art.
However, the hashtag seemed to garner lots of criticism online. Some members of the Black community expressed how the black squares being posted, oftentimes with the wrong hashtag, were burying important information and messages that would have reached a wider audience, had the squares not taken over everyone’s feeds.
So now what? After seeing all these posts and hashtags online, where do we go from here? How can we become allies without the ‘optics?’
Magumbe says you can start by listening to the Black community, without derailing the conversation.
“They need to listen to Black voices. They need to listen to voices that are different from them. They need to listen to Indigenous voices, people of color voices, and they need to just keep quiet,” she said.
Educating yourself, by yourself, is a big step towards creating change, Magumbe and Warren agree. That means using the resources available to you to learn about Black history, instead of rushing to the nearest Black friend or colleague to ask them, “what can I do?”
There is also raising awareness to those around you, which is a touchy topic for some. Both Warren and Lachman say some people may be too scared to say the wrong thing, so they end up saying nothing at all.
“If you’re not saying anything, because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, you’re not being anti-racist, you’re just being non-racist. You’re like, ‘let me just step out of the way’,” said Warren.
“But we can’t do this work. We can’t do the work to shift a system that was never designed for us. So if we have to take this risk every day and you decide that you’re going to be our ally, then you have to risk saying something, not saying it perfectly, being corrected, and taking that learning experience and moving forward and saying it better the next time.”
Lachman says our understanding of social media has to improve if we want to be able to engage in political and humanitarian conversations.
“We know many cases where this kind of internet shaming has happened,” said Lachman. “I think as part of getting more comfortable with living in a social media world, we have to become much more savvy in terms of what we post, more savvy in terms of what we consume, and how we interpret and read everything that’s out there… meaning we need to be good at apologizing.”
“I have to use the best of my ability,” he said. “In other words, I shouldn’t just repost or retweet something. I should dig into it a little bit. If I can, I’m going to check if this is fact-verified before I repost. But if I make a mistake, I’m going to own that mistake and take it back.”
Raising awareness also comes from having uncomfortable conversations with racist or uneducated colleagues and friends, instead of just blocking or deleting them, according to Warren. It is also a good time to take a good look at yourself and your practices. Do you carry inherent biases towards members of the Black community? Do you or your company’s hiring practices seem to favor non-Black applicants?
When faced with two differing opinions from the Black community on the same topic? Warren said you need to apply your judgment with the knowledge and education you’ve gained.
“I want you to do your own work, and support us from a place of your choosing,” said Warren. “You as a potential ally need to look at those two perspectives, understand where they’re coming from, and then make a decision. Anything else is performative, you’re just like ‘Oh, this is what they need.'”
As for reposting triggering and traumatizing videos of Black people being killed online as proof of their reality? Some activists say that can do more harm than good.
“The posting of these videos, and I call it trauma porn, just plays into the idea of white systems not believing that Black bodies can be innocent,” said Warren. “When you demand to see these videos as proof… that’s coming from the perspective of, ‘You did something wrong. I need proof that you didn’t do something wrong. Your word is not enough. The story is not enough.’ That is traumatizing… because you’re telling me that I need to prove my humanity to you, for you to believe that I was harmed.”