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Think Before You Link: Let’s Reconsider Our Social Media Responses to Racial Violence

blacksquareWe, the digital population, need to be careful about reducing the complexity of systemic racism into a 1080 x 566 pixel rectangle. We have to do a lot better.

“Blackout Tuesday” was intended as an expression of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and an opportunity to go “silent” on social media to reflect on George Floyd’s murder. However, it appears the deluded two-dimensional virality distracted from opportunities to prompt collective human reflection and invite a broader call to action. To assuage the guilt of generational passivity, thousands “checked the box” on activism posting their black box. If we are so desperate to prove our morality to our followers, we will likely forget to consider how we can play a more meaningful, lasting role to create peace, justice, and safety in any slice of our nation we can reach.

Like so many of our nation’s wounds, the answer appears simple, but the solution is complicated. The answer: many Americans face fear, violence, and hate in a pervasive reality that other Americans do not want to see up close. The solution: is anywhere but Instagram.

Instagram can be an admirably powerful tool for organizing, educating, communicating, and growing awareness. The risk is if we fall short on execution and mindful intent. In the filter bubble of my predominantly white private institution, kind, caring souls post and repost lists and lists, lists of more lists of articles, quotes, pictures, poems, books, and Spotify playlists. While sincere, I can’t help but question the longevity and impact of that mass quantity of content: in short, please only post that list if you really have read those books. If our primary reactions to racial violence come in the shape of cowardly craving for instant gratification, we are in danger of neglecting tangible steps toward social justice. Piecemeal, distant sharing seems to exonerate the digital citizen from having to feel and experience a hidden, ugly truth that only periodically resurfaces in unspeakable tragedy.

I appreciate that hearts are in the right place and intentions are pure, but that does not certify white allies to speak over leaders of color on social platforms. I urge my digital comrades to think before you link. Let’s habitually ask ourselves, is my black box really me listening? How have I listened better as a result? The inescapable noise of largely unqualified white voices on social media may undermine the very goal of this social movement to empower voices of color. Social media is a hard place to listen and not speak, so we should consider migrating to face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) direct, intimate conversations on race. We need to look beyond the surface of Instagram to reflect on how we can each best use our voice and platform for enduring justice. In our hasty self-branding, we may have forgotten the pandemic disproportionately afflicting communities of color. Amongst a thousand actionable ideas, maybe become a contact tracer, register to vote, call your local elected officials, write your state representatives, have an uncomfortable conversation, take the implicit bias test, or think about how you can orient your studies or career towards a more equitable world. We owe communities of color a more permanent commitment in our own lives; we owe this world a more careful reflection on how we engage with it.

It is human nature that we are tempted to insert ourselves into the narrative unfolding around us, to make sense of it by tying up the questions and emotions in a neat bow, then to flash it to our followers to signal some degree of ethical enlightenment, respect, and intelligence. A signature and a donation may count toward some marginal illusion of change, but this comes at the risk of complacency. Once we click, repost, sign, like, comment, I fear we close our phones and move on. When “Blackout Tuesday” content is no longer trending, we feel like we have done our part already. We pick back up with whatever concerned us before, because many white observers’ very public shock distinguished this week from normal life. Collapsing the history of American racial violence into our regular reflexive regurgitation of Instagram electrons impedes us from integrating this pain and suffering into normal life. Instead, let’s try to find the part we can play in something so much bigger than ourselves.

Carly Glickenhaus is a 2020 Georgetown University graduate, student-athlete, and tour guide, with hopes for a generation of human reflection and conversation on race and justice that take us beyond our screens.

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