For and among white people, the conversation surrounding Black lives and police brutality is often uncomfortable and divisive, so social media may feel like a safe space to share thoughts without dipping one’s toes too deep into the mess. But the truth is that challenging deeply ingrained racist beliefs and systems requires hard work and discomfort.
Allies who use social media to write about their feelings, share news stories, repost memes and debate with others for the purpose of social justice usually do so from a place of compassion. These actions can be incredibly helpful. But to be truly anti-racist, all of that is not enough: Social media is a tool that amplifies allyship, not encompasses it.
If your effort to support the Black community is temporary, effortless or gives you the warm-and-fuzzies, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The Dangers Of Performative Allyship
Social media is first and foremost about appearances, as users can curate an identity that puts them in the best light. When it comes to social justice issues, it can be too easy to talk the talk on social media without following through at home.
This is known as performative or optical allyship, sometimes referred to as “slacktivism.” It’s about doing the bare minimum for a trendy cause without putting in the long-term work to make a change. Examples include adding banners to your profile picture, signing online petitions or posting, just to feel like you “did something.”
In addition to being performative, lazy social media use can inadvertently harm the movement you think you’re helping. For example, Blackout Tuesday showed us what happens when uninformed social media users accidentally clog up important hashtag channels with nonessential information.
In the case of users who share videos and photos depicting violence against Black, Indigenous and/or people of color in the name of awareness, they may actually be causing more trauma, according to Elika Dadsetan-Foley, executive director of the diversity-focused non-profit training and consulting organization VISIONS, Inc.
“Sometimes we want to wake people up and want to ensure others see the horrors that exist in the world,” Dadsetan-Foley said. “If you are thinking this, your circle may be homogeneous enough to where you are not thinking of your BIPOC friends who may be negatively impacted by this action.”
Finally, consider that unless you’re a major celebrity or brand, the majority of your social media connections probably look and think a lot like you. One study from 2015 found that on Facebook, for example, less than a quarter of the average user’s friends are of an opposing political party. Just think: How many times have you unfriended or blocked someone because they disagree with you politically? Plus, newsfeed algorithms are designed to push content that closely aligns with our existing views. All of this reinforces the broader concept of confirmation bias, which means we are more likely to seek out and agree with views that match our pre-existing beliefs.
In other words, when you post on social media, you’re likely speaking to an audience that already agrees with you. Patting each other on the back for having the right opinions might feel nice, but it doesn’t actually accomplish much.
What Role Should Social Media Play In Activism?
That’s not to say social media doesn’t have a place in activism. It does, and a big one.
Social media is a powerful storytelling platform, and it allows otherwise underrepresented voices to gain visibility. Today, anyone with a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account can post their views for their friends and allies to see. “That’s distinctly different than pre-2005,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.
Social media can also serve as an educational tool. “Sharing through social media helps educate people in our communities we don’t want to lose, but also know we cannot keep around if they don’t wake up,” said Dadsetan-Foley. Plus, she added, it’s an outlet for people who cannot show community support by participating in protests.
Perhaps most importantly, social media serves as an avenue for disseminating information among activists. The ability to communicate with mass numbers of people in a short period of time makes social media an incredibly powerful tool, Morial said. “In the old days, when we wanted to do a protest or march, it took weeks ― sometimes months ― to plan,” he said.
But it’s a tool of communication, he added, not a replacement for action.
Morial also noted that social media has been critical in waking up the rest of the world to police brutality. In the case of the police killing of George Floyd, for example, little room for doubt surrounded what occurred once security videos, body cam footage and the infamous cell phone video became public. “These stories are not up to much interpretation,” Morial said. “That, to me, is how social media and technology as a tool is having an effect.”
However, he warned that social media as a tool can be used for good or bad. “It also creates an opportunity for people to spread misinformation… An individual can selectively determine who and what they’re going to follow, but it also requires diligence. Everything you see isn’t true.”
6 Ways To Create Real Change In The World
If you want to expand your contribution to combating racism beyond social media, here are a few ways you can do so on and offline.
1. Address your own biases.
No matter how informed or “woke” you believe you are, you still harbor certain implicit racial biases. These are assumptions and associations you unknowingly hold that affect your attitude and actions toward others. And the thing is, you can’t simply sit down and reflect on what these biases may be; as the name suggests, they are deep within your subconscious.
The good news is that you can take Implicit Association Tests to discover what those biases are, an important first step in becoming a better ally. If you find out that you do harbor certain biases, don’t take it as a reason to feel ashamed or retreat from the critical conversations happening right now. Change requires some discomfort, and it starts from within.
2. Educate yourself about racism.
One of the best things you can do as an ally is get educated. But remember, it’s not on your Black friends to explain racism to you. This period is especially draining, so avoid adding pressure to their lives by asking questions you can easily find the answers to.
“Thanks to social media and the internet in general, there is no way anyone can say they don’t know where to go for resources,” Dadsetan-Foley said.
Seek out books, movies, podcasts, articles and other resources that can help you understand Black history and the role of systemic racism in America.
3. Have face-to-face conversations.
It’s one thing to express your outrage over police brutality in an Instagram story, and quite another to call out your brother-in-law for making a racist comment at the dinner table.
“We have to challenge each other… people tend not to do that” Morial said. “You have to challenge the stereotypes. You have to challenge the preconceived notions. You have to challenge the attitudes which are born of racial animus. And people have to be willing to do it in their closed circles.”
Face-to-face conversations about racism, violence and other sensitive topics are awkward as hell. But the truth is you may have more success changing someone’s mind through a productive and earnest in-person discussion. “Also, for some, it may be the first time they’ve had these discussions, so help them unpack,” Dadsetan-Foley said. “You can change emotional misinformation by repeated corrected experiences.”
4. Put your money where your mouth is.
Showing financial support is another effective way to contribute. Donating to bail funds is one way to make an immediate impact. You can also make donations to social justice organizations and funds set up for victims’ families. And don’t forget to check if your employer matches donations.
Also consider where you spend your money and make it a point to buy from Black-owned restaurants, beauty brands, designers and more. Keep in mind that where you don’t spend your money is just as powerful as where you do. Avoid supporting companies with practices that harm people of color, such as those that use sweatshops, rely on prison labor and lack diversity in their leadership.
5. Attend rallies, protests and other community events.
Protesting is a highly effective method of creating political change. It’s a tactic our country was founded on, and one that activists continue to rely on today. But you don’t necessarily have to join the throngs of protesters marching in major cities. It’s helpful to participate in small-town demonstrations, or even organize one if nothing is on tap where you live.
6. Get involved in local politics.
Pressing for policy change at the national level can feel daunting. If you want to feel like you’re making a more immediate impact, get involved in local politics.
Sign up to receive email updates from the offices of the various lawmakers who represent your community. Call members of Congress, legislators and local representatives to let them know what specific actions you’d like them to take. Follow up by writing letters. Attend town hall and city council meetings. Even better, bring people with you. And come prepared with questions, such as how the city plans to change law enforcement policies and funding. And though you should always be polite, don’t be afraid to remain persistent.
Bottom Line: Do The Work
Know that being an ally is not a destination that you reach, but a lifelong journey that requires constant questioning and growing.
“Realize that being color-blind is not the goal,” Dadsetan-Foley said. “Remember the learning doesn’t ever end.” And perhaps most difficult for many of us, “take accountability for not having done the work earlier.”