We are in the midst of a socio-cultural revolution, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. As statues of slave owners fall, corporate franchises burn, and white gatekeepers resign, the insidious system of white supremacy that has shaped the Western world falters before our eyes. The people who have benefitted from this system, whether directly or indirectly, must use every tool available to them to help dismantle the structures and ideologies that have secured their privileges at the expense of others’ freedom. And, whether we like it or not, one of the most powerful tools available to us is in the palm of our hand.
Social media has, in the days since George Floyd’s murder, been at its best, inspiring and empowering—and at its worst confusing, draining and infuriating. While the show of solidarity for the movement has been substantial, the quality and method of contributions has left much to be desired. Any white person should have asked themselves over the course of the past weeks: how can I best further this cause without being vapid, self-serving or offensive? Jamaican-Canadian fiction writer and freelance journalist Katrice Dustin speaks to INDIE about her own relationship with online activism—and provides some crucial overall guidance on how white people can be less wack online.
What does being unapologetically Black mean for you?
Unapologetic Blackness means resisting and actively fighting against what you’ve learned about what it means to be Black in our society. It means wearing braids or afros to work meetings without the fear of being “too much” for anyone. It means not being hesitant to enter majority white spaces. It means that when we stand up to the racial discrimination inflicted upon us, that we aren’t “angry” or “sassy”—we are simply speaking. Unapologetic Blackness means no filters, despite society’s expectations of us. It means we don’t give a damn how people interpret our behaviour according to their racial stereotypes.
How does this play out online?
Our online communities are saturated with racism, we just have to keep pushing on and making our voices heard. @patiasfantasyworld and the people running it are a great example of unapologetic Blackness online and have even blatantly stated that their page is for Black people. The page is both hilarious and intellectual, but even then, you still see white people getting offended by the posts. There’s no winning—no way of being Black that works for people, even within our own spaces. So we need to keep promoting and creating our spaces in spite of that, and on our terms. We need to stop apologising for just existing. And if it stresses people out or makes them uncomfortable—fuck it.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many white people who were previously silent on matters of police brutality and systematic racism at large have turned to social media as a form of “activism.” How can we learn to recognise optical and performative allyship?
Social media is a form of activism if used correctly. I was so enraged by all these black squares and singular MLK quotes floating around because they are genuinely the most empty, vapid forms of solidarity from white people I could ever imagine. That black square was meant to be a visceral signifier that people stand with us. But then most did nothing else whatsoever with their platform. Some of those folks have upwards of 100k followers. It’s lazy and insulting. Do more. If two clicks is your idea of support, you need to ask yourself some hard questions. Before George Floyd, there were countless others. It took the disgusting, horrendous lynching of a Black man broadcast all over the world for people to truly react. We cannot overlook the fact that it took this long, and this many deaths caught on and off camera for people to finally break their silence.
It’s triggering to watch people I know suddenly claim to care about Black people or, even worse, now attempt to tokenise us. I understand that people have to start somewhere, but it’s still a huge slap in the face. These people need to ask themselves why it took this long. To those people I want to say that publicly apologising to those you’ve hurt with your behaviour is a start, but even that will never erase our trauma. If you’ve been a racist and/or misogynist in the past and you think for one second me and people like me don’t see you with your fake activism and empty words, think again. You’re lucky that we are only calling you out online and that we aren’t all demanding compensation for your abuse.
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Why do you think it’s been so important to criticise?
White supremacy is an insidious beast that has brainwashed all of us on some level, regardless of race or class. It even tries to pit BIPOC against each other within our own communities. It’s going to take a lot more unlearning, cooperation and effort than we think to eventually take it down. The reason I started becoming so vocal on social media is because I saw so much wacktivism and hypocrisy among my peers. At first I started directly addressing it in my stories, but it became so exhausting that I turned to memes—which are such a powerful communication tool. If we don’t question the people around us for their unhelpful “allyship” which only perpetuates and/or undermines the issue at hand—one which directly affects the quality of our lives—then we are fighting an uphill battle we will never win. We have to work together productively. People should want to know what is constituted within true allyship and be open to criticism if their actions don’t reflect that. Some genuinely think all they need to say is “I’m not racist” or stick a James Baldwin quote on the problem and they are ready to wash their hands and take a seat. It doesn’t work that way. You have to actually participate in dismantling this deadly and toxic system you have benefitted from, not just gaslight us with your black squares.
Do you think the social media “echo chamber” effect is inhibiting efforts to dismantle white supremacy?
Social media is inherently an echo chamber, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. People place so much importance on being “original” and creating a personal online brand. In times like this, I wish people would just get over it. I too have been guilty of using my voice fruitlessly in the past, but I’ve since taken the time to really check myself. We have become a shockingly shallow society with twisted priorities. Social media is our most powerful tool, so if it isn’t for educating each other, sharing our experiences, and actively fighting for causes we believe in with the aim of eventually living in a world with a bit less bullshit in it, then what is it for exactly? Pics of you with celebs in Paris? Promoting your vegan donut brand? I’m aware of the world we live in, but I want to know why all of this subject matter is encouraged but sincere online activism isn’t cool enough.
By posting that thread about how to talk to your white family about racism, or how to defend a BIPOC when you witness a hate crime, you are providing useful information to your followers who maybe aren’t following other people sharing those things. Maybe your problematic uncle will see it and stop to take some notes. Maybe someone who looks up to you will be encouraged to repost your story and that will reach their followers, and so on. It’s more about the domino effect. If there was ever a time not to “go offline”, this is it. Do the work from all sides. If there was ever a time to stop placing so much value on your image, this is it. And if your image does not include genuinely fighting against social and racial injustice with the tools you were given, then your image is revolting. No debate.
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Call out and cancel culture is hugely contested. Are people’s good intentions no longer good enough, or should we try to accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of education, including anti-racism education?
The concept of “cancelling” someone is ridiculous and I do not advocate for that kind of language, but when people say they are sick of getting called out, it only serves to further accentuate how uncomfortable they are—even with being asked politely to correct themselves. Referring to it as “call out culture” just propagates the idea that Black people are being “too aggressive” or asking for too much. A lot of white people tend to use “calling out” as an umbrella term which includes any received criticism. They need to learn to be okay with getting feedback and stop getting so offended. We shouldn’t have to argue about why someone’s comment or post is problematic or makes us uncomfortable just to be met with dispute or to have another white person make the same point and the person in question instantly agrees. We shouldn’t have to keep defending ourselves to the very people who are claiming to support us. Of course everyone makes mistakes but, well-intended or not, people participate in silencing when they promote “peace” instead of “call outs” in such a finite context. It’s a long process but having uncomfortable dialogue is part of that process. You can still say something wack and have it come from a good place. If someone lets you know, just say sorry, that you understand, that you’ll learn from it and do better next time. It’s really not that hard.
How can non-BIPOC do better?
Donate and sign petitions that help the movement in any way, use your platform no matter how big or small to fight racial injustice against Black people by sharing their voices and educational information, stop arguing or telling Black or non-Black POC how to behave, have those difficult conversations with your relatives about racism, go to the demonstrations if you are able-bodied, understand that you can be a non-Black POC and be racist to Black people, and lastly and one of the most important: learn to identify physical, verbal and psychological racial violence when it appears in front of you. Find out what steps you can take if you witness an act of racial abuse, in the workplace, in school, at home or on the street. Learn the definitions of both macroaggression and microaggression. If you forget, learn again. If a BIPOC friend tells you about a lived experience with racism, no matter how big or small you may perceive it as, no “but—s” or “maybes”. When your friend makes “ghetto” jokes, refers to Black men as “scary” or “intimidating” or clutches their purse when a group of them walk by, or asks a Black woman if they can touch her hair in your presence—understand why these actions are violent and traumatising for us and call them the fuck out.
Why is it so important to listen to and respect what BIPOC are saying—but also never expect or demand instructions, directions or coaching sessions through white fragility and allyship?
First of all, I want to sincerely ask some white people why they think they know better than a black person or non-black POC on how to properly help dismantle systemic racism? Why do so many feel the need or believe they have the right to unload onto us their alleged expertise in this area? When it comes to helping BIPOC eventually live better lives free from racial hate or discrimination, remaining teachable, listening and adapting accordingly is the only logical to do.
We are automatically expected to teach white people about racism, but we’re sick of educating people about their own ignorance. It’s exhausting. I think more people are starting to understand that. Maybe a big reason some of us are choosing to speak up right now is because it feels like the first time in many of our lives where we are really being listened to.
Katrice Dustin currently lives in Berlin, Germany and is working on her first novel