Online allyship: a broken game of do like I do

When George Floyd was killed at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis, United States, the online world rose from its amnesiac slumber. 

We remembered the perpetual danger that black folk are subject to. Soon thereafter the killings of Breonna Taylor in the US and of Collins Khosa, Sibusiso Amos, Adane Emmanuel and Petrus Miggels in South Africa resurfaced. In response to this, and in spite of global restrictions on physical mass gatherings, demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism commenced: first in Minneapolis and then across the world in both physical and online spaces. 

Parallel to this, non-black folk have a growing list of dos and don’ts to choose from to either fulfill or perform their allyship under lockdown. The best view can be seen on Instagram. 

Logging in to the app every morning, at lunch, and a few times before ending the day, my feed is mostly filled with recommendations and attempts at support. 

Sign a petition. Donate money to foundations, food aid, bail funds, black community newsrooms and education programmes aimed at supporting black people. Volunteer. Read revolutionary material by black (preferably queer) scholars, analysts and activists like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin. Watch the prescribed Netflix documentaries that outline the many (but not all) injustices that black folk are dealt.

If you can go outside to join a protest, take a photographer with you to make sure your support is documented. 

Post a black square on Instagram as a part of the #BlackoutTuesday challenge or campaign — depending on who you ask. Follow black thought leaders on social media. Let them flood your feeds. Tune into their podcasts and live streams on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Tiktok. Do not share traumatic content. 

If you have a large following, let your black colleague or friend take over your Instagram account as a part of the #ShareTheMicNow campaign. Check on your black friends and colleagues to see how they’re doing. 

Repost a pastel #BlackLivesMatter illustration from Tumblr without crediting the maker. 

Step down from your position of power and insist that a black contemporary replaces you. 

Quietly listen to black folk. Reflect on your privilege. Publicly declare your white shame and guilt. Renounce your white privilege. Announce your allyship and make sure your stance is known, to avoid being called out as complicit or complacent. 

Rally other non-black folk and encourage them to do the same. Follow. Like. Share. Retweet. Subscribe, rinse and repeat. 

For the most part, social media platforms can be a great tool for educating and organising people against injustices. But a lot of the time they allow users to get away with passive activism that hinders allies from committing to long-term, life-long, active and in-depth engagement with marginalised people. 

In other instances, passivity can get in the way of real work, like it did when the wrong hashtag affected access to resources. The Black Lives Matter movement began in July 2013. Seven years later, Instagram had a record of just over 11.9-million posts under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. This was until #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, when the hashtag became inundated with black squares.

Practitioners in the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, joined forces to encourage Instagram users to spend June 2 reflecting on ways to support the black community. Thomas is the senior director of marketing at Atlantic Records; Agyemang is the senior artist campaign manager at Apple’s record label, Platoon. The proposed hashtag was #TheShowMustBePaused. This would be symbolised by posting a black square. The goal was to reckon with how the music industry continues to profit from black artists. 

The first handful of people posted the black square with its proposed hashtag. Others used it to pledge allyship. Not too long after the day began, brands, public figures and influencers jumped on the bandwagon without knowing its background. Like a game of broken telephone, the intention of Blackout Tuesday was lost along the way, because of surface level engagement. By the end of the day more than a million users had posted the black square under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

As a result, the blackout took up space under a hashtag that  activists use to share valuable information, like when and where protests are taking place, the different ways to participate and video evidence of police brutality. 

Lest it’s forgotten, the online space encourages users to be performative. Much like post-workout selfies at the gym, airport check-ins, outfit-of-the-day pictures, candid snaps from brunch and charity-work photo ops, the reward of likes for online displays of support can mess with the function of activism.  

Likes, like applause, are loaded with approval that can very easily lead allies into believing that a post or two is enough. No one knows the depth of engagement and support taking place offline. And if the displays are fuelled by the need to prove that they feel bad, such engagers can quickly disengage when their feelings of guilt are appeased. This does nothing for the revolution.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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