'Blackout Tuesday' on Instagram was a teachable moment for allies like me

This isn’t about who can perform their wokeness the best. This is about continually learning and seeking out the best, most effective solutions to these systemic problems.
The #BlackoutTuesday debacle was a reminder that being an ally, sometimes, means making mistakes.
The #BlackoutTuesday debacle was a reminder that being an ally, sometimes, means making mistakes. TODAY illustration
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By Natasha Noman

This week I discovered the extent to which some of my attempts at allyship were hurting, not helping, the struggle for black liberation. As a queer woman of color, this was a difficult pill to swallow. But I wasn’t alone. #BlackoutTuesday forced a lot of us wannabe allies to confront the ways in which our allyship can be misguided and, frankly, lazy.

On Tuesday, as Americans across the country searched for ways to express solidarity with black people, #BlackoutTuesday took social media by storm. It was an ostensible display of allyship — posting a black square with the aforementioned hashtag — with a promise not to post anything else that day and instead take the time to think about the ways in which many nonblack Americans benefit from structural racism.

While Tuesday morning saw a great many Instagram feeds flooded with black tiles, by the evening, many of these posts had been deleted, with people attempting to make amends.

While Tuesday morning saw a great many Instagram feeds flooded with black tiles, by the evening, many of these posts had been deleted, with people attempting to make amends. I was one of these people. There was an important lesson to be learned, if people were paying attention, and it had nothing to do with policing behavior or judgement. Rather, the #BlackoutTuesday debacle was a reminder that being an ally, sometimes, means making mistakes. But a true ally doesn’t give up when corrected; a true ally listens and course-corrects without shame or resentment. I say this as someone who’s wished, on numerous occasions, friends and family would do the same when I point out their transgressions, but who can still gets defensive if I’m not being thoughtful about it.

This all started with an initiative introduced by two black women in the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, as a call for their colleagues to halt business for a day and use the time to reflect on how white people in the industry exploit and make money off black talent. But the campaign swiftly took on a life of its own and snowballed into #BlackoutTuesday, whereby the whole world was apparently supposed to stop and reflect.

Two problems quickly arose. The first was that many people posting their black tiles as a sign of solidarity were using the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM. This well-meaning display of solidarity was drowning out crucial information for organizers and protesters. The second problem was that, on a more theoretical level, silence is not really the preferred mode of allyship for something like police brutality. And as many black people explained, showing up, seeking out discourse about racial injustices and listening to and elevating black voices were much more important to many activists than inaction and reflection.

“It’s an easy trend to jump onto, it’s easy to understand, it doesn’t take a lot of effort or energy, and, visually, it’s quite powerful if you’re just scrolling and all these people have black screens,” said Katie Petitt, a black activist who founded the nonprofit Current Movements. But Petitt, who previously worked as an organizer with Black Lives Matter, D.C., and Movement for Black Lives, D.C., noted that the Instagram hashtag also lacked analysis and nuance. “There’s the historic nature of the silencing of our voices as black people and in this movement of ending police brutality and having justice in this country.”

Invariably, as the backlash swelled Tuesday afternoon, warring factions emerged. The dialogue became reductive, self-righteous and at times hostile. A number of people on my feed railed against those who participated in the “performative allyship” of #BlackoutTuesday — the irony, of course, being that these condemnations became equally performative. Quickly, the whole thing started to devolve into a game of “Who’s the better ally?”

As the backlash swelled Tuesday afternoon, warring factions emerged. The dialogue became reductive, self-righteous and at times hostile.

When I first noticed there was controversy around this, I sought out black perspectives. One such voice was that of Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a black activist, thought leader and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which seeks to tackle police brutality through policy advocacy.

“Look, social media is a critical tool,” Cunningham said in her video on the topic. “It is a tool to educate people about white supremacy. It is a tool for people to learn and reflect on their own anti-blackness. It is a tool for people to be able to advocate on behalf of victims of police violence, racism and actually do the work that it takes. It is also an important tool for activism organizers to stay connected.”

In the video, she encourages people who want to be allies to be actively engaged and, instead of falling silent, to uplift black voices. One of her suggestions was to follow #AmplifyMelinatedVoices on social media channels. “If we all get on our Instagram and everything is black, we’re not talking about the things that matter,” she said.

So instead of falling silent, I listened to the words of these activists and followed their lead. I sent my contacts an email template addressed to the Minneapolis Police Department, demanding all four of George Floyd’s killers be held accountable — an email I sent, myself. Then I found and changed my Instagram bio to a link that produced an automatically generated email, demanding accountability over Breonna Taylor’s killing ­— another email I sent. I did research about which organizations to support and settled on the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP, and the Black Visions Collective (one of the groups Minnesota Freedom Fund redirected donors to after being overwhelmed with donations).

In a post apologizing for my misstep, which actually helped occlude black voices rather than elevate them, I shared these organizations’ information and urged others to consider donating. I sought out and shared content from black thought leaders, about allyship, activism and the struggle more broadly.

And do you know what? It took about a third of my day. That, in and of itself, was a huge wake-up call. Doing the work of anti-racism in a deliberate way takes time, energy and resources. (I mean, of course it does.) It was absurd for me to think that a post that took less than three minutes before I’d had my coffee on Tuesday morning would be as meaningful.

But that realization is kind of the point. Allyship is an ongoing process, no matter if you’re supporting LGBTQ communities or black Americans or Muslim Americans. “A good ally looks like someone who’s really done their work around understanding what white supremacy is, how it’s played out in their lives and how they’ve benefited from it,” Petitt said. “And not just white people, right? All nonblack people can embody white supremacy.”

The silver lining here is that people seem to be more and more open to engaging with these critiques. “In the 24 hours that this whole thing had its flow, I’ve seen a lot of really thoughtful [posts],” Petitt told me. Countless people on her social media, she said, who would ordinarily never talk about race, apologized and attempted to course-correct. “And for them to recognize their own ignorance and do it so publicly is no small thing.”

This isn’t about who can perform their wokeness the best. This is about continually seeking out the best, most effective solutions to these systemic problems and not taking it personally when the people in the communities you are trying to support point out problematic or unhelpful behavior. Posting a black square on Tuesday doesn’t inherently make you a bad ally — but it doesn’t inherently make you a good one, either.