Beyond the Black Square

by Henry Blanchette, Freelance Editor & Avigail Rosen, Opinions Editor
photo courtesy of the Cornell Sun

Newton South Senior Jada Pierre awoke the morning of June 2 to unusual activity on her social media platforms ― an influx of black squares posted by her peers. Equipped with the #blackouttuesday hashtag and some accompanied with the #blacklivesmatter tag, Pierre said the trend was performative activism and counterproductive to racial justice movements.

“If anything, I think that was more harmful than good just because a lot of people used the Black Lives Matter hashtag, which was something that was used to give information to people and keep people up to date with what’s been going on in the movement itself,” she said. “The black post kind of buried all the information there.”

Performative activism, a trend where individuals partake in social justice solely online — often by reposting popular infographics — is often criticized for being ineffective and undermining genuine activism. On the date of blackout Tuesday, the hashtag generated by the trend had over 24.3 million posts while #blacklivesmatter had just 21.8 million.

Senior and Defund NPD member Valerie Goldstein has seen firsthand the presence of social justice initiatives becoming a trend and falling prey to performative activists.

“Right around the beginning of Defund NPD, so many people were involved. There was just so much attention on the work we were doing and the work related to it,” she said. “Then, once we actually started getting momentum and actually were doing great work, that’s when people stopped getting involved because it wasn’t in the spotlight anymore.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 53% of Americans have been civically active on social media in the past year. Senior Nico Henriquez is part of this majority and said he relies on social media as an outlet to spread awareness on political issues.

“When it’s necessary, I find that social media is an appropriate and exceptional outlet for activism,” he said. “It’s a space where my voice can be heard easily by multiple people.”

University of Massachusetts, Boston freshman Orest Ormenaj also uses social media as a mechanism to spread ideas and learn about different political issues.

“I like utilizing social media in order to learn where to start about activism,” he said. “Is it an entire replacement for in-person activity? No. But what social media has done for me is teach me not only about the importance of activism but the place to get a head start within my own community.”

Junior Andrew Kupovich has been politically active through phone banking, attending rallies and working on political campaigns, both pre-COVID-19 and during the pandemic. 

“A lot of the people that are posting and reposting infographics on their stories aren’t the same people that are trying to call offices, working for campaigns, trying to pressure politicians [and] going to in-person events,” he said.

A June CNBC survey, which polled American adults, found that more than 80% of white employees view themselves as allies to women of color at work. However, just 45% of Black women and 55% of Latinas say they have strong allies in the workplace. 

Pierre, a Black-Latina herself, said advocating for a cause to enhance your public image has repercussions, particularly on people and communities of color.

“I’ve seen it in other senses as well when people post things, but then again, I see them partying with people who are racist or have said racist things,” she said. “It’s frustrating because I know who’s an ally, but it’s hard to determine if they’re a co-conspirator.”

Goldstein said it’s important to go beyond social media to implement change regarding social justice issues.

“Posting something on your story when everyone else is doing it is so easy to do,” she said. “Once you’re actually in a tough conversation with someone and you have the ability to educate them, that’s when it’s difficult, and that’s when you can see when people are just being performative.”

Kupovich interned for MA-04 congressional candidate Ihsanne Leckey over the summer and said he recognized collaborating with local organizations as a key way for young people to engage in politics.

“The most direct way [to be politically active], in my view, is working for campaigns or organizations that have concrete goals that are trying to get, say, this number of people to vote for some sort of proposition or some candidate or trying to get this many people to call or pressure some public official to do something,” he said.

Pierre also got involved in a political campaign over the summer. She said that phone banking, a way of volunteering for a political campaign where participants call registered voters and try to sway them to vote for their candidate, for Senator Ed Markey was an easy and effective way to make an impact.

“Something that I did this summer, just because I wanted to be more involved, was phone banking. If you have a politician in mind where your views really align with theirs and they’re good for whatever you feel passionately about, I say phone bank,” she said. “If you truly believe that person can make a difference in the world, I do think you should get behind it.”

Pierre said confronting racism within your own social circle is an optimal way to incorporate antiracism into one’s life.

“Genuine activism is people who are willing to follow up their words with action and do more to incorporate antiracism into their daily life, whether calling out their racist friends, even going as far as like dropping them, and trying to incorporate antiracism into their day-to-day life,” she said.

Goldstein said it’s important to integrate antiracism into one’s life and expose yourself to alternative perspectives.

“The best way someone can make a change is just … living as anti-racist as you can be: that includes listening to people on social media [and] posting positive comments and educational things instead of trying to tear people down if you don’t agree with them,” she said.

Pierre’s advice to those looking to go beyond performative activism is to keep your mind open and confront your preconceived notions.

“As someone who’s still learning, there are going to be things that you do not know about,” she said. “Challenge yourself on your implicit and explicit biases. If you don’t do these things, like challenging yourself and asking why you think the way that you do, you will not be prepared to tackle a much larger and broader issue.”