Why Posting Black Boxes for #BlackoutTuesday, or Hashtags Without Action, Is Useless (Column)

Posting a black square on Instagram might make you feel better, but it doesn't help the cause you claim to support.

Blackout Tuesday Black Lives Matter
iphone: Shutterstock / Velishchuk Yevhen

By the time the Washington Redskins posted a black square to stand against racism — yes, the Washington Redskins — #BlackoutTuesday was well and truly done for.

Hours before, a barrage of black squares hit Instagram with solemn captions vowing to stay silent on social media for one whole day. The original idea behind the social media “blackout” came from Black executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, who wanted musicians and businesses to use the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused in order to shine a spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. But somewhere along the way, the messaging morphed into something else entirely, until thousands of well-meaning supporters got the message to post a black square to prove you’re not racist.

Whatever the original intent was, the endless scroll of squares — particularly those clogging up otherwise useful hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter — quickly became counterproductive, eclipsing crucial information on where to donate and how to tangibly support the cause. Posting a black square on an Instagram feed doesn’t actually help amplify Black voices; it just buries them under performative nonsense.

And yet, as protests have burned on across the country, “performative nonsense” has been the order of the day from those trying to signal that they are Good and Progressive Enough to understand. Corporate Twitter accounts tweeted #BlackLivesMatter and heart emojis at each other. Celebrities responded with vague affirmations that things are bad. (See: Ellen DeGeneres tweeting that “for things to change, things must change,” a basic fact that reeks of too many publicists taking passes.) Democrats drafted statements that tried to balance on the line between sympathy and outright support, but instead stumbled into meaningless word salad. (See: Pete Buttigieg saying, “Black lives depend on whether America can be what we want to believe it is,” as if he was a bot spitting out fragments of Barack Obama speeches.) Organizations released declarations of support that talked around the urgent matter at hand, or worse yet, ignored their own culpability in oppressing Black people for their own gain. (See: Amazon tweeting that “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop” despite supporting police surveillance and chronically undervaluing the many Black workers on its payroll, or the NFL saying it is “committed to continuing the important work to address systemic issues” despite every indication otherwise.) And not for nothing: Very few corporate and celebrity responses ever used the words “police brutality,” instead opting to speak out against the more palatable specter of “systemic racism.” 

At the very least, all of the above got rightfully lambasted for being toothless. DeGeneres eventually even deleted her tweet, replacing it with a pledge that she would be donating (an unspecified amount) to several anti-racist organizations. But even though it’s only been a week, this rush to virtue-signal support without providing substantive aid is an all too familiar instinct on social media, where an issue can become a trend that people feel the need to address in some way, whether or not it makes sense or does any actual good. It’s easy to post a hashtag or a black square, and at a time when branding to reach as wide an audience as possible rules, that low level of engagement (and commitment) suits many comfortable corporations and celebrities just fine. 

But an acknowledgment without matching action, or even just a strong and specific point of view, is barely worth the effort. And at some point, especially in the cases of corporations that don’t practice what they preach for PR purposes, using the language of protests for the sake of it is just another way of co-opting the very real pain that inspires movements like #BlackLivesMatter in the first place. If you’re willing to stop talking so Black people can be heard, maybe just go ahead and stop talking.