On Tuesday morning, black square after black square replaced the selfies and puppies and tall cans of beer that normally populate Instagram, the popular photo-sharing app. They were intended to amplify the voices of black people, but had the opposite result, highlighting the complicated nature of allyship.
The posts, mostly made by white and non-black people of colour as part of a movement called Blackout Tuesday, were meant to symbolize users silencing themselves. But because many were tagged #BlackLivesMatter, they instead buried posts by black activists.
”It was virtue signalling, it was performative," said Gabrielle Warren, 23, a black woman in Oakville, Ont., who woke up irritated to see what her Instagram feed had become. “And the posts about black mental health, about defunding the police, about what was going on in the South were being blotted out.”
A week and a half since the death of George Floyd, a black man whose last words were “I can’t breathe” as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, black people have asked the white and non-black people of colour around them: What are you going to do to help us and how will you do it effectively?
They have responded in a variety of ways: posted to social media, marched alongside black protesters, driven unprecedented sales of books on anti-racism and directed financial support at black grassroots organizations and bail funds.
But seasoned black organizers and those who study racial justice activism wonder if this is a turning point, or, like movements before, a brief moment of performative allyship that will recede as the news cycle moves on.
The last widespread protests in response to anti-black violence by police were in 2014. That summer, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His death triggered months of racial unrest in the city and international media coverage.
Ismaël Traoré, who wrote his PhD thesis on white allyship, said in the six years since Ferguson, black people have worked to raise white consciousness: writing articles and books, holding workshops and talks, turning grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter into professional organizations. Though it hasn’t yet been studied, he theorizes this work may have translated into increased ally engagement after Mr. Floyd’s death.
“The reasons that white people have to participate today are the same reasons that existed before but it’s just now they understand it more,” he said.
In Toronto, a protest was organized last weekend after the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a black woman who died after falling off a balcony in the presence of police in a case that is now being investigated by Ontario’s police watchdog. The 22-year-old black woman who co-organized the protest said she noticed a lot of non-black protesters on Saturday, but, “I don’t think they should necessarily be congratulated.”
“That has been going on for so long, and if it took another black person to die for people to realize that, then that’s where the problem starts,” said Gisselle, whom The Globe and Mail has agreed to identify by her first name as her activism has led to death threats from white supremacists.
Sandy Hudson, who co-founded Black Lives Matter Toronto in 2014, said this past week there’s been an uptick in donations to her organization as well as the Black Legal Action Centre, a non-profit legal clinic which serves low- and no-income black people in Ontario. Many have also sent money to bail funds across the United States. Ms. Hudson said she welcomed the funds, but would like to see donating that is sustained, not just prompted by high-profile violence.
She theorized that the video of Mr. Floyd’s death, as well as videos of other violent interactions between police and black people, is what has mobilized those who had until this point ignored the messages of groups such as hers.
“It’s disheartening because people should believe us, but I do think that has an impact when people can really see that police treat black communities differently – that we often die at their hands.”
This awakening has driven many to read up on anti-blackness. BookNet, which tracks book sales in 2,000 retail outlets across Canada, noted a 635-per-cent surge in print sales of books by black authors written for non-black audiences, such as Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy from the week ending May 24 to the week ending May 31 in the Canadian English-language trade market. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo was Penguin Random House Canada’s top-selling book at major retailers this past weekend, according to the publisher.
To Paul Gorski, the Asheville, N.C.-based founder of the Equity Literacy Institute who has studied racial justice activism, simply reading a book doesn’t make one an ally – it’s the actions that follow that are important.
There’s a concept in critical race theory called interest convergence, where a white-dominant society will invest in racial justice as long as the interests of that society align with racial justice. Mr. Gorski said few are interested in asking the bigger questions of how they can redistribute power, especially if it means relinquishing some of their own.
“'How do I talk to my kid about racism?' That’s the kind of question I get. Not, ‘What’s an organization I can connect with that is actively fighting police violence?’"
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