I didn’t put a black square up on Instagram. Back in June, when anger over George Floyd’s
murder spilled over and caught fire worldwide, people responded by pausing their social media output, save for a single black square posted on their account. This act was a fair reflection of the public mood. A New York Times study revealed that support for Black Lives Matter rocketed across all demographics after Floyd’s death on 25 May. Nevertheless, I didn’t join in.
I’ve been around the social media block, and I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen a movement like this peter out because the majority of people only did the bare minimum. They’ll tweet a supportive hashtag for Kony 2012, or sling a rainbow-coloured Twibbon across their avatar for a week, then move on to a newer, sexier outrage. It’s exhausting, and it always feels like it happens because straight, white people want to stop feeling guilty
Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions tweeted a Get Out meme on the day of the blackout. It showed Bradley Whitford’s overly performative character in the middle
of his “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” speech, only this time he was saying “I would’ve posted two black squares if I could.” (As an aside, one white person I follow on Instagram posted nine black squares in a row, so that it would look nicer on their grid. Nine.)
The Monkeypaw tweet hit right in the middle of where I live, because I identify with the Bradley Whitford character far too readily. He’s too self-consciously liberal, too eager
to show every black person on Earth that he isn’t one of the bad ones. If I’m not careful, I can fall into that trap with remarkable ease. “I’m not like the other white people,” I think. “I married a mixed-race woman. I’ve got mixed-race kids.” Forget the fact that they’re only mixed-race on paper and that my eldest could feasibly pass as Swedish. The smug little dopamine hit I get from the thought more than makes up for it.
Not posting a black square was my way of grappling against my own awful instincts. Of course, I wanted to join in. Of course, I wanted my handful of followers to see that I’m one of the good guys. But by not doing it, I was denying myself the easy way out. Now, I have to confront it head-on.
In my whole life, I have only been the recipient of racial prejudice once. It happened in 2004, when I lived in South Korea, right as anti-American sentiment there was reaching record levels (a popular song at the time was Yoon Min-Suk’s “Fucking USA”). I was travelling home on the subway late one night, when a drunk Korean man mistook me for an American and got in my face, screaming at me in broken English about how I was responsible for the Iraq war. It was terrifying. But it soon stopped, because another Korean man on the train shouted at him to shut up, before mouthing, “It’s OK,” at me.
And that’s it. That’s the closest I’ve ever got to experiencing racial hatred. It happened once, and it was over in seconds. But I do know that, in the moment, I felt enormous gratitude to the man who stepped in. He didn’t need to, but he did. So, perhaps that’s what we should all try to aim for in the coming months and years. Fewer meaningless black squares on social media, more stepping in and calling out.
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