Watson faced a parallel line of criticism. Despite being vocal on social issues in the past, she hadn’t said anything publicly before posting three black squares, outlined in white to fit her Instagram grid’s established aesthetic. Fans and casual witnesses alike questioned why she hadn’t instead leveraged her platform to share resources with her 57.3 million followers. She broke her silence the next day, later sharing a headline arguing that “we need to rethink our ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ approach to activism."
In a moment when inequities highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic have already chipped away at the perceived utility of celebrity, empty efforts like #BlackoutTuesday, for some, further erode it. But for others, who have more actively taken a stance against anti-blackness, whether online or at a protest, fame has proved to be a useful tool. Once a celebrity works through the personal and professional calculations of deciding to address an issue, the question becomes how to use their platform most effectively.
In some ways, the answer to that question hasn’t changed. Emilie Raymond, author of “Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement,” studied six public figures — Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory and Sidney Poitier — who became prominent supporters of civil rights in the 1960s in part because they joined early and acted consistently. Like celebrities today, they offered advocacy organizations publicity and funds, whether through personal donations or fundraisers and benefit concerts. Belafonte also wielded political power.
The sort of celebrities “who are willing to work behind the scenes and do things that are constructive, that don’t bring them any fame or glory or money, those are the ones the activists really respect,” Raymond said, adding that Belafonte “convinced [President John F.] Kennedy to send people from his administration down there to assist the activists. And then at the same time, he was doing things in Hollywood to try to improve job opportunities and the kinds of roles that were available to African Americans.”
Fast-forward several decades, and social media provided another avenue for celebrities to signal-boost. In 2012, after George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, celebrities such as Spike Lee and Janelle Monáe raised awareness by sharing the link to a petition calling for Zimmerman to be charged. Others such as Taraji P. Henson and Gabrielle Union elevated these efforts by expressing outrage online. Activists recognized the stars’ influence and ability to help “legitimize the narrative,” said communications expert Sarah J. Jackson, co-author of “#Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.” After Zimmerman’s acquittal, celebrities helped spread the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as well.
In these cases, and as the Black Lives Matter movement manifested in demonstrations after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, people with intimate knowledge of the situation laid the groundwork for celebrities to get involved. Jackson pointed to Ferguson activist Tef Poe and former MSNBC contributor Goldie Taylor, now an editor at the Daily Beast, as two figures who helped raise awareness before the Ferguson protests wound up in celebrity feeds and on every cable news channel.
“Organizers are savvy enough to know they need to get the attention of celebrities and get the attention celebrities can bring them,” Jackson said. “The way they can best represent social movements is when they are a part of activist communities and intimately familiar with the issues. In the cases where they aren’t, it is more often about being a megaphone and bringing more attention to the issue."
Last week, Monáe, who stated that she doesn’t consider herself to be an activist, acknowledged her ability to instead lift up “BLACK & BLACK LGBTQIA+ organizers and activists who DO THE WORK DAILY.” She invited them to introduce themselves in the comments, and has been amplifying their voices across platforms. Selena Gomez, who consistently ranks among the most-followed Instagram accounts, told her 179 million followers that “after thinking about how best to use my social media, I decided that we all need to hear more from Black voices.” She has since handed the reins over to prominent figures including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alice Garza and writers Jelani Cobb and Ibram X. Kendi.
Numerous celebrities have attended protests themselves: some documenting police behavior like Halsey; or speaking up like Keke Palmer, who told members of the National Guard that them kneeling “ain’t enough for me”; or calling for action from Hollywood, like Michael B. Jordan, who spoke about Oscar Grant, the man he played in “Fruitvale Station,” who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. John Boyega received an outpouring of support on social media from filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, Edgar Wright and Cathy Yan after delivering an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in London, where he noted, “I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but f--- that.”
“Celebrities still worry about losing opportunities and having their careers damaged by speaking out,” Jackson said. “For black celebrities in particular, as we saw with Colin Kaepernick, there are real consequences to speaking out beyond what is sort of the acceptable norm.”
Like Kaepernick — who protested while playing for a league that, despite hiring a majority of black players, is overwhelmingly run by white people — Boyega prioritized the fight for black lives over any concerns he might have had about alienating part of his fan base. The Star Wars fandom in particular has been at the center of many debates about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, noted Henry Jenkins, author of “Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change.” Jenkins added that “there have been angry white men who have been upset by the idea of black Stormtroopers” and the casting of Kelly Marie Tran, Boyega’s Vietnamese American co-star.
But fans, like the idolized celebrities themselves, behave in all sorts of ways.
“We’re interested in both the celebrity drawing their fan base into politics, and fans using fandom as a platform for social change,” Jenkins said. “The story we’re following on that side are K-pop fans who have been actively involved in the struggle here, with or without K-pop stars getting involved in politics. I think there’s often a tendency to conflate the two. There’s plenty of evidence that fans will get involved … if they feel the political message is rooted in things that draw the fandom together to begin with.”
Taylor Swift surprised her fan base ahead of the 2018 midterm elections when, after years of staying silent on politics, she posted a 400-word endorsement of a Democratic candidate that also condemned systemic racism. She upset a conservative portion of that base — including President Trump, who said it made him like her music less — but doubled down last month, directly accusing Trump of “stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency."
In a January interview, Swift admitted she had previously avoided politics out of fear that what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who were pushed out of the industry after vocalist Natalie Maines criticized then-president George W. Bush, would also happen to her. But a number of white celebrities have recognized the gravity of the issue at hand. Billie Eilish, for instance, uploaded a lengthy statement educating and rebuking those who use the phrase “All Lives Matter.” Pink, who reposted it, also tweeted that “racists” following her “don’t really even need to announce your exit. You have my blessing.”
This sort of career risk is often regarded as “what real allyship is about,” Jackson said.
Problems arise, she continued, when celebrities instead become the center of the narrative — even when that happens unintentionally, as was the case with Watson. Lea Michele tweeted #BlackLivesMatter and was soon called out by former co-stars, including Samantha Ware, Alex Newell and Amber Riley, for on-set behavior that Ware described as “traumatic” microaggressions. Other celebrities posted a square on #BlackoutTuesday but, at least in the public eye, said little else. For every celebrity who makes an impact, there are several more who, as BuzzFeed News reporter Michael Blackmon succinctly stated, “are being useless.”
While numerous celebrities have publicized their donations to organizations and bail funds, such as Chrissy Teigen, others have quietly donated money — like Kanye West, who reportedly donated $2 million to support the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Some prefer to operate behind the scenes, as Jay-Z and Beyoncé reportedly did by bailing out Baltimore protesters in 2015.
Being able to stay out of the spotlight is a vital skill for celebrities who make the decision to get into activism, Jackson said. The best “are the ones who come to the meetings and honestly listen to the organizers, and think about their own position and the power they have, and learn by reading the same things the organizers and members are reading, and give the organizers money.”
Jackson pointed to Jane Fonda as a clear example of an effective white ally and celebrity activist. The actress, who recently spent several Fridays on Capitol Hill protesting climate change, has been active in political spaces since the ’60s. She expressed her support for the Black Panther party and famously protested the Vietnam War. Last month, she spoke to CNN’s Don Lemon about the need for white people to recognize their privilege and understand what systems keep racism in place.
“I always tell my students the exact same thing: You have to humble yourself if you really want to help,” said Jackson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. “The thing with the blackout squares, it was clear from what I saw online that nobody asked organizers in all the cities across the country, ‘Would this be helpful to you?’ People wanted to signal solidarity, but they didn’t understand that to be in solidarity, you have to talk to the people being affected and ask them what they need."
Social media allows for collectives of ordinary people to achieve what might once have required a boost from more prominent figures, Jackson said. It doesn’t always take a celebrity to tweet about what thousands of Americans can discover from a viral video or trending hashtag. But, executed properly, it certainly helps.