And except that even without hashtags, those posts were still clogging people’s feeds with their conspicuous presence, at best bringing some comfort to their peers of color and at worst just showing off their own morality. Many of these posters probably didn’t know where the campaign came from, or what it was for, or why they were really posting it.
Of course, it’s usually hard to know why we’re doing anything on the web.
Anyone who deplores racism in America can’t watch what’s happening this week and not want to do something. So we are doing something, too often heedless of whether it actually helps — or whom it’s actually helping.
There are the black squares, posts about not posting when it might have been better simply not to post. There are Desmond Tutu quotes, and there are original compositions of carefully considered sympathy. There are re-shares of cops driving a car into crowds, or pushing a pregnant woman to the ground, or handcuffing a black family trying to call for protection of a neighborhood store. There are columns like this one.
Now the influenced are trying to influence the influencers. They cried out when Claire Saffitz of the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen cohort delayed in soliciting donations for networks around the nation. They shrieked when a woman most famous for her commentary on her purchases from Trader Joe’s stayed silent for too long, and then when she added an #AllLivesMatter tag to her contribution to the conversation, and then when she intoned that “mental illness is deeply rooted in all these acts.”
One story sticks out: The Dallas Police Department solicited videos of protesters behaving badly, but you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes, you can only get video of K-pop stars dancing — and that’s what happened when a swarm of stans turned their infamous fancams on the department’s eyewitness app. They announced that snitching would be met with spamming, and flooded the system with synth-filled, boy-band-studded footage. “Hope they can catch min yoongi because he stole my heart,” tweeted one mischievous BTS devotee.
What’s substance, and what’s only spectacle? Many of us who live not only in a society but more particularly in a society on the Internet are moved to action because we see the rest of the country moving around us. Almost all online activity is about being part of a bigger whole — about participating. Sometimes we’re racking up likes from those we’ve designated our “friends,” sometimes we’re riffing on a meme that tickled our timeline, and sometimes we’re luxuriating in dedicated fandoms for sparkly vampires or Nicki Minaj. But these actions are also about sending the message to the rest of the world that we’re a part of that whole — about performing.
Now, we’re seeking to be part of something that matters a lot more than Ms. Minaj’s music (my apologies). The ever-elusive line between meaningful participation and mere performance is crying out for location. Participation today is essential and performance only self-serving, especially when you’re white. So what to do?
Probably a white person shouldn’t be the one answering that question. Instead we can seek responses out there from those most affected by what’s happening today: Doing something should actually mean doing something — and saying something should be geared toward getting others to do things, too, like signing petitions, or giving money to keep protesters on the streets or out of jail. Some guidance for on-the-ground behavior tells us to stand our white selves between riot-geared police and those more likely to be maced or strafed by rubber bullets. Those K-pop stans turned their fancams into virtual shields; we could be real ones.
White people in this nation aren’t very good at knowing when to take ourselves out of things and when to put ourselves in. Maybe we’ll never have the level of awareness required to strip out the optics and to act morally for morality’s sake alone. Today, we may not understand what morality even looks like. Is worrying about being performative itself performative — on our personal Instagrams, or, say, on the website of a national newspaper?
All this gives rise to a far from radical idea: Maybe instead of thinking all the time about what we could do or what we could say or how we could participate loudly, we should try to participate a little more quietly. Maybe we should listen — by reading what black people have written and are writing; by paying attention to what black people are saying about what helps and what doesn’t. Only by shutting up for a second will we learn when we should shut up.