The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The #ChallengeAccepted trend shows activism is never as simple as black and white

Karen Attiah is Global Opinions editor at The Post. (Denys Meak)

“I was careful to choose who I think will meet the challenge,” the Instagram direct message read. “Post a photo in black and white alone, write ‘challenge accepted’ and mention my name. Identify 50 women to do the same.” The instructions encouraged me to use the hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen.

The challenge felt like a balm in a week when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was reportedly called a “f------ b----” by a Republican lawmaker, a Latina judge’s family was attacked by a virulent misogynist and hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion posted about the hate and abuse she got after being shot. It also felt like an opportunity for Black women to use their photo caption space to call for justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March by police in Kentucky.

Scrolling during lockdown time, I, too, uploaded a black-and-white photo. Then came the backlash against the trend.

“Challenge NOT accepted,” Taylor Lorenz, a reporter from the New York Times, wrote in a tweet. “I wrote about how the black and white selfie challenge is basically meaningless and doesn’t accomplish anything aside from self promotion.” In an article, Lorenz compared the #ChallengeAccepted phenomenon to the #BlackOutTuesday debacle, in which celebrities, brands and influencers posted black tiles thinking they were helping the cause for #BlackLivesMatter. In reality, considering how most of those same feeds have gone back to regular programming, the gestures felt empty and performative.

Nell Irvin Painter, author of "The History of White People," explains how the language of whiteness — and its meaning — has evolved. (Video: The Washington Post)

As I have written before, #BlackOutTuesday might have made people feel as though they were participating in a mass movement to raise awareness and cultivate solidarity for Black lives under threat from police brutality. But the original campaign was started by Black creatives calling for people to take the day to post about Black creativity and Black people and to amplify our voices.

Follow Karen Attiah's opinionsFollow

The doubts about the original intent behind these efforts speak to the precariousness of social media activism, with platforms that appear to have a democratizing effect while real-world power and privilege imbalances remain intact.

In the case of of #ChallengeAccepted, some said it originated in Turkey after women began protesting the brutal murder of a 27-year-old woman, Pinar Gultekin, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend. On social media, Turkish people began posting black-and-white pictures of Turkish women who had been killed by men as a way to denounce femicide.

However, Lorenz reported in the Times that the black-and-white photo trend dates back at least from 2016 and has been used for “cancer awareness” and to “spread positivity.”

How it reached users in the United States and other countries in its current form is unclear. Vanessa Bryant, widow of the late basketball star Kobe Bryant, appears to be one of the early celebrity adopters, who told her other celebrity friends to post the challenge. Other celebrities with huge followings joined in with the #ChallengeAccepted tag, so much so that the Turkish efforts were drowned out in the sea of more than 3 million photos on Instagram. Once I learned about the Turkish link to the trend, I edited my caption to highlight those activists’ intentions.

It all brought back the days of #BringBackOurGirls, the viral campaign in 2014 after the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok by Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The hashtag was started by Oby Ezekwesili, an activist and former World Bank executive. Once the hashtag reached an American audience, politicians and celebrities, including Michelle Obama, spread the message to pressure the administration of Goodluck Jonathan to try to return the girls to their families.

I feared a real downside to powerful and wealthy American social media users getting the ear of the government, which could trigger a response to Nigeria’s issues with militarized violence under our war on terrorism. I knew drones and bombs could not solve a problem that had roots in Nigeria’s complex history, religious divides and governmental failures. But we still used our platforms for the cause. Still, years later, many of the girls have not returned. While it is true that American participation and amplification drew global attention, the desired outcome did not happen, as 112 girls were still missing as of last year. At the end of the day, engaging with Boko Haram is still up to Nigeria and its government.

Which brings us back to the latest challenge. Where does this leave those of us who participated without understanding all the ramifications or possible origins of the trend? Is what we did completely meaningless?

I don’t think so. I can’t see a gesture of solidarity as meaningless at a time when women are the essential workers fighting against the novel coronavirus on the front lines, when female politicians and artists are being verbally and physically assaulted. There is meaning in feeling connected and seen, especially during an isolating global pandemic.

But the ethical thing to do would be to take the time to read, understand and share more about the struggles of those women who also share hashtags and black-and-white photos with us.

Perhaps show Turkish women, currently raising their voices in the aftermath of another horrific attack, that we see them and support them, too.

Watch Amb. Andrew Young reflect on Rep. John Lewis, faith and civil rights:

Read more:

Karen Attiah: #BlackOutTuesday was a case study in how performative solidarity goes awry

Karen Attiah: Black Lives Matter isn’t complete without #SayHerName

Jennifer Rubin: Distinguished pol of the week: She wasn’t going to accept his non-apology