The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has touched off mostly peaceful uprisings against racism, anti-blackness and police brutality around the world.

On Tuesday morning, brands, influencers and many of my black friends began posting black squares on Instagram, with the hashtags #BlackoutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter. The idea was in part to share the burden of resistance; it was time, the thinking went, for white people to step up and talk about change, for a change.

But a scroll through both hashtags showed black tiles from hundreds of thousands of users, which effectively blacked out the hashtag visually. It was an impressive show of digital . . . well . . . what, exactly? Solidarity? Support? Anti-surveillance techniques? It was hard to tell. It was reminiscent of when celebrities turned their Instagram pages orange to promote the ill-fated scam that was the Fyre Festival.

That should have been a clue that Tuesday wouldn’t go as planned.

The saga of #BlackOutTuesday wound up showing what can happen when eagerness, discomfort about race and bandwagoning go seriously awry.

The tale of the Black Tile Tuesday began when two black women, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, wanted the music industry and other major brands to put a pause on their output for the day. It was an attempt to put certain businesses on a timeout, and make them sit and think about the fact that their industries profit immensely from black creativity. Meanwhile, the call to action was intended to let black people rest for the day, to take a break for their mental health’s sake, while white and non-black people were supposed to do the work to amplify black voices, share resources, link to organizations, share book recommendations and post books, music, anything by black people.

But that’s not what happened.

Where and how the messaging got switched up isn’t clear, but thousands of people decided for some reason to just post black squares rather than helpful information or cultural pointers. Some users thought the idea was to log off social media for the day in order to show white people what life would be like without us. Black activists and organizers had to scramble to correct this misconception; many of us had to plead with people not to go silent, but to continue posting about these issues.

The result was bizarre. Black people are in the streets because we are literally fighting against silencing, erasure and dehumanization. Why would a silent black square, with no black people in it, qualify as activism messaging? In what world does it make sense to visually erase black people and to go silent?

Many white people expressed that they just didn’t know what to do, they were petrified of posting the wrong thing, and this seemed like the best way to thread the needle.

What was supposed to be a day of rest for black organizers ended up putting the burden on experienced activists to correct the black-tile wave. Black people and other activists also had to spend time dealing with messages from distraught white and non-black friends who were overwhelmed with guilt and anxiety at the thought that they had stumbled and fallen while taking their first baby steps toward making a stand for social justice.

Many of us realize we will be asked to spend untold amounts of emotional labor trying to guide, teach, soothe white people in these moments.

As #BlackoutTuesday came to a close, it ended with a plot twist: commercial brands that have been at the center of racism controversies jumped at the chance to digitally display wokeness. For example, the Washington football team, whose name is a historical slur for Native Americans, posted a black tile on Twitter, hashtagged #BlackoutTuesday. When a brand that has been known to show disregard for marginalized people feels comfortable co-opting an organizing tool, the plot has been lost.

The episode was a teachable moment in what is sure to be a cascade of such moments over the coming days and weeks. The best course of action is to check in with experienced organizers and activists as to what most aids the cause of social justice. We are all learning as we go along. But, yeah, Black Tile Tuesday? Let’s do better next time.

Twitter: @KarenAttiah

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