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A sample of #BlackoutTuesday Instagram posts (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Even as protests rage worldwide, the performance and narcissistic half-hearted self-flagellation of white liberals and corporations has known no bounds. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others before them at the hands of the police, as well as the ongoing violent suppression of protest, it remains infuriating that Black struggle is so often met by nothing more than a  “We Hear For You.”

The recent “Blackout Tuesday” is a terrific example. Originally envisioned as “#TheShowMustBePaused” by Black music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang as a way to disrupt the industry and draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, it was hijacked into an avenue for white celebs and corporations to make themselves feel better. For all its good intentions, it mostly clogged up social media feeds with plain and meaningless black squares, sweeping away and subsuming more useful content spread via the BlackLivesMatter hashtag. And that’s after erasing its Black creators. In many cases, people simply posted a square black image with no caption and left it at that. It was all lip service and performative nonsense that buried more essential information. Thankfully, some proved willing to listen to those telling them it wasn’t enough, and the imagery became accompanied by links to resources for education (some even opened up the company coffers to back up their words). But that campaign is just the most prominent example of many meaningless gestures by complacent white people and companies, ranging from the insulting to the downright embarrassing.

In the latter category, you can find things like the wave of TikToks of people lip-syncing to Macklemore’s “Same Love” (I’m not joking), or the viral video of EDM producer David Guetta sampling Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech ahead of a bass drop, in (admittedly hilarious) moments so absurd that they feel ripped straight from a Sacha Baron Cohen sketch or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. While it feels fruitless to point out that “Same Love” is about marriage equality and not racism, it feels like an appropriate marker for this trend — all surface-level comparisons amidst a refocusing of the spotlight of struggle and protest onto how bad white people feel about it.

One such example of meaningless conciliatory gestures is this video of people “renouncing their white privilege,” demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how privilege works. Worse still is the sharing of videos of cops taking a knee, supposedly in solidarity with protesters. This doesn’t mean anything, especially when those same cops take to brutalizing protesters as soon as the news cameras go away. This kind of “allyship” is all an act that only serves to amplify the self, not those you’re supposedly supporting. Ellen DeGeneres saying that things need to change doesn’t mean much while she’s still friends with war criminal George W. Bush. Companies that have been historically complicit in the racist abuse of their employees saying they feel bad without demonstrating any internal change doesn’t mean anything either.

There’s a delicate balance to walk between showing support and self-aggrandizement (and for some, it’s dangerous to say anything), but the plainest, most obvious difference between the two is superficiality. Don’t just say you hear us; do something. Don’t just support Black people when it’s making headlines; support them all year-round. Even if you’re cautious about appearing to be a narcissist, showing you’ve taken actionable steps is crucial, and far less harmful than being silent or thinking that lip-syncing to “Same Love” is activism. There are so many resources available even just on that feeling — take writer Mireille Cassandra Harper’s steps on non-optical allyship.

Even during a pandemic, if you can’t be on the streets (as many vulnerable people can’t), there are myriad ways you can help, even without opening your wallet. Creative YouTubers have utilized ad revenue to donate to Black Lives Matter on behalf of those who can’t afford it. You can call representatives, distribute information, make signs. So many people worldwide have already done so, with a huge outpouring of support for community-established bail funds and mutual aid and unprecedented momentum behind the movement. Black squares, slogans, and espousing white guilt are all meaningless if not backed up by action and tangible support. If you’re an ally, it shouldn’t just be about you or how you feel; it should be about how you can help.

Links:

Non-optical allyship guide: https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/non-optical-ally-guide

Mutual aid and bail funds: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/bail_funds_george_floyd

GoFundMe for the family of Belly Mujinga, a British rail worker who died of Covid-19 after being spat on: https://www.gofundme.com/f/rip-belly-mujinga

More places to donate: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1yrbSmMhv01VZpxhw-zViE2hYQZkixFiG6QGyreDaLMg/edit#gid=123144556

More YouTube videos monetized for BLM: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqws4vy_Bzkz_Jj-Er-NrGD6gn1D9E_yo

Support Black Lives Matter: https://blmovement.shop/

Other ways to help: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

Kambole Campbell

Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer and critic based in London, with work appearing in Empire Magazine, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, The Independent, The Guardian, Birth.Movies.Death. and Polygon....

10 replies on “Black Squares Don’t Save Black Lives”

  1. I just think shaming people for doing it
    the wrong way is divisive… what we need is a huge inclusive movement not just some small elite. The black square shows solidarity, i just cant understand the vehemence of the backlash.

    1. Absolutely! That should have been in this article! Black Squares is totally derivative of Black Square!

      1) X-rays have shown he wrote “Battle of negroes in a dark cave” underneath the layers of paint! It is suggested that the hidden saying is linked to an all-black 1897 cartoon titled “Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night,” which might express a sense of humor about the image, especially since a white-on-white MOMA painting, thought to be by Malevich, has “White person getting knocked out by polar bear during blizzard in boxing ring,” written under the paint. Hyperallergic has a 2015 article decrying it as merely a racist joke, but the painting can operate on multiple levels at once. Please consider the context:

      2) The Tate says Malevitch evoked the Russian mystic tradition of the icon as a conduit of the divine. The painting was displayed up high, spanning a corner of the room literally as a religious icon would be. He referred to Black Square as “the zero of form”. In Buddhist mystical terms, historically, mathematical zero was the Zen Circle, conceived as infinity rather that naught, that out of nothing comes everything, the Void out of which God spoke the world into being (Russian Orthodox terms), that at the heart of everything is the universal emptiness that is not empty but full of potential for all things, which of course is the potential for change, which of course, is what negroes are fighting for!

      3) Does “the zero of form” therefore add up to a level of political critique? I don’t know how political Malevich was, but the Tate says the departure from tradition of Black Square is a revolutionary symbol, emblematic of the political change of the time; and art critic Peter Schjeldahl said that this painting “conveys sheer, surging, untrammeled possibility…in synch with the Revolution of 1917.” Again, the revolutionary struggle of, by, and for the common man?

  2. Some interesting points, but don’t shame people for supporting in the only way they know how. Apart from joining demonstrations, which as you point out is difficult for many at this time, or donating, some constructive suggestions on other ways of showing support please.

  3. What ALL LIVES MATTER……………. all life is created by God the life that is unborn, life of all color and creed…………………. just talking about one color is wrong. Lets support each other Lets love our brother all brothers and sister of Humanity

  4. Okay; so it doesn’t feel good to hear you’re not really helping, but can’t you feel the author’s frustration? Try to imagine how that frustration feels. Try!

    Now, imagine how great it feels to get public displays of support and outpourings of love. It’s great. Hope. But then everyone goes back to their lives. And nothing has changed. Now, imagine how that feels. Again. And again. And again….. nothing has changed.

    It’s good to care. It’s good to show your support. But change is better.

    So, forget about all your feelings except that you care, and with care in your heart, go ask, listen, and act.

    And maybe lives will be changed.

  5. The frustration, rage, and impatience of black people goes without saying — or, rather, must be said. But how does it serve the greater dream of societal change to diss white people/liberals who are protesting, marching, or showing a black square in solidarity? At this point, many/most people don’t know how else to participate — so they make symbolic gestures. We need to stand together in this fight. We also need to spell out specific ways to get involved. Divisiveness is Trump’s effective strategy — it shouldn’t be ours.

  6. It isn’t just White people. In Columbus Ohio, neoliberal “Respectable” Black folk “Go Along To Get Along”, and put a happy face on the rage at the lack of Rule of Law in policing. I heard organizers of a protest that drew Black and White people (no ownership by any organization, “just a group of several people”, and no specific demands) lamenting when pepper spray was suddenly being used at their love and rainbows event: “Why are some protesters provoking the police when we wanted this event to be peaceful and non-violent?” (in contrast to the night before when windows were broken in the Statehouse and along High Street by Black and White youth).

    Come to find out, it was our US Representative, our president of the City Council, and our County Commissioner, all African-American and oh-so-respectable, who were being sprayed because police saw one person step off the standing-room-only sidewalk.

    So yeah, at the protest the next day, nice Black and White people were hugging police, and nice police were taking a knee with protesters, and the head of the NAACP said on public radio that the protesters might be “outside agitators.” Just put a happy face on the data that Columbus is second in the nation for the economic gap between the haves and have-nots, and first among the 15 largest cities for shootings of Black men by police (2017). Now they’ve boarded up most windows near the statehouse and are paying artists to paint INSPIRATIONAL MURALS on them. Problem fixed!

  7. mr. campbell’s opinion comes from an authentic place. but he’s conflating shows of solidarity by non-POC folk and corp/brands on social with actual actions that lead to effective change. folkos might be posting black square AND donating to causes as their skin in game… AND maybe even protesting on the street w us. on this blog, i assume we’re all informed and well intentioned, so maybe we avoid finger pointing and share ideas on how folks here can do more than clicking buttons to contribute. channel the attention that makes sense for the context. the kpop stans got it and used their power base in a super relevant way, so can us art+culture stans: https://www.reddit.com/r/nottheonion/comments/gw2fru/kpop_stans_flooded_the_whitelivesmatter_hashtag/

  8. The most annoying thing about this “black lives matter” Stuff is that it wasn’t until black lives matter kicked off that I needed to look past the fact a human had been killed by the cops in order concentrate on his skin colour. The black lives matter protest stopped me seeing everyone as the same and created a wall that differentiated whites and blacks. Ironically the black lives matter furore created racism /forced people to stop seeing everyone as equal in those that considered everyone equal and didn’t see skin colour. Completely diametric to that which they were trying to achieve.

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