R29Unbothered continues its look at Black culture’s tangled history of Black identity, beauty, and contributions to the culture. In 2021, we’re giving wings to our roots, learning and unlearning our stories, and celebrating where Black past, present and future meet.
Six years after the world watched Eric Garner yell, “I can’t breathe” 11 times while police were killing him, we heard George Floyd scream the same sentence 28 times before his life was taken. This was shortly after Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down in Georgia and mere days before Regis Korchinski-Paquet would fall to her death off her apartment balcony in the presence of Toronto police.
The string of videos and incidents of police brutality against Black people in the summer of 2020 was devastating. Our community was under attack once again, and while our resilience and uprising was expected, the response from non-Black people was something new. Companies, brands, influencers, and corporations that weren’t committed to fighting anti-Black racism prior to George Floyd’s killing were suddenly releasing Black Lives Matter statements. When I was an organizer with BLM Toronto, I remember the years where the media couldn’t even wrap their mind around saying “anti-Black” on camera. I remember when saying “Black Lives Matter” was a controversial statement, one organizers and activists like me had to defend over and over. But by June, non-Black people were cashing in their ally cookies just for saying they believe Black people deserve justice and life. Store fronts had signs in their windows. Homes were adorned with BLM flags. On any given morning, I would see at least five people on my morning commute wearing buttons plastered with the mantra calling for Black liberation.
But the most egregious and public display of this collective “call to action” was #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, 2020. Music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang set out to disrupt “the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the boulevard.” The pair initially created the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused but it was eclipsed by #BlackoutTuesday, which spread widely. Even in supposed allyship, Black women’s voices are erased. In just a few hours, more than 14.6 million black squares flooded Instagram feeds as real commitment and calls to action were replaced with a hollow social media trend.
Within days of George Floyd’s public lynching, more than 950 brands,* companies, influencers and retailers rushed to release statements of solidarity in the form of a literal black square. Searches for “blackout Tuesday image” and “blackout image” surged 400 percent within the same day. Let’s be clear, social media trends will not save us from police brutality. After all, in the two weeks after George Floyd’s killing, protestors were subjected to even more brutality. While dozens were injured or shot by police, journalists were also attacked over 140 times by the police between May and June. While some brands and influencers have been trying — and some not hard at all — to read the room and do their part to address anti-Black racism both internally and in society, reactionary corporate diversity and inclusion measurements will not eradicate anti-Black racism in all its violent forms.
I spent the last year facilitating dozens of anti-racism training sessions and screaming about the triviality of trends like posting black squares. There’s no doubt social media can have beneficial impacts on movements. From the Arab Spring Uprising to the #MeTooMovement, studies suggest that those who engage with politics online also do so in their daily lives. However, #BlackoutTuesday created real dangers to activists and Black liberation organizers on the frontlines. This method of “allyship” begs the question: what does this actually solve? Often, it absolves non-Black people from taking action against systemic inequalities and addressing how they benefit from anti-Blackness. Instead, they wear badges of “wokeness” to present an image to their audiences. It’s been eight months since #BlackoutTuesday, and in the aftermath of the summer of protest, it’s time to take stock of who has stood by their pledges and committed to real change and who just showcased performative allyship.
White celebrities like Megan Fox, Courteney Cox, and Jennifer Love Hewitt all participated in #BlackoutTuesday by posting “Black Lives Matter,” the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag, a black square, and little else. Famous influencers like Dixie D’Amelio, Zara McDermott, and Georgia Steel did the same. As I watched celebrities use our community’s pain for likes and comments, it seemed clear to me that these minimal posts on #BlackoutTuesday and the days after revealed that — at least publicly — their activism and empathy begins and ends on social media.
Other influencers were more critical of the black square approach. Actress and writer Natasha Negovanlis, who has over 160 thousand followers, participated in #BlackoutTuesday but left out the empty square and hashtag instead opting for a call to action for fellow white people. “Taking a pause from sharing my own content, without announcing that I would be muting myself, and instead reposting Black voices, felt like a better use of my platform at the time,” she says over email. “I think before hopping on any social justice hashtag it’s important to research its origins and listen to the people it’s meant to be helping.”
Negovanlis recognizes the “ally card” is one that is consistently up for renewal and that dismantling anti-Black racism happens in the small steps that lead to bigger systemic changes. “I moved towards sharing book suggestions by Black writers, reposting Black voices, and promoting Black businesses. I also used the YouTube Live show I was producing at the time, a virtual fan convention I attended, and sales from my merch, to raise money for smaller, Black owned non-profit organizations in my own city like FoodShare Toronto, Adornment Stories, and Obsidian Theatre Company.”
Negovanlis’s actions show how influencers can responsibly use their large platforms to address anti-Black racism beyond one day of action. Non-Black people trying to convince the world they are anti-racist without leading and living an anti-racist life is just vanity. In moments of urgency especially, influencers should be handing off their social media platforms to organizers and activists who are on the frontlines calling for change. Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga also did this last year. In doing so, they demonstrated it’s okay to admit there are more qualified voices that should be given the mic.
The most frustrating part of #BlackoutTuesday was watching brands, especially those that rely on Black consumers stay glaringly silent throughout the day. Fashion Nova was particularly called out many times for their absence in the conversation for hours. They participated in the day after mounds of public pressure and have since released statements disclosing their donations to the Know Your Rights Camps, Black Lives Matter and the NAACP Defense and Education funds. While donating to movements and organizations is necessary, anti-Black racism is not a problem that will go away by solely throwing money at it. In announcing their donations, Fashion Nova stated, “our actions speak louder than our words.” In the months since this announcement, it doesn’t seem they have continued their words, let alone actions. If you glance at Fashion Nova’s Instagram account and its over 500 pictures since June 2, there hasn’t been a single mention of anti-Black racism. Their senior executive team seemingly also does not include any Black people.
Fashion Nova is a brand that relies on the Black woman’s dollar, and consistently profits from our support as consumers and cultural brand ambassadors. After all, Cardi B’s 2019 collaboration with the fashion brand made $1 million USD in 24 hours, while Megan Thee Stallion’s line made $1.2 million USD in 24 hours. We are their target market, but the brand seemingly can’t be bothered to represent us in all our plurality. Their popularity has hinged on using Black celebrities or curvier models who reflect diverse body types, but they’re still mostly selling one (read: light) kind of Blackness. Profiting off of Black women’s bodies without addressing the systems that violate our bodies is inherently part of the problem. There’s something to be said about a company that has not publicly shared anything related to Black Lives Matter in eight months while they make millions off our communities. Even if there is groundbreaking work happening to address anti-Blackness behind the scenes, why have they not made that transparent to their consumers? From the outside, it looks like just another case of wanting to capitalize on Blackness until it’s time to show up for Black people. Fashion Nova did not respond to our request for comment.
Brands like FashionNova can take leadership from Deciem, The Abnormal Beauty Company (most known for their ‘The Ordinary’ line). They launched their “Beauty is Using Your Voice” campaign just before #BlackoutTuesday in the midst of the summer’s protests occurring across North America. Since then, they’ve continued collaborating and donating to local Black grassroots projects. “We committed to doing better and knew this movement was not just a moment, but a time for meaningful and impactful change,” CEO and co-founder Nicola Kilner told me over email. The company offers their teams paid days off to read, learn, listen, educate themselves and join protests if they wish. They’ve created a diversity and inclusion board to give employees direct access for feedback and discussion to senior leadership. They have also committed to being more intentional in their hiring practices and succession planning to increase the number of Black voices within their leadership. Their team is admittedly quite diverse but Kilner recognizes, “we can and must do better in our senior positions.”
These efforts are a start, and companies committing to improve their hiring practices is a beneficial step. Leadership representation and hiring practices were amongst the biggest takeaways from #BlackoutTuesday. In fact, Uoma beauty brand CEO Sharon Shuter created the #PullUporShutUp challenge in response to #BlackoutTuesday to challenge brands and companies to publicize their senior leadership and give consumers a glimpse how many Black people are around the table. It is important to note, however, that anti-Blackness is a pervasive issue that will not magically disappear by hiring a few token Black employees, even at the leadership level. Additionally, the Black people in these organizations aren’t just dealing with racism within the workplace, they’re dealing with it with their everyday lives. These companies’ advocacy towards removing anti-Black racism has to extend after employees leave the workplace.
The most promising commitments from #BlackoutTuesday are the ones that occurred prior to June 2 and continued after. Sephora is one of a handful of companies that did this. In fairness, they kind of had to. The beauty giant has come under fire many times over the last few years for racism in its stores including most notably with R&B singer SZA publicly detailing being surveilled in the store. This sparked a series of diversity training and the genesis of the Racial Bias in Retail Study. Last month, they released the report, and unsurprisingly, it disclosed Black retail shoppers are twice as likely to receive unfair treatment. The report also included a five-point action plan. The most potentially impactful detail: the company has committed to reducing the presence of third-party security vendors in stores with the goal of minimizing shoppers’ concerns of policing. In the report, President and CEO Jean-André Rougeot admitted, “At Sephora, diversity, equality, and inclusion have been our core values since we launched… but the reality is that shoppers at Sephora, and in U.S. retail more broadly, are not always treated fairly and consistently.”
Former Sephora manager, *Maria is not as hopeful, “This is a big area of opportunity for their development but working there for seven years taught me what you see and what they try to portray as a company is not necessarily the reality.” She notes despite the diversity and inclusion image, racial biases embedded in Sephora are deep rooted. This could be a result of a leadership team that does not represent the consumers.
The company is one of many participating in the 15 Percent Pledge, a campaign founded by fashion designer Aurora James in the midst of the global uprisings, calling on retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelves to Black-owned businesses. Still, the company has a long way to go. Sephora stated, “when we committed to the 15 Percent Pledge in June 2020 we had eight Black-owned brands…this year we are working toward doubling our assortment.” Other major retailers including, Macy’s, Indigo, and West Elm have all also taken the pledge.
These pledges are promising but still speak to the general frustration I’ve felt since #BlackoutTuesday. The question that has floated through my mind consistently since last summer is what took so long? It’s hard to find the words to describe what it has felt like to see the world suddenly “care” about Black people and anti-Black racism.
On one hand, it’s been inspiring to see thousands flood the streets and take back our collective power. We’ve seen activists using the momentum to continue pushing against state-sanctioned violence. People finally know what “Defund The Police” means, allowing for massive leaps in conversations around reallocating public funds to social services. But #BlackoutTuesday also felt like one, big, painful slap in the face. After all, we’ve seen the same pattern again and again: A tragic event takes place, non-Black people feign shock, release empty statements, make donations, and maybe, maybe post some resources and then they’re right back to radio silence. The status quo can be debilitating.
These recent efforts by certain brands and influencers point to slow incremental change, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that it should never have come to this. What if we thought about dismantling anti-Black racism less as a checklist with items to tick off and more so as an ideological shift in our society’s framework? What if we saw these same brands and companies care about us just as much while we are alive as when we become a hashtag? What if Black people weren’t the only ones responsible for this work?
Ultimately, we know Black liberation will cost. Even with the best intentions and best outcomes, there is always more that can be done to uplift Black people and create systemic change. It will take more than statements, donations and social media hashtags to uproot our current systems. It will take a release and then a redistribution of power. It will take collective responsibility and an eagerness to embody solidarity rather than just performing it. So the question remains: how much are those with power willing to give up?
*Editor’s note: Refinery29 blacked out its homepage on June 2, 2020, which prompted backlash from former and current Black employees who said they experienced racially-motivated micro aggressions and toxicity at the company. In response, the brand’s Global Editor in Chief stepped down, and the parent company, Vice Media Group, committed to various diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to address the reported problems.
We’ve republished this piece in light of the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. This piece was originally published on February 9, 2021.
*Name has been changed for privacy.
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