Juliet Babinsky for Varsity

Since the death of George Floyd, social media has been on fire with grief, rage and urgency for change. Protests started in Minneapolis against his unjust and violent murder and have since extended throughout and outside of the US. Digital outlets such as Twitter and Instagram have united the world to amplify the shouts for resistance and change. Protests are powerful to unite and form resistance, but also provide a cathartic space to grieve. It seems that during the lock-down, and with social distancing restrictions, we have been confined to a digital space. This digital space has never been louder and has become a space for us to collectively feel, mourn and to protest - even from the confines of our bedrooms.

The circulation of the video footage of the death of George Floyd went viral instantly. It inevitably became available on my feed and was sent to me first on a group chat. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I always told myself that I didn’t want to be desensitised to violence. I was sceptical of the countless Instagram stories with Floyd’s face scattered across them, questioning how respectful a temporary 24-hour story really was, and how far this constituted making a real change.

“My words felt empty and my voice lost”

I knew I wanted to say something in response to his horrific murder. I knew I had to. But I just didn’t know what exactly that would be. At a time when everyone around me was loud with anger, using their voice for justice, using their voice to show solidarity and to suggest ways to help, I was silent. I felt lost, I didn’t know what to say. I felt uneducated, I felt hopeless and I still felt somewhat sceptical of using social media to help the movement. Realistically, I thought, how far is a ‘white people check your privilege and use your voice’ post really going to change the minds of staunch racists?

In just 5 days of explicit exposure to these issues of injustice, I became obsessed and still desperate to figure out how to contribute towards effective change. I watched documentaries, I read articles, and I still felt unsettled to make my own rant-y post of anger. My words felt empty and my voice lost. I watched the murder of George Floyd. In his struggle for breath, he could hardly let out “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”. His quiet cries for help echoed those of Eric Garner in 2014, his death becoming another in the long list of black men brutally killed by American police and violated by racism. Their cries for help were picked up by activists and joined the voices of people protesting for change. On social media I was surrounded by quotes such as Desmond Tutu’s “if you are silent in the face of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. I wasn’t silent because I wanted to be, I was silent because I didn’t know how to address what I felt. I felt guilty but didn’t know how to resolve it. Not only did I feel limited and betrayed by language, I didn’t feel as though posting an image of George Floyd on my story was going to help the cause.

“I was hesitant to speak up on platforms such as Instagram for fear of coming across as performative and sheep-like”

In my efforts to deconstruct performative wokeness and to question the value of digital protest, I was trying to place myself into this narrative of injustice. I was hesitant to speak up on platforms such as Instagram for fear of coming across as performative and sheep-like. I was intimidated by the fact that I felt hopeless and that nothing would change because little had changed in the past. It seemed as though it was the same horror story which kept being played out over and over. I was so caught up disputing the ‘tokenism’ of twitter hashtags and blackout-Tuesday posts, that I failed to confront the truth: the problem wasn’t a fault in me and my inability to find my voice, but in a historic system that made me feel as though nothing could be done to make change. Really, my focus should not have been on my own problems with social media, but instead on its power to amplify the voices of black people.To define their struggle, in order to take control of the racist narrative embedded in our history and our systems. No matter the means.

I think there have been a lot of changes over time, as activism has now turned from images of victims and their names to a genuine, overwhelming call for education. Microchambers on twitter are more actively correcting racist remarks and exposing ignorance. Activism is less recognised as a character-trait and now becoming a lifestyle. A plethora of resources have been posted about ways to be educated on this historic politicisation of race. Ava DuVernay’s harrowing yet brilliant Netflix documentary ‘13th’ and tragic series ‘When They See Us’ were promoted, for example, raising questions about the criminalisation of black people in America as a deeply historic and economic problem, but most of all, a humanitarian one. I began to think about whether the politicisation of race was in fact necessary; whether these lost lives had to form part of this movement, because it was the only way to enlighten people of the injustices ridden in the system. It was something I initially considered to be somewhat unethical, but perhaps it is the most harrowing of events which shock people like me into action.

“my focus should not have been on my own problems with social media, but on its power to amplify the voices of black people”

Whilst social media activism may not be the most direct means to change law and policy, it doesn’t mean that it cannot significantly help resolve injustice. Right now, it is loud; the voice of the world is amplified in solidarity against systemic racism and the way this affects black lives. What social media does, and what I failed to see at first, is provoke recognition and conversation. It achieved this perfectly for me; I was haunted by the prospect of systematic racism day and night, and constantly thinking about how I could act in changing it.


Mountain View

This Is Not The End

The stories, the hashtags, the videos, the articles and the documentaries unsettled me. And that was the point. All these forms of activism are a plea, a cry for help, a shout to recognise humanity. That black lives matter. I am right to be unsettled, and I am right to struggle for words, to even begin talking. It shows that I am human and that I recognise the violation against humanity exemplified in the racist, violent and unforgivable actions against black people in America, as well as in the rest of the world. This is not just a temporary movement or social media trend; it is a reality for Black people globally.

I was threatened by my silence, intimidated and not sure how to even begin addressing these issues. But now I recognise the power of digital activism and engagement, and I respect the movement enough to know that I do not need to find my own narrative - I just need to use my voice. I therefore write this piece as my first declaration of solidarity; my recognition, my education and my intolerance of the current system. Black lives matter.