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Black squares and protest déjà vu

3 min

As I looked at my Instagram feed yesterday I wondered about the thought process behind the black square posts. I scrolled down through a never-ending wall of black, interspersed with ads, and while it was visually impressive, I must admit I found it quite shallow. I know that it was a global movement.  And I know that I can often simply be contrary and object to things simply because lots of people like them but there seemed to be a lack of substance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My own negative views on viral campaigns were formed during the ten minutes Joseph Kony was the most hated person in Ireland and they haven’t really changed since.

The entry barrier to participating in Black Tuesday was pretty low. You get the image and upload it with the appropriate hashtag and you are all set. You’ve joined the movement. It was so widespread that by posting it you really were safe from any potential reprimands. Your friends probably posted it too so you felt even more comfortable about hitting the upload button.

That said, perhaps the fact that I wasn’t capable of carrying out this simple act of support puts me in the camp of those who are complicit in racism by their silence. Something that I would like to rectify with this note. I do feel that we all must be aware of what is happening and find ways to show our support. But most importantly we must think. We must think about why this is important. We must think about how we act and how our actions impact those around us. Posting a simple black picture can potentially free you from having to think. It reduces the process to the tap of a screen.

I have been reflecting about my own ways of thinking, jokes I have made, WhatsApp messages I have received or forwarded, and how this impacts my perceptions of what it is going on at the moment. How do I react? Why do I think this is important? If I am so aware that it is important why haven’t I done anything about it before?

My reaction to the protests has mostly involved an all too familiar feeling of tightness in my gut. That feeling of compressed anxiety that sits like a stone at the bottom of your stomach. I’ve seen this movie before.

The events in the US have been following a similar path to those that took place in Chile last October in almost every way. The original spark triggered widespread angry protests that were met by a heavy handed police response. The president came out and made stupid, incendiary remarks that only made the situation worse. The protests got bigger and criminal elements began to take advantage of the chaos to carry out organized looting and finally the military is brought out in an attempt to restore order.

What I have described could apply to Chile or the US and it remains to see what playbook the US will follow. If it continues like it did in Chile, without a satisfactory response from the government, then it will last all summer.

So, you might be wondering what you can do to help. There is a need to show support. I get that. I feel that to be able to keep contributing to change that you need to educate yourself and you need to come to your own conclusions about why this is important. Not just because you saw your friends do it. I would really recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations” article from a few years back. It is powerful stuff. The NYT has also put together a list of anti-racist books. Why not read one?

When I saw the marches in Dublin and Dundalk yesterday, I felt worried. I know that they were purportedly socially distanced but the country is only just crawling away from the edge of the precipice. The virus is still out there and we must avoid undoing all the good work that has been done so far. It is true that racism very much exists in Ireland too and it must be addressed. But I can't bring myself to agree with the marches given the current situation. What then can be done to show support?

This brings me back to the black equal sided shapes filling up our social feeds. Perhaps they are a good option for the time being, especially in the midst of a pandemic, they are way of showing allegiance to a worthy cause. But the posts mean nothing, absolutely nothing, if the poster does not have a deeper think about why things are the way they are and what they can do to drive change.

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