Since George Floyd died while being brutally restrained by a white Minnesota police officer on May 25, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has swept across social media. And absolutely everyone is expected to say something, or be damned. An empty Twitter feed is now a conspicuous badge of complicity with the racists – silence has become deafening.
Celebrities have therefore rushed into frenzied activism to varying levels of success and with intentions both pure and shallow. Some have misjudged their contributions so poorly that the backlash has chased them off social media altogether.
But there's a lot we can learn from how the rich, famous – and thoughtless – have responded to this watershed moment of social, cultural and political upheaval. Here are some particularly illustrative examples:
DO: listen first, speak second
It’s astonishing to see just how many people on social media are refusing to listen and learn before they join in a conversation that is delicate, complicated, and surrounds an issue of which they have no first-hand experience. And no one has had to bear the brunt of public ignorance quite like Star Wars actor John Boyega, whose Twitter and Instagram profiles have become a blazing hotbed of debate ever since he Tweeted, the day of the murder: ‘I really f---ing hate racists’.
The comments in response range from the idiotic to the irrelevant, with many insisting on misplaced, woolly aphorisms such as ‘You can’t fight hate with hate’, and needlessly attacking Boyega, who is black British, for focussing solely on white on black racism rather than racism against – for instance – Hispanic or Asian communities. ‘I am not talking about other perspectives given the current situation is that okay?’ politely responded Boyega, implying that this is not the moment to try and tackle all forms of oppression at once, nor for other races to co-opt this very specific injustice against the black community.
More sinister still, others took Boyega’s perfectly understandable statement as itself racist against white people. ‘Is it racist when a black person expresses hatred for all white people simply because they are white?’ one Tweeted back, willfully misunderstanding Boyega’s reference to racists as ‘all white people’ – itself ironically self-damning.
Boyega tweeted in response to the unfolding controversy on May 28: ‘Are you guys on twitter dedicated to seeing what’s in your head and not what I wrote?’
The oppressor doesn’t give you time to talk about self love before they shoot you. Wayward individuals speaking from comfort. We SEE you.— John Boyega (@JohnBoyega) May 30, 2020
DON’T: virtue signal
Before posting about Black Lives Matter on your social media accounts, ask yourself: who is this really for? Is this adding to the conversation, or is it exploitative virtue signalling? Is your Blackout Instagram square matched by tangible action: a donation, a protest, support for black businesses and creatives, or implementing a structural change in your workplace?
On the night of George Floyd’s death, Madonna, who has been in constant hot water over her provocative comments on the coronavirus crisis (calling, from a bathtub full of rose petals, the pandemic a “great equaliser”), posted a video on Instagram of her son David, who is black, dancing to Michael Jackson. The caption read: “my son David Dances to honor and pay tribute to George and His Family and all Acts of Racism and Discrimination that happen on a daily basis in America.”
Commenters were quick to point out how ineffectual dancing would be to combat racism: “Omfg you have just ended racism just by dancing!” Others took the opportunity to highlight Madonna’s problematic history of cultural appropriation (such as with the heavily Latin influence of her latest album Madame X). “This is so silly Madonna. You see black people as entertainment. You do not understand blackness! Stop the nonsense,” wrote one.
Model Heidi Klum was also shamed into deleting a particularly insipid post which showed her and her four children (whom she shares with her ex-husband Seal) interlinking hands, with the caption, “Unity in Diversity, LOVE” and the hashtag #AllLivesMatter, which is a slogan that has come to define racists and the alt right. Klum deleted the Twitter post and edited out the hashtag on Instagram, all the while defending it by commenting: “My son wanted AllLives.” Many followers found it an exploitative use of her children’s blackness as a way to ingratiate and insert herself within the conversation.
DO: inspire your audience
If you sit on a following that can be educated and influenced positively, use it. Eighteen-year-old Billie Eilish earned praise for her impassioned Instagram post that, in a furious tirade of capital letters, lambasted any followers who refused to stop bleating AllLivesMatter. “IF I HEAR ONE MORE WHITE PERSON SAY aLL liVes maTter ONE MORE F---ING TIME IM GONNA LOSE MY F---ING MIND. WILL YOU SHUT THE F--- UUUUUUUUUUUUUUP??? NO ONE IS SAYING YOUR LIFE DOESNT MATTER. NO ONE IS SAYING YOUR LIFE IS NOT HARD. NO ONE IS SAYING LITERALLY ANYTHING AT ALL ABOUT YOU’, she wrote, before linking to all the ways in which her followers could donate to those affected by systemic racism and those arrested during the protests.
Meanwhile, Ariana Grande used her huge platform to promote a different kind of story: the one of many peaceful protests going on in Los Angeles that is being selectively omitted from much of the media coverage across the world. Posting a video of a peaceful march, she wrote: “hours and miles of peaceful protesting yesterday that got little to no coverage. all throughout beverly hills and west hollywood we chanted, people beeped and cheered along. we were passionate, we were loud, we were loving.cover this too please.”
Hangover star Seth Rogan has also done the right thing by telling those who believe his Black Lives Matter statement is controversial to unfollow him. For almost every comment disputing this, Rogan has alternated between telling the person to, “F--- off’, or to ‘stop watching my movies.”
DON’T: post before you think
Billie Eilish’s sincerity stood stark against the actions of Lana del Rey, who faced a fierce backlash on Sunday night after sharing an uncaptioned video of black, female protesters looting during the protests in America. Was she shaming them? Was she unaware that most people on Instagram also have direct access to the news? Did she have no concern for these women’s safety? The lack of caption was not only careless (none of the protestors had their faces blurred out, and the video zoomed in on their features) but grossly insensitive, as if the singer simply couldn’t be bothered to add any context, thought or incentive for her followers to learn or at the very least donate to appropriate charities.
Her comments were also turned off, forcing musicians Tinashe and Kehlani to tag the star on Twitter, asking her to remove the video immediately. “.@LanaDelRey please remove your instagram post it’s dangerous as f–k and a very poor choice of moments to post,” Kehlani wrote in a since-deleted tweet. She continued: “by all means protest, but DO NOT endanger people with your very massive platform. oh and turn your f–kin comments on man.”
DO: share your platform
Lizzo took to Twitter to call on more celebrities to offer up their platforms, saying, “I wonder what would happen if all the big companies and celebrities who have showed support on social media came out and used their platform to let activists and protesters speak and be seen?”
Australian actor Cody Fern has been one of the first celebrities to take note, and is today hosting an Instagram live with transgender, black activist Angelica Ross, so that she could discuss the injustices in her community in front of his 700,000 followers.
DON’T: be stingy
As a public figure of significant wealth, making a great show and dance of personal donations so measly a child’s piggy bank would be of greater use, is a sure way to get our eyes rolling. Either contribute the big bucks, as Chrissy Teigen did with her $100k or Star Wars director JJ Abrams with his whopping $10m, or donate privately and quietly, as have celebrities including Harry Styles, Michael Jordan, and Lorde. Floyd Mayweather has even picked up the cost of Floyd's funeral.
Yet Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton and CEO of his streetwear label Off-White, has been mocked across social media for posting a screenshot of his $50 donation to bail out protestors. As one of the most respected and sought after creatives in global fashion, Abloh is thought to be worth millions. To be clear, a pair of his Off-White socks, the cheapest item from his brand, retail at $115.
Despite resonating with an earlier post about the trauma associated with being a black man in America (“on an average trip to the grocery store in Chicago I fear I will die”), Abloh’s screenshot left his followers irked, with thousands of comments criticizing his stinginess as an insult to the Black Lives Matter movement, and questioning his brand’s ethics. Wrote one: “Let’s remember that VIRGIL’s Offwhite employees are all white so he never cared for black people anyways”, referring to last May when Abloh’s Instagram stories portrayed a seemingly all-white design team for Off-White. Another: “Virgil a whole coon for this petty amount of money. N**** sells $600 hoodies but has only $50 to give a bail fund. Virgil doesn't care about the culture, he just exploits it.”
DO: call out commercial hypocrisy
Brands that trade in black culture and frequently use black influencers to front their campaigns, such as Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing, initially remained conspicuously silent following Floyd’s death, and have been called out accordingly.
Brands who have found themselves on the wrong side of history in the past have fared no better. Model and activist Munroe Bergdorf took a stand against her former employer L’Oreal after the cosmetics company posted on social media in support of Black Lives Matter and the caption: “Speaking out is worth it.”
Bergdorf, who was controversially dropped from L’Oreal after speaking out against structural racism following the Charlottesville massacre, retweeted the post with the comment: “Excuse my language but I am SO angry. F*** YOU @lorealparis. You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. With no duty of care, without a second thought.”
Nike and Adidas, however, who have worked with black stars including Stormzy, Anthony Joshua and LeBron James, were two of the first brands to offer their solidarity, with the rival sportswear giants even posting support on each other’s posts after Nike shared a video riffing on their Just Do It tagline, this time reading: 'Don't Do It. Don't pretend there's not a race problem in America.”
DON'T: forget to be kind
Predictably, some on social media have turned the Black Lives Matter movement into a woke contest, naming and shaming those who have been slower than them to react or donate, even within the black community itself.
Top Boy star Ashley Walters, for instance, was forced to explain his “silence” via a video yesterday that showed him break down in tears.
He said: “My point of coming on here today is no one can tell me I am complicit because I haven’t posted anything about the scenario for several reasons, but for the main one, I’ve been posting this thing all of my f---ing career. ‘I’ve seen black people and big corporations posting about your silence is a betrayal. Don’t ever f---ing tell me that my silence is a f---ing betrayal when I’ve been left for dead on the street by white men. ‘Stabbed and left for dead and these people have never been brought to justice. I f---ing worked hard, put my life on the line for all these f---ing men out here while this s*** has been going on.”
DO: educate yourself
It’s not the responsibility of people of colour to teach you about racism – it’s yours. There are already thousands of existing reading lists, articles, essays, podcasts, books and guides available to consume, from notable writers including Roxane Gay and Reni Eddo-Lodge to broadcasters Tina Daheley and activist Akala.
Many trending Twitter hashtags are bursting with thoroughly researched threads to get stuck into, while you can barely scroll down an inch on Instagram before finding a photographed stack of books to take note of or a well-annotated graphic of how white privilege and systemic racism is structured.
Do the work, share your resources when appropriate, and don’t pontificate on your shiny new wokeness – you’re late to the party anyway.