Every few years, being black becomes a macabre spectacle. What is usually a complicated private identity becomes a public one. A black man is killed by a white police officer in the United States, and suddenly the world is attuned to your race.
Suddenly, the world is trying to help. It’s trying to amplify black voices. It’s posting Martin Luther King and Malcolm X quotes and videos. It’s donating money. It’s circulating videos of black protesters and black media voices.
And it’s being humbled. It’s trying to learn. It’s ashamed that it wasn’t educated enough before about racism, and it is here to take a cue from black people – your book recommendations, your understanding, your absolution. And it’s also here a little bit for the righteous feeling of proximity to you, to your virtuous victimhood, to your moment in history.
I can almost feel the blackness tingle on my skin as it is stripped off, posted, projected and explained over a billion social media posts. It is uncomfortable. It feels unnerving. Is it unkind? It feels like spending your life asking for solidarity from others, then saying, “No, not like that.”
During the Arab spring, one of the favourite lines of commentary was that it was the world’s first “social media revolution”. An image of graffiti painted on the shuttered gates of a travel agency in Cairo went viral. It read: “Twitter, al-Jazeera, Facebook.” It was a neat little story about the virtues of globalisation, technology and the promise of youth: just a few apps and websites had helped to bring down outdated regimes that had not kept up with the times.
The events after George Floyd’s death feel like they’ve also hit a new social media nerve. Today, that graffiti would say: “TikTok, Instagram, Twitter.” But it feels as though there is no promise here. The explosion of support around black lives just means that there is a new racial divide opening up. Black people are on the ground risking their lives and livelihoods, and white people are mostly online, where there is only upside.
Because this is the easy part: no matter how much effort has gone in to making sure you are the right sort of ally, no matter how much money you have donated or supportive feeds you have curated. For white people in America, there is no solidarity that is not received without a heavy dose of scepticism. The frequency of black men and women dying at the hands of white police officers tars a whole nation, not just a police force – one that is so empowered only because of the systemic complacency and normalisation of black murder. Those officers who kill are not all flukes, they’re not all “bad apples”. A black man would not end up under the knee of a white officer for almost nine minutes if a black life mattered.
For white people outside America, the solidarity is simpler. You don’t have to reckon with your role in this. You don’t have to grapple with guilt as black people are handcuffed and pepper-sprayed. If the riots were on your doorstep in the UK, for example – in Hackney or Handsworth or Moss Side – you’d have to balance any conflict about really totally seeing where the protesters are coming from with worrying about your daughter walking home from the bus stop, or the integrity of your windows.
So while the action is happening far away in the US, you won’t find yourself tempted to equivocate because the thought of a black man being murdered on your patch is too uncomfortable and taints you with a sense of complicity. You won’t have to come up with excuses: perhaps he had a gun; perhaps he was drunk; perhaps he was threatening. You won’t find yourself, as your neighbourhood is destabilised, instinctively feeling more empathy with the police, with whom you’ve never had a bad experience; that yes, they are doing a tough job and have to make split-second decisions.
Solidarity in the absence of proximity is a clean hit. America can be viewed as a uniquely violent place, cursed with a uniquely tragic racial history. It’s an even more satisfying perspective when the voices and scenes emanating from the riots are so high-octane. With the heavy curation, editing and production quality of new social media channels, America’s race riots already feel, even as they are still playing out, like a historical showreel montage. The impromptu speeches of African Americans, either pleading for restraint or choking back tears of anger, provide a lyrical and emotional soundtrack to the burning cars and buildings.
The legacy of years of pain, of exhaustion, of retreading the same ground, have morphed into a sort of modern-day blues: a newly forming tradition of oratory that narrates the experience of being black in America. Giving it weight is decades of activism, literature, film and music that have made African American history vivid and intimate – so much so that outsiders feel an ownership and familiarity with the texture of race relations in America in ways they do not about their country’s own. Racism becomes reduced to the US version, to its most dramatic transgressions. A tragedy for Americans, a break for everyone else, who can fret about how singularly awful it is over there.
This mass global support cannot be separated from American cultural hegemony, from its power as exporter of its story. From its glamour. Hip-hop, the popular culture of African American distress – one that came into being to come to terms with death and dispossession – has been merely entertainment for everyone else. When the real thing happens, consumers treat it like just more celluloid, sharing it as an aesthetic and artistic arms-length experience, rather than the visceral expression of anguish that it is. It is not blackness that is being elevated here – an experience that is jagged, diverse and unbranded – it is African Americanism, sold as a consumer product.
This is why the “white ally” support is uncomfortable. It kicks in only when black people conform to an image and live up to a single moment. It raises them at this point, but the rest of the time black voices are not fashionable, their grievances not dramatic or simple enough, or caught on camera. True solidarity, the one that helps in the long term rather than merely buys a sticking plaster for the short term, is in those moments. It is in the daily discomfort of taking risks, of challenging a system that subtly but emphatically excludes black people, when there is no reward for doing so, and of making way and giving up space where it counts – at the table where power sits – and when no one can see you do it.
Parting with money and sharing on social media is the easy bit. And thank you, I guess. But the moments in between are the only ones that really matter.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist