Manitoba·Opinion

No single right way to be an effective ally, says Black Lives Matter activist — but there is a wrong way

Anti-racism activist Chimwemwe Undi says online reaction to George Floyd's death needs to translate into concrete action in the real world — in the workforce, school and on the streets.

Anti-racism activism must mean more than hashtags, emojis and Instagram posts: Chimwemwe Undi

Demonstrators march in Toronto on June 5, a week after George Floyd’s death. The support people say they show for the Black Lives Matter movement online has to translate to the real world, says Winnipeg activist and spoken word artist Chimwemwe Undi. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On the second day of June, I opened Instagram to a sea of black squares, captioned #BlackOutTuesday or #BlackLivesMatter or — tellingly — nothing at all. 

Scrolling through, I was struck by these posts, by how the symbolic silence was no different from the silence I had come to expect in conversations about anti-Black racism.

The squares, I've surmised, were intended to communicate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Across Turtle Island — indeed, across the world — protesters are spilling onto the streets to cry out against the violence enacted by police since the inception of policing. 

As more of us are beginning to understand, police violence against Black and Indigenous people is less exceptional than constitutional. The institution that claims to protect and serve, does not protect us, does not serve us and endangers our very lives. 

The response to the police-involved deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade is only the most recent flashpoint in centuries of struggles against state brutality. 

Suggestions that this is an issue confined to the United States are wilfully ignorant at best. 

On Thursday, police in New Brunswick shot and killed Chantel Moore, a woman from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. 

Eishia Hudson, 16, was one of three people shot and killed by Winnipeg police in April 2020. (Eishia Hudson/Facebook)

Between April 8 and 18, 2020, the Winnipeg Police Service shot and killed three Indigenous people: Eishia Hudson, Jason Collins and Stewart Kevin Andrews.

The urgency of this moment is reflected all over my social media feeds. 

Online activism and information sharing has been crucial to my political education, so social media is not the source of my skepticism.

Online posturing vs. offline actions

People in and beyond my communities make admirable use of these platforms. 

Alongside cat pictures and astrology memes are donation links for bail funds, templates for emailing elected officials, and accessible infographics on the merits and mechanisms of defunding police. 

Social media can also provide direct engagement opportunities, which is particularly meaningful for those unable to attend rallies for reasons as varied as disability, caretaking responsibilities, shift work and living in rural or remote areas. 

It's therefore misguided to treat these platforms as frivolous and lacking impact.

What use is solidarity for solidarity's sake? What concrete actions accompany this silence? ​​​- Chimwemwe Undi

My skepticism emerges from the great distance between online posturing and offline actions.

While there isn't one right way to be an effective accomplice in the fight against anti-Blackness, there is a wrong way: for show. 

Over the last week, Black people watched as individuals and institutions declared allyship that their everyday actions belie.

Universities solemnly pronounced their solidarity with Black students and scholars — despite their lack of tenured Black faculty, their refusal to collect and analyze admissions data, and their chronic underfunding of departments like women and gender, culture and critical race studies — whose work is dedicated to understanding oppressive structures and imagining their destruction. 

Businesses and non-profits consulted their mostly white staff and all-white boards before courageously tweeting #RepresentationMatters, #BLM.

Colleagues, classmates and friends of friends who, over brunch, let a racist remark slide (and pass the hash browns) — and who repeatedly centre their comfort and self-satisfaction over furthering this cause.

The #BlackOutTuesday campaign 'appears to have emerged from a misunderstanding and amalgamation of two different campaigns,' says Undi, including 'The Show Must Be Paused.' (The Show Must Be Paused/Instagram)

Black Out Tuesday was one particularly striking example of an unfortunate pattern. 

The silence was not new, just re-branded. 

The movement appears to have emerged from a misunderstanding and amalgamation of two different campaigns, launched by Black people who'd hoped to encourage more effective use of social media during these protests. 

"The Show Must Be Paused" was an effort by record executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, who called on the music industry to take a day off from promoting music, to reflect on and be held accountable for all that the music industry has taken from Black artists. 

The "Amplify Melanated Voices Challenge," founded by mental health therapist Alishia McCullough and activist Jessica Wilson, invited users to spend a week promoting work by Black creators, rather than their own. 

The intention was to show solidarity and amplify Black voices. 

The effect was a show of solidarity, sure, but a muddled one; Black content and information got lost somewhere in the posts, amounting less to silence and more to white noise.

If Black Lives Matter to you, they have to matter to you while we are alive in this world.- Chimwemwe Undi

And if silence is the point, then what does posting do that refraining does not? 

What use is solidarity for solidarity's sake? What concrete actions accompany this silence? 

The appearance of solidarity has no use if it is temporary, tied to this moment and its headlines. 

It has no use if it rejects the difficulties and discomfort that will come with collectively working toward a future in which the structures that oppress us are abolished. 

A demonstrator in New York City on June 3 holds a placard depicting George Floyd during a protest against Floyd's killing by police in Minneapolis. 'My anger and hopeful frustration is directed at those who claim to be fighting alongside us, but, when the spotlight is elsewhere, fail and fail again to raise their voices or their fists,' says Undi. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Becoming an anti-racist is not a self-help endeavour, akin to donating household objects that do not spark joy; it is a political ethos and a political movement.

Anti-racism must inform every aspect of your life: the way you hire, the way you vote, the way you act at work and school and brunch.

Some silence means ire or indifference. Better that silence than the same old, tired, irrelevant arguments I hear: days are short, Google is free, and I am better suited for better things. 

My anger and hopeful frustration is directed at those who claim to be fighting alongside us, but, when the spotlight is elsewhere, fail and fail again to raise their voices or their fists.

If Black Lives Matter to you, they have to matter to you while we are alive in this world. 

Be the anti-racist accomplice you claim to be online, even when no one can double tap their approval.


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Chimwemwe Undi is a poet and spoken word artist living on Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg. She is finishing law school at the University of Manitoba. She has performed at multiple literary festivals, in Canada and abroad. She is also a poet in residence with Poetry in Voice, a national organization that seeks to foster a love of reading and poetry in high school students.

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