May 31, 2021, marked a gruesome anniversary – 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre on Black Wall Street. June 2 marks a strange anniversary – 1 year since white people decided to show their allyship by posting black squares on Instagram.
George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic. I had a museum program about the artist Kara Walker later that week. I remember acknowledging what had happened in my opening remarks, but so many unarmed Black people had been murdered by police in my lifetime alone that I was still in the “another unarmed Black man” weariness phase.
By the time the following weekend rolled around, things were starting to change. Maybe not on the surface, but the air started to crackle. People I had never known to spend much time thinking about social justice, people who I was pretty sure had voted for Trump in 2016 or were vocal about their vote not counting, people who had never shared a strong opinion publicly, were reposting things on Instagram and reaching out to have conversations. Legislations were introduced, hashtags were born, Instagram and Twitter accounts and new online presences devoted to the cause sprung up. People were reading books like How to be Anti Racist, learning about generational wealth and restrictive convenants, people learned about Black Wall Street and recognized Juneteenth.
And they posted black squares. I shouldn’t drag the people who posted the black squares – for many of them, it was the first time they felt moved to acknowledge Black Lives Matter and America’s trademark systemic injustice.
I eagerly engaged with people who posted black squares. As a born educator, I thought, lo and behold, these folks want to learn something. My graduate work and the work I’ve done in my career has been all about decentering authorship and making museums inclusive to multiple perspectives. As I’ve written about before, I was trained in a bubble with other wonderful scholars who have also asked these questions. I couldn’t believe that people were finally (seemingly) ready to have the conversations I’d been trying to have for so long. For context, in 2018 I was working at a museum which absolutely refused to acknowledge or give any credence to Museums are Not Neutral, and also where the administration didn’t lend a sympathetic ear to the Education Department’s requests that we ensure there were plenty of artists of color on view because it was integral to our teaching. That museum launched an entire online portal of anti-racism resources last summer. That anti-racism portal was their version of a black square. The museum statements about standing with BLM multiplied like mold spores. Was that progress? Well. We’ve learned the true meaning of “performative allyship.”
However, a year later, the performative allyship is clearly not as dangerous as the outright backlash, which has been swift and fierce. The thing about a divisive issue is that someone can just say, “no, that’s wrong” and to them – the argument is then over for good. As Julia Carrie Wong wrote in The Guardian on May 25, 2021:
“But alongside this reassessment, another American tradition re-emerged: a reactionary movement bent on reasserting a whitewashed American myth. These reactionary forces have taken aim at efforts to tell an honest version of American history and speak openly about racism by proposing laws in statehouses across the country that would ban the teaching of “critical race theory”, the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and, euphemistically, “divisive concepts”.
The movement is characterized by a childish insistence that children should be taught a false version of the founding of the United States that better resembles a mythic virgin birth than the bloody, painful reality. It would shred the constitution’s first amendment in order to defend the honor of those who drafted its three-fifths clause.”The Fight to Whitewash US History: “A Drop of Poison is all you Need: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/25/critical-race-theory-us-history-1619-project
I think I naively thought that our country couldn’t get more divided than it was during the Tr*mp administration. I’m still young, ya know? But people who I know personally, people who are BIPOC or have BIPOC family members, are taking in the same information that’s making me feel like racism in the US is so obvious and they’re saying, “I just don’t buy that.” State legislators are lashing out against the 1619 project and defunding schools that teach Critical Race Theory. It seems like every single cultural instition has created a DEAI commitee, but when I polled my Instagram followers to ask if they’d seen real change in the work place, most people declined to answer and only 2 said yes. When I asked if they’d seen any cultural institutions acting as a model for real change, the response was 100% no.
So, this isn’t a “things are getting better!” post. White supremacists fucking stormed the Capitol less than 6 months ago. And it isn’t even a “new conversations were started!” post because I know that people were having these conversations in non-white spaces and the only thing that’s new is that more white people heard them this time around. Much of the fear mongering around the concepts of abolishing and defunding the police has worked – few cities have made any significant changes to their police departments.
What this is, is a reminder not to be performative, put actions behind your words, and unfortunately, a reminder that stubborn optimism is the only way forward. Being an optimist sucks. It gives your enemies an easy target to point to and say, “hey, check this person out – what a fool!” Because the evidence against your optimism, as we are continously reminded, is everywhere. In the words of Morrissey (he’s got to be canceled by now, I’m sure), “it’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate/it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” And in the words of AOC:
“Cynicism is not only unproductive, it’s actively harmful to progressive democracy. Cynicism says it’s over. Cynicism says we can’t do it. Cynicism says don’t bother trying.”AOC, Instagram Live, September 2020
Here’s a small resource round up of things that are helping me to stay stubbornly optimistic these days:
- Hollaback! Bystander Intervention Training and Resources
- Don’t Call the Police
- Black Liturgies Instagram
- More Black stories told in films – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Judas and the Black Messiah, The United State vs. Billie Holiday, just to name 3
- The Michelle Obama Podcast
- Museums unionizing
- Labor movements
- Confederate monumuments and the Confederate flag being removed and banned
- In spite of how performative recognizing events like Juneteenth and crucial moments in history like the Tulsa massacre often end up being, a broader audience is learning this history
- This moment in the LoTR Two Tower’s movie which has nothing to do with BLM but everything to do with standing up to evil and then eventually the sun comes up on your side