Blackout Tuesday is the most viral cause since Kony 2012. Taking their cues from our heroic celebrity class, millions of people posted plain black squares to their Instagram accounts on Tuesday, standing in solidarity with protesters demonstrating nationwide over the tragic killing of George Floyd.
Many of those posts came from people with good intentions. That it even came into vogue is a positive indication our culture outwardly rejects racism. But the “vogue” part is also where Blackout Tuesday went wrong.
By day’s end, voices on the Left and Right seemed to agree the trend enabled a hollow performativeness, allowing white people to signal their anti-racist virtue without taking any substantive action, and rewarding them for it too. I think that’s mostly correct, although it’s also not all bad.
Grating as it can be, so-called virtue signaling does have the positive social effect of reinforcing virtuous norms, like anti-racism. That ensures mainstream culture remains intolerant of bigotry. Unfortunately, it also incentivizes rhetoric that’s more sanctimonious than it is meaningful, which becomes ever-present and inescapable on our daily feeds, and consequently breeds resentment.
As the nation’s cities burn night after night, Blackout Tuesday successfully went viral because many white people genuinely do not know what to say right now. The trend exploited that confusion perfectly, providing an easy way for people to signal their solidarity without drafting poignant captions or treading clumsily into problematic territory. It worked because it was easy and it was safe. Or it seemed that way, at least.
Ultimately, of course, nothing is truly safe when the far Left functions as judge and jury, and so it was with Blackout Tuesday, which proved to be an unsatisfactory form of activism, drawing high-profile critiques as it gained steam. Some critics argued silence is the wrong response to Floyd’s killing, others rightfully eye-rolled over the millions of white people wading into the conversation with facile black boxes and shallow promises to listen.
The irony is that Blackout Tuesday caught on partially because people hate racism and want to be on the right side of the discussion, but don’t know what that looks like anymore and are afraid to try finding out. So a black box and a pledge to listen seemed like just the way to help. Raised in a culture of moral relativism, millennials muck through difficult political questions, grasping for clarity and certainty, searching for a place to put their trust and faith.
One benefit of the black box is that, in my experience at least, it prevented a lot of people from actually opining, sparing us some additional sanctimony from former high school classmates who want likes more than whatever form of justice they claim to be promoting. But it still grated.
It’s okay to be confused about what’s happening, and it’s good to fight inequality. But the black box is the ultimate symbol of shallow signaling. It involves 10 seconds of effort and little thought. It makes no specific statement, calls for no specific action. At best, it offers support for beliefs the vast majority of the country supports—racism is a scourge, and Floyd’s death was a grave injustice.
There’s no easy way out of this one. Don’t let media and celebrities steer the car. And don’t let them fool us by promoting vague social queues that do more to make people feel good about themselves than solve any problem.