Instagram “Activism” and a Most Surreal Week

One Line, digital drawing

NOTE: This is a repost of my June 2020 newsletter, which was sent on June 5, 2020.

Wednesday morning, I received a text from my friend, the art director, illustrator, and writer (and Black Brunch Club founder) George McCalman.

“Jennifer,” he asked, “what is happening?”

For the past few days, George and I and hundreds – if not thousands – of other Black artists on Instagram have been deluged with new followers, as (largely) white folks have been reposting our work and adding us to lists of Black artists to follow and tagging us in posts. On its surface, this “amplification of Black voices” (in quotes because I’ve seen this phrase repeatedly on social media) is a response to the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police.

But what and whom does it actually serve? And why does it make a lot of us who are on the receiving end of this strange new form of social media activism very, very uneasy?

I’ll start with that first question. It’s not serving me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy for the new followers, and grateful for the orders that have come flooding in from new customers this week. I will gladly take the extended reach and the cash. I make beautiful things that I’m very proud of, I have worked hard to build this business, and I have bills to pay. I’m glad that more people are buying my work. But I’m not sure that the satisfaction I get from making more money than I’d projected this week is equal to the satisfaction that the people who are sharing my work appear to be getting. I have had loyal customers for years and, as those of you who read this newsletter know, my work tends to sell out more quickly than I can produce it. To put it bluntly, I didn’t need the “discovery” as much as many of the posters needed to feel they were doing something.

And these new followers, many of whom claim to be allies, come with the same old questions and new demands for my time. Complete strangers are flooding my DMs asking me if I’m okay (hi, this is a conversation I’d prefer to have/am already having with my friends), how they can help me, how they can be better allies. Companies I have no relationships with are asking if they can feature me. People are getting upset when I don’t respond to their DMs or comments. New followers are leaving comments that, while well-intentioned, are intrusive, or even racist.  Old followers I’ve never heard from are now letting me know that they’ve been following me for a long time, and not just because following Black folks is now a fad, as if I’m handing out awards.

Y’all. This is EXHAUSTING. I’m still sheltering in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit my parents again. I’m working through some really tough emotions because of the repeated violence directed at Black people. I’m still running a business and writing a book. I don’t have the time, or the space, or the inclination to manage other people’s emotions.

Which brings me to the second question: why does this social media “activism” make me and other Black artists very uneasy? It really comes down to that idea of “discovery.” For many of us, the language of discovery smacks of colonialism – the colonialism that has enriched much of the Western world over the last few centuries, and always to the detriment of the colonized. Black artists have always been here. We may not always have the opportunities or capital that our white counterparts do, but there are a lot of us, many of us have strong communities, and a good number of us are thriving. We didn’t need to be “discovered” — especially not in this form. Many of us are seeing our work being co-opted and appropriated for other people’s benefit – maybe not always for profit, but so that non-Black people and brands who hadn’t done anything to highlight or work with Black makers until this week can now feel good about themselves for “helping” Black folks, and signal their own wokeness to themselves, their followers, and their customers. It is crushing to work so hard to build something, only to watch what you’ve built become a tool for someone else’s gain without your permission.

I’ve given you a lot to reflect on. You may need some time to process all that I’ve said, so I’ll end here. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. The next newsletter will drop in a couple of weeks, when I will have new postcards and scarves (both Scarf Club scarves and block printed ones) available. Until then, be well, be listening, be active.


p.s. I realize that this newsletter will rub a few people the wrong way. It’s completely your right to unsubscribe. I get a notification when you unsubscribe, so there’s no need to let me know you’re going. If this newsletter no longer provides you with what you need, I hope you do find something that does.

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