I’ve been keeping a mental list of how celebrities have spoken out against police brutality and anti-Black racism—if they’ve spoken out, that is. At first, it was just me wanting to confirm that my favourites cared as deeply as I do about what’s happening right now. (You know, what’s Rihanna saying? Is Drake going to post? Where’s Beyoncé?) But as more stars posted on social media, I started to think about what a ‘good’ celebrity response looks like, and whether we should even be paying attention.
It’s true that what Kim Kardashian posts on Instagram doesn’t matter as much as what the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have to say, or the researchers who are coming up with data-driven policy recommendations, or frankly, any Black person in the world. But, celebrity behavior still helps drive regular people’s attention and action—and they’re instrumental in keeping this conversation going, so it’s important to hold them accountable when they get it wrong. And maybe even more than that, it’s important to understand just what is wrong about a response.
So, let’s talk about Kim. This is a woman who has built her entire career on appropriating Black culture—to the point where she now seems to deliberately provoke controversy—but was earnestly posting on Twitter and Instagram to call for justice in George Floyd’s murder. What’s more, she claimed that, until now “the color of [her] skin had left [her] feeling like this is not a fight that [she] can truly take on as [her] own.”
First of all, Kim is married to a Black man and is raising four Black children, so the fact that it took a stranger’s death to see that racial equality is her fight too is deeply troubling. Second, the hypocrisy! When Kim models her aesthetic after Black women, she benefits from proximity to the ‘coolness’ of Black culture—but as she just admitted, she hasn’t been there for Black people when they’re being oppressed. She is literally exploiting Black culture for profit, benefiting from the fact that “white people can adopt elements of Black looks and still be treated with dignity—[or] treated as hot trend-setters, even,” as Maisha Z. Johnson put it in a 2015 post for Everyday Feminism. Sure, she’s recently taken up prison reform as a cause. Once she started posting over the weekend, she didn’t stop. And yesterday, Kanye donated $2 million to the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and set up a college fund for Floyd’s daughter Gianna. But how much value can we actually place on her (or her husband’s) response if she continues to appropriate Black culture? Her post reads really nicely, but it fails to even acknowledge the ways she has literally profited from anti-Blackness, which makes her seemingly ‘good’ response feel empty.
And it’s not just Kim Kardashian. Taika Waititi tweeted a video of Killer Mike urging protestors not to burn buildings or businesses with a caption that called the rapper “eloquent” (ugh) and implied that protestors should better direct their anger. Lana Del Rey, who previously dated a “cop influencer” and who we know has issues with race posted and deleted a video of looters and protestors that clearly showed their faces. Ellen didn’t even say anything publicly until Don Lemon asked her to on live TV on May 30, four days after Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. She tweeted the next day, then posted a tearful video the day after that. And sure, she used the right language and included a link to donate—but her response still didn’t feel ‘right’ to me. Again, it’s difficult to take someone’s expression of solidarity seriously when you know they don’t care about equity IRL.
That’s the thing that actually matters. When we look at what celebrities are posting, it’s not just to decide whether they deserve an internet cookie or not. It’s to judge what they’re saying against what they actually do.
And… we also have to apply that same logic to ourselves.
You know why Kim’s post, and Ellen’s post, and so many other celebrity and brand posts fall flat for people of colour? Because they’re performative. They make these statements because it is no longer socially acceptable to be silent, but they don’t actually seem engaged. You can tell because they’re sad, not furious. And they’re using vague platitudes, not clear language that decries white supremacy. Contrast Kim or Ellen’s posts with the celebrity or brand responses that feel ‘right’—Ben & Jerry’s statement on white supremacy was 👌🏽, for example. And, in the same way that we recognize the difference between Kim’s statement and Ben & Jerry’s, we have to look at what our workplaces and religious leaders and politicians and friends and family are saying. What’s more, when their posts and statements and press releases fall short, we have to say something.
Because yes, it’s very heartening to know that so many people talking about racial injustice—this week, I’ve heard my neighbours talking about what’s going on from their backyards. I’ve been having so many offline conversations with friends, family and colleagues, who haven’t always been as engaged in these issues as I have been. And yes, just about every celebrity ever has posted something. But ending anti-Blackness isn’t a social media challenge. It’s not a story that’s dominating the news cycle. If you’re down for this cause, you have to be down forever.
We have to examine our own behaviour forever.
We have to speak up when friends and family members say racist things forever.
We have to prioritize Black voices forever.
Otherwise, we’re just like Kim K., publishing an aesthetically-pleasing Instagram post without actually changing our behaviour.
How to Keep Being A Good Ally To Your Black Friends
In last week’s newsletter, I covered some tangible, immediate things you can do to support the Black people in your lives. Lots of people liked and shared it, which was awesome—but we need to keep that same energy (you guessed it) forever. Here’s how.
Worry less about labelling yourself
Earlier this week, writer Bee Quammie brought up a really important point: claiming “allyship” can feel like doing something extra. “It can give people the false idea that being an ally is a level above being a decent person, and they can choose whether to work to that stage or not,” she wrote on Instagram. “It isn’t Shitty Asshole –> Regular, Decent Human –> Ally. The things ‘allies’ do are the things Regular, Decent Humans should do, and you can always work to be a better Regular, Decent Human.”
If you don’t feel connected to the word ally, that’s cool. So long as you’re actually working to be better, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself.
Expand your understanding of anti-Blackness
(Image: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence)
I firmly believe that the most powerful thing anyone can do to fight anti-Blackness is learn to recognize it and call it out, every single time. You may have seen this infographic on social media in the past few days. Spend some time with it. Have you done of these things? Have your friends or family? Do the reading so you understand why they’re wrong. And commit to doing better yourself, and holding your friends and family accountable.
Tracy Peart’s post about what allies can do is also a must-read. She specifically talks about how important it is to believe Black people when they tell you about their experiences, and to speak up when you see racism.
Tell your elected representatives you want to defund the police
Another powerful thing we can do is to advocate for defunding the police. I updated last week’s post with this info, but ICYMI: Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and policy analyst and the co-founder of Campaign Zero, says research doesn’t back up body cameras or implicit bias training as effective ways to stop police brutality. He breaks down several of the things that do help a 2019 Twitter thread, but one very powerful move is investing “in alternatives to police as crime prevention strategies… Every 10 additional organizations in a city reduces the murder rate by 9%, reduces violent crime rate by 6% [and] reduces property crime rate by 4%.” Community organizer and Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson says money should be divested from police departments and instead funneled toward social services.
So: ask your city to devote less of its budget to policing. Use this template to send a deputation letter to Toronto’s budget committee (email@example.com). And use this template to email John Tory (firstname.lastname@example.org). CC your city councillor on both. (You can find your councillor’s contact information here.)
And Did You Hear About…
Vulture’s super smart piece on cop shows, and how they make it easier for viewers to accept police brutality.
Lea Michele basically being Rachel Berry IRL.
A judge awarding Carole Baskin control of Joe Exotic’s Oklahoma zoo.
Forbes revoking Kylie Jenner’s billionaire status.
The literal worst TikTok trend.
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