I’m sure you’ve stumbled across your fair share of posts with captions like, “Even though my timeline has gone back to normal, Black Lives Still Matter!” And then there are the counters to those captions: “If your timelines have gone back to normal, you’re following the wrong people.” “There are still protests happening, even if your feeds aren’t showing them!” In this seesaw of cyber-justice guilt-tripping, we’ve been fighting for three months—far longer, for some of us—and finding rare victories.
With the constant push and pull online of what’s important and what’s useless, it can be straining to find the strength to keep fighting. A week ago, I felt immense guilt for not having the strength to keep fighting like my peers. But I now realize: my white counterparts who just recently discovered pro-Blackness are using social media as their means of fighting, while Black people like myself have been fighting their entire lives.
If you are a white ally, captions like “If your timeline has gone back to normal, then you’re following the wrong people” are incredibly inconsiderate of the exhaustion Black people feel right now. As a white ally, you play the offense and fight alongside Black people, but you’ll never have to defend yourself against the racist attacks you’re condemning. You will never have to spearhead the diversity and inclusion committee while also experiencing the damning effects of not having enough diversity and inclusion. You’re fighting because you’re a good person, not because the validity of your voice and movement depends on it. It is exhausting to have to lead the fight while also being attacked for merely existing. Social media is often where we go to escape the racial tensions of our real lives, and now we can’t even look to the internet to find escapism.
I’ve been posting far less about BLM than I was a month ago. At the most recent peak of the movement, I was posting around twenty Instagram stories and tweets a day, desperately trying to disseminate accurate information about the next protest, curfew updates, petitions that needed signing, important news the media was failing to cover, and so much more. Every day felt like I was already hundreds of years behind. I’d stay up to odd hours of the night getting into Twitter arguments and Instagram debates with friends and strangers alike. I’d wake up with anxious jitters, fretful to check my phone because I knew I’d sink again to the infinite depths of futile social justice. I felt every day like I had to be radical, to continue to fight for the next thing that needed attention. And one day I realized that these past few weeks haven’t been especially different from what Black Americans already face. BLM scattered the roaches in just one room of America’s mansion. After three weeks of vigorous posting, supporting initiatives in person, and discussing the issues in every aspect of my life, I’m burned out. I stopped posting on Instagram, I’ve had to take Twitter breaks, and I’ve locked myself in my room binging Avatar for some semblance of safety. It was only after noticing toxic shifts in my personality that I knew I had to make an intentional effort to reverse the damage of cyber-justice exhaustion.
I was becoming an angry Black man in every sense of the phrase. I started feeling jaded by anything and everything that perpetuated even the slightest bit of anti-Blackness. Everything from a police car driving past, to a new COVID-19 statistic showing disproportionate deaths among Black people and Native Americans, to Amazon commercials would spark rage that I couldn’t quell—even my dreams were darker, more violent. I’ve never found myself to be an angry person, and yet I was going on tirades to friends about how Atlanta’s Beltline trails being decorated with Black Lives Matter graffiti was hypocritical, considering the number of Black people the Beltline has displaced.
The thing about being Black in America is that the anti-Blackness doesn’t stop, and it’s nearly impossible to escape. Overstimulation by social media caused me to feel helpless. And once I started observing my behavior, I started to understand a lot more Black people in my life. A lot of us have generational, unchecked hopelessness that transmutes into a rampant and dangerous rage. Some of us have been burnt out long before BLM was trending on Twitter.
The real fight happens on the inside. The mental fortitude to keep working, regardless of the oppressive regime in which you’re operating. If you’ve been viciously fighting on social media for the last two months without making time for your mental health, you’ve either already burned out, or very close to it. It’s important to be aware of your capacity, and understand how you personally react to prolonged social-media use. I’ve learned I get angry once I find imbalance, while others get anxious or depressed. Eventually, you have to set boundaries for yourself.
The internet will make you believe that even the most prominent activists have infinite energy, infinite strength—but don’t forget that social media activism is still social media, and everything toxic we know about media platforms like Instagram and Twitter is still true if not amplified when we use it for social justice. You don’t have to prove to Instagram that you donated to a bail fund, or that you supported a Black-owned business; you don’t have to wait for Twitter to justify the way you fight in your own capacity. Once I realized that it wasn’t a contest to see who could be the most woke, I started to find balance again.
Are you willing to show up in your real life for Black people the way you do on social media? If not, you need to find out what it will take for you to do so, and it’s unlikely that your answer is on Instagram. You have to make a conscious effort to weed out the anti-Blackness in your real life. You cannot do this if you’re burned out from quarantined cyber justice; you have to look inward to make the real change. Make time for your family, reconnect with your friends, meditate, breathe, and shift your energy so we can keep fighting.
By Tyler Bey
Illustration by Mark Pernice for The Atlantic
thank you for this incredibly important take (& such nuance!) … i find myself coming back to reflect on this!