Over the past few days, brands, celebrities and influencers alike have been coming out in support of Black Lives Matter and to condemn systemic racism. We've seen hashtags galore, Canva graphics and even an EDM remix of Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech, complete with shoutouts to George Floyd's family, courtesy of David Guetta. I guess… he meant well?
With these overt displays of support for Black lives, it seems as though the tide is turning. Beyond the issues of police brutality and inherently racist legislation (here's looking at you, 13th Amendment and 1981 Nationality Act!), there are institutional inequalities within pretty much every sector, which the current protests and overall discourse have also brought to light. This makes the well meaning Instagram posts and copy-paste jobbies seem all the more reactionary, which Black Twitter users have been quick to point out. With a simple "This you?", followed by a screenshot of said person, company or organisation's previous public anti-blackness. Holding a mirror up to their hypocrisy, the credibility of the expression of solidarity with Black people is immediately called into question.
"A lot of people with influence are expressing solidarity when they themselves have perpetuated racist acts or silenced people speaking on racism," says Hani, a History, Politics and Literature graduate from London. She references L'Oreal – which posted a "speaking out is worth it" graphic to Instagram, after dropping Munroe Bergdorf from a campaign in 2017 for speaking out against racism – as a recent example. "'This you' reminds them that a little infographic or a hashtag doesn’t absolve them of past transgressions, and we see through the empty platitudes and insincere expressions of solidarity."
Meredith Clark, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at University of Virginia, is currently writing a book on Black Twitter, and noted that holding others to account is nothing new for us. "Black Twitter in particular has really cemented some practices of accountability over the years," she starts. "We’re in an increasingly visual culture, and you can’t deny documented proof as a way that someone has or hasn't behaved in the past. Black Twitter has a very long memory, so I feel for any brand strategist that has to come up with messaging right now."
While our culture is increasingly visual, some may argue that it's oversaturated. With constant streams of content at our fingertips, it’s hard to keep up, so sometimes these past indiscretions can be missed by individuals. For Tianna, a 23-year-old Twitter user based in North West London, the sense of community with Black Twitter comes into play here. "We consume content at a rapid speed," she begins. "If I see a tweet, I'll forget it in ten minutes, so having an online community means that things are shared and nothing gets missed. I'm just one person, but if each of us can remember tiny bits as an e-community, we can hold people accountable."
"These words are exactly what they mean," Meredith says of "This you?". "Coupled with the image, it says all that needs to be said."
"This you?” and the collective archiving of problematic tweets serves as an example of the wider cultural phenomena of "receipts". Not necessarily that crumpled bit of paper you spit your gum into, but digital. Receipts typically act as proof of a transaction, which, in this case, is a problematic moment being publicised, and therefore free for anyone to discover online. The concept of "receipts" as we now know them stems from a 2002 interview of Whitney Houston by US anchor, Diane Sawyer, in which Sawyer points to Houston's alleged crack addiction:
Sawyer: “This says $730,00 drug habit. This is a headline."
Houston: "No way, no way. I wanna see the receipts. From the drug dealer that I bought $730,000 worth of drugs from. I wanna see the receipts."
It's a moment that has lived on in infamy has gone on to be quoted and adopted by everyone from The Real Housewives of Atlanta to The Receipts Podcast. Houston’s adamance to see the receipts of her alleged indiscretion are justified. It’s a strong claim that needs solid validation, especially as it's being used to smear a hugely successful Black woman.
"There’s a certain resonance in having a video image of a Black woman who was soft spoken and yet had a way of putting people in their place," says Meredith. "That is black culture that is brought to a separate arena."
The devil's advocates reading this must be thinking, 'Is there really any point to receipts? Surely people can change?' And they're not wrong. Those who have called others out are well aware of this, too.
"Receipts are a sticky one, because people change their minds," Tianna argues. "But receipts are a debate about whether or not you think it’s acceptable to believe something at one point in time. In day-to-day life, if someone commits a crime, we know the law, it’s binary, but morality is so subjective."
When it comes to calling people out, it’s often not just what people are saying, but who it is saying it, as Laila, a 19-year-old Twitter user from London, points out in regards to Oxford University's recent support of Black Lives Matter.
"In this instance of Oxford University refusing to work with Stormzy on his scholarship, the screenshot tells the whole story," she begins. "It’s a historically racist institution that thinks that putting out a blanket, low-effort statement will absolve them of any responsibility, which is laughable considering how they treat their Black students. Me dragging them, no matter how viral the tweet was, is not going to do them damage. Temporary embarrassment maybe, but refusing to work with Stormzy illustrated VERY clearly to me and other Black people that they don’t care about them."
With these public statements of solidarity being posted on just about every social channel, these in themselves act as receipts, and represent the cyclical nature of “This you?”
"These posts serve as a contract," Meredith believes. "We can go back to these profiles and say, 'Here's a list of demands,' as they need to continue to engage in the dialogue but demonstrate, as they did in their posts, what their commitment actually is."
In the age of fake news, and when Black lives are more at risk than ever, we need to know who is genuinely on our side and who will protect us when it all blows over. Accountability is a key part of change that needs to be acknowledged. You did wrong in the past, but now is the time to do your homework and live up to your promises.
We aren’t a marketing tool, a trend or a hashtag. These are our lives, and these pledges mean there is an expectation that we will be valued not only as consumers but as human beings. If you’re a company, think about your supply chain or your workers. Are their lives also valued and protected?
We don’t only want Black lives to matter this week, but also in ten years time. You need to keep the same energy. And we don’t mean black Instagram squares, we mean equal pay, inclusion and allowing us room to thrive, create and share our ideas.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.