The Influencers Who Blew It Responding to Black Lives Matter
It’s safe to say #BlackOutTuesday didn’t have the intended results.
In an effort to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder on May 25 and the international protests that followed, many Instagram users—primarily, it seems, white ones—posted nothing but black squares on Tuesday, June 2. “Muted, listening, and learning,” read many of the captions.
What began as a call to action for the music industry wound up overwhelming the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which many #BlackOutTuesday participants with their blacked-out posts, burying useful information for protestors. Denounced by Black Twitter users from the jump, the “black square” quickly became a potent symbol for performative allyship.
“The blackout is censoring valuable information,” wrote Megan Tate, a Black Minneapolis-based artist and activist. “This is a form of erasure, flooding our timelines with nothing. Stories of people on the frontlines are not being heard. Stories of my friends and community members that have been attacked by white supremacists in our cities right now are not being heard.” She urged her followers to delete their black squares.
White influencers who’d never so much as mentioned race before—or even featured a Black person on their page—were seen as suddenly jumping on a bandwagon and co-opting the movement.
Meanwhile, a handful of influencers, celebrities, and brands hopped on to the movement while concealing their own real-life racist behavior. Former Vanderpump Rules stars Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Schroeder were swiftly called out for their hypocrisy and “slacktivism” for posting black squares, which rang especially hollow after it came out that they’d harassed and called police on Black cast member Faith Stowers for months. They were both fired by Bravo and dropped by sponsors following the backlash.
After fashion influencer Lenadra Medine, founder of the Man Repeller blog, posted a black square on Instagram, several former Black employees spoke out about the discrimination they faced while working at the brand, including the fact that almost everyone laid off at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was a BIPOC employee.
“As a former POC employee that was let go during COVID-19, this ‘apology’ is a slap in the face,” Sabrina Santiago wrote after Leandra shared a blog post explaining how she planned to do better. “I have not been reached out to in any capacity. I hope everyone sees this is another performative attempt to cover racist actions.”
Leandra announced she was stepping down from her position at the company soon after.
White influencers who’d never so much as mentioned race before—or even featured a Black person on their page—were seen as suddenly jumping on a bandwagon and co-opting the movement. For years, many were silently reaping the benefits of a system designed to work in their favor while repeatedly failing to lift up (and, for some, actively harming) women of color in the process.
“White influencers have long benefitted from white supremacy and they know it,” said Subrina Heyink, a Black vintage-store owner, in a June Instagram story. “They have stayed silent on issues that have affected the Black community because it was not beneficial to them or their platform.” This was in response to a public falling-out she had in June with white fashion influencer Alyssa Coscarelli, who—instead of posting a black square or going silent—shared branded graphics and lists of action items for her followers.
“I’m seeing many Black women call out white women who’ve been racist to them in the past, especially the ones using BLM as part of their brand, so here’s mine,” she wrote. “[Alyssa] is... using BLM to appear good. Do not fall for her performance.” Heyink explained that in 2017 Coscarelli had “bad-mouthed” her at Refinery29—another brand simultaneously facing claims of a racist, anti-Black culture—for speaking about the Black Lives Matter movement on her personal Instagram account, causing her to delete her profile for three months afterword. She claimed Coscarelli was co-opting the movement once it became “trendy,” gaslighting her into thinking the conversation in question never happened, and was “drunk off of her own white savior complex.”
“It’s the fact that Alyssa is doing the absolute most that I said anything. If she had owned up to the fact that in the past, she hasn’t always cared about Black women and Black people, I would have kept quiet and let it go because I’m about growth and change. What we’re not going to do is pretend and co-opt shit for appearances. Not on my watch.”
In a subsequent statement, Coscarelli said she’s “struggled with how to apologize and articulate [herself] in this situation,” that she’s deeply sorry for sharing actions before fully examining her own, and that she’s taking the time to listen and learn.
Over the span of a week, Exeter says Mulroney “ticked every single box of what not to do during the biggest racial uproar in history.”
Canadian TV personality and influencer Jessica Mulroney (best known for her close friendship with the Duchess of Sussex) had been relatively quiet about Black Lives Matter on social media, even though she’d “been very vocal about supporting many causes in the past.”
In an Instagram video on June 10, Black Toronto-based influencer Sasha Exeter says Mulroney took offense to a “very generic call to action” that she’d posted earlier that month. “I believe that [Mulroney] wrongly assumed my generic call to action was a direct and blatant callout to her,” Exeter said. “Maybe it’s showing her guilt for her lack of action, and because of that, she began to lash out at me.”
Mulroney did, in fact, lash out. Exeter described the TV host leaving her a “trail of offensive messages,” including telling Exeter that she’d “spoken to companies about the way [she] treated [her] unfairly,” and that Exeter’s “voice only matters if [she] expresses it with kindness without shaming people who are simply trying to learn.”
Over the span of a week, Exeter says Mulroney “ticked every single box of what not to do during the biggest racial uproar in history,” including blocking her and attempting to silence her with legal action. Most significantly, Exeter was appalled that Mulroney had threatened her livelihood (in writing) by contacting her brand partners. “For her to threaten me, a single Black mom, during a pandemic? It blows my mind,” Exeter said.
"Listen, I’m by no means calling Jess a racist," Exeter had said. "But what I will say is this: She is very well-aware of her wealth, her perceived power, and privilege because of the color of her skin. And that, my friends, gave her the momentary confidence to come for my livelihood in writing." She compared her to fellow Canadian Amy Cooper, saying, “How can you be about the Black people and a supporter and about female empowerment on the outside when you try to silence a Black woman during this movement behind closed doors?”
Calloway shared that she was “going to war” against racism, proceeding to primarily post selfies and self-aggrandizing anecdotes comparing growing up Black to having a parent with mental illness.
The list goes on. Minneapolis-based blogger Jenna Kutcher was called out for having belittled Black entrepreneur Toi Smith and posting “All Lives Matter” in the past, while fashion influencer Danielle Bernstein (founder of the blog WeWoreWhat) was accused of deleting comments from BIPOC questioning her brand’s diversity (she quickly told her followers that she was “listening and learning”). Minor, backlash-prone influencer Caroline Calloway shared that she was “going to war” against racism, proceeding to primarily post selfies and self-aggrandizing anecdotes comparing growing up Black to having a parent with mental illness—all while continuing to post anti-Asian memes that linked eating bats to COVID-19.
In short, numerous white influencers have positioned themselves as anti-racist while blatantly failing to confront and acknowledge their own biases and histories with racist behavior. It doesn’t matter if they posted black squares, branded graphics, or nothing at all—in a moment where everyone needs to do the work (work that goes further than just “listening and learning”), performing allyship won’t cut it anymore, especially when Black women are feeling more empowered than ever to share their stories of what’s really going on behind the filtered feeds of famous white women.
“I’m openly sharing this in the hopes that it gives other Black women the confidence to stand up for themselves too,” Exeter said in her Instagram video about Mulroney. “Enough is enough. If we’re holding businesses accountable, we should be holding individuals accountable as well.”