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Black Out Day: Selfies as Online Activism

Written by Ely DeSandoli
Edited by Ben Demers & Aimée Tian

Selfies have become as commonplace as the technologies we use to produce them thanks to the increased ubiquity of smartphones. Selfies, despite what many believe, are not just individual projections of millennial narcissism; they offer the opportunity to represent collective as well as personal identities. That is to say, though selfies often only include one person—thereby representing that individual’s projected identity—selfies can exist within a collective, linked through a common cause surrounding their production.

One such instance of selfie-centered, collective identities began early last year. On March 6th 2015 the first Blackout Day, now held periodically every three months, was organized across all social media platforms. Blackout Day (also called The Blackout, #Blackout, #BlackOutDay, etc.) is a movement devoted to publicizing alternate ideals of beauty centered around black identities through the proliferation of selfies. Sharing and promoting images of black faces and bodies involves participants in an active defiance against white, European beauty standards that dominate the media. The powerful impact of the movement comes from the intimacy and personality of selfies, as opposed to more traditional forms of documenting activist communities (such as through third-party news broadcasts, newspapers, etc.). This paper will look at two of the many thousands of selfies produced and shared during Blackout Day and will further analyze how this online campaign exemplifies the importance of selfies in their ability to represent non-normative individual and shared identities existing as part of a larger collective.

Blackout Day began on Tumblr, a popular blogging site, out of one user’s frustration at the visible lack of black faces on his personal feed and, by extension, in larger forms of media. User T’von Green, in an interview with colorblogmag, explains:

Of course I see a constant amount of Black celebrities but what about the regular people? Where is their shine? … I’m really sick and tired of seeing the ‘European standard of beauty’ prevail. It’s past time for the beauty of Black people to be showcased.  I love all people of color, but this here is for us…We need a unified agreeance that ALL black people are beautiful and worthy of praise and admiration, and Blackout day is a step towards that.”[1]

In response, he proposed to organize a day solely dedicated to promoting and uplifting “the many different manifestations and nuances of blackness” in protest against the idea of white faces as the epitome of beauty. With the help of Tumblr users Marissa Rei and Nukirk, the online movement was launched. Over the course of its first day, the campaign grew to include other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as hosts of Blackout selfies, organized around the hashtag #BlackOutDay. By noon that day, 700 tweets using the #BlackOutDay hashtag were created every minute, culminating in a total of 160,000 tweets being shared on the first blackout day.[2]

Blackout day comes in the midst of a national civil rights movement not seen since the 1960s. 2015 saw the highest number of black deaths due to police shootings, with a total of 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement recorded at the end of the year.[3] After the shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown by a police officer in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement Black Lives Matter was created after nationwide outrage at the event. Black Lives Matter still continues today, putting Blackout not only in a position of celebrating beautiful black images but within a larger social context committed to issuing “a call to value the humanity of Black people across the country”.[4] The unprecedented number of black bodies killed by police—Black Americans were killed at twice the rate of any other race in 2015—is a result of the negative perception of black people in mainstream media.[5] Media depictions of crime often vilify and stereotype black bodies as being more criminal, dangerous, and violent than other races, in part due to the common perception of black communities as having significantly low socioeconomic statuses. The proliferation of these stereotypes in news media establishes these negative perceptions of black identities in the public’s mind. This then leads to the idea that excessive police force to subdue “dangerous” black bodies is indeed necessary. With a growing number of transgressions that are effectively eradicating black rights, agency, and dignity, Blackout Day works to create a space where black citizens can change the harmful narrative surrounding their image. Organized around its hashtag, blackout creates “a central online location to witness Black people existing in the ways that they think are important, necessary, and beautiful”.[6] This is realized thanks to the intimate, personal, and visible nature of selfies.

Figure 1.

Blackout Day stands out amongst activist campaigns through its primary utilization of selfies to showcase the diversity of faces and bodies representing blackness. A selfie is simply an image taken by the subject of the photo. Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym provide a more in-depth definition, describing selfies as “a photographic object that initiates the transmission of human feeling” as well as “a practice—a gesture that can send (and is often intended to send) different messages to different individuals, communities and audiences”.[7] In the context of Blackout, it is important to note the transmission of affect (feelings and messages) through selfies, rather than considering them as static objects. Understanding selfies as a social practice gives them agency as “object[s] of politicizing discourses about how people ought to represent, document, and share their behaviors”.[8] They serve to make visible certain peoples, thereby demonstrating whose identities are accepted in public.

Senft and Baym note this behavior in the context of online political organizing. They observe that when selfies are used in online campaigns they serve to showcase the bodies of the main actors of the campaign. It thus “becomes easier to see how every campaign for solidarity…contains explicit and implicit claims regarding whose suffering and heroism matters, and whose does not”.[9] What makes Blackout Day so special, then, is its purposeful showcasing of black bodies in ways that those of white bodies are highlighted every day. Rather than relying on depictions within mainstream media, “self-recorded footage [becomes] the most authentic way to add complexity to the way we see Black folks”.[10] The nature of selfies, as a transmitter of feelings and messages, allows black people a new agency in their online representations.

The two selfies chosen from the many created for Blackout come from Twitter user OkJanae and Tumblr use Breanne Monroe. I chose these two because of how OkJanae’s selfie articulates Blackout’s impact on the internet (“the day melanin broke the internet”), and how Monroe’s selfie articulates the diversity of bodies within the black community. They are but two examples of how Blackout provides a space for people with non-normative (read: non-white) looks to be accepted, loved, and encouraged to engage in self-love and self-promotion on popular social media. By taking the means of their representations into their own hands, Blackout allows black girls and boys to represent themselves contrary to popular media’s beauty norms, specifically protesting white European standards. This is done by championing natural hairstyles and dark “melanin” skin, as shown in OkJanae’s Twitter selfie (Fig. 1). Like in Jessalynn Keller’s context of teen girl blogging practices, black women and men’s “insistence to be both seen and heard” makes them a “disruptive force”.[11] This further brings to mind Durham et al.’s understanding of respectability politics, wherein representations of black bodies in popular culture are under constant “surveillance, control, and repression” and are ultimately relegated to “dominant systems of power, namely white capitalist heteropatriarchy”.[12] By uplifting their own non-normative bodies, black men and women taking part in The Blackout seek to challenge heteronormative, eurocentric institutions that “silence queer and ‘freakish’ bodies of color” by bringing visibility and recognition to groups that are not normally accounted for.[13] However, this is not to say that issues of diversity and representation do not exist within the black community. The same kinds of body expectations that exist within eurocentric ideas of beauty (thin bodies or muscular bodies with flawless skin, for example) are seen within black ideas of beauty as well. Blackout targets this as well, aiming to represent different bodies not only amongst different communities but within them as well.

Figure 2. “lets not forget, black comes in many colors and shades, but shapes and sizes as well”

Cathy Cohen and Sarah Jackson describe queer bodies not only in an LGBT context but also in relation to “different bodies [that] are marginalized and made to be queer in the eyes of the state as well as in their own communities”.[14] In the context of Blackout, queer bodies are understood first and foremost as black bodies, but promoting and loving LGBT, disabled, and other marginalized bodies within the Blackout community is also part of the campaign. Monroe’s selfie is one such example, wherein she proudly showcases not only her blackness but her curvier body, one not normally shown in mainstream media outlets (Fig. 2). This “queer lens”, as Cohen and Jackson put it, “challenge[s] the static nature of categories and identities” and “allows for and promotes different types of allegiances” within black communities.[15] By showcasing the many varying identities within the Blackout community through an open call for selfies, Blackout makes visible the many different articulations of blackness, giving women and queer folks the chance to be “a visible or foregrounded part of the black struggle”.[16] This, then, “assert[s] the significance of queer bodies as part of the black community”, thereby expanding the understanding of black identity in ways that are not always considered.[17] Blackout’s ability to articulate people’s diverse identities not only amongst different racial communities but also within each of those communities is what makes Blackout particularly new and important.

Blackout Day is a unique activist movement operating without any clear claims. Instead, it exists as a network and community of people committed to humanizing and uplifting black faces and black bodies. Social media is what makes this kind of organizational power, also known as network-ability, possible in the midst of third wave feminism and movement culture. By moving activist networks from the physical to the online, social media technology allows for an unprecedented number of people to connect with and recognize each other, thus forming these “technologic” third wave networks. Third wave networks “seek to expand notions of resistance” and “complicate what it means to be political” in that they do not always “organize themselves around a single resistant identity or try to position themselves against the dominant culture in an overtly activist way”.[18] This implies a “‘messiness’” to technological activism that “complicates the notion of a unified social movement with a clear agenda and boundaries”.[19] Cohen and Jackson note how online technologies allow “people who have traditionally been silenced or made invisible to have a voice” by letting activists “circumvent what might be thought to be the mainstream or dominant press and try to build the story themselves”.[20] Blackout enables this not only through selfies but also through the intimate and personal practice of selfie production. Jessalynn Keller understands this intimate form of production as part of what she calls “bedroom culture”: “girls’ cultural practices within their bedroom as being an important site of resistance to authoritarian control”.[21] Monroe’s selfie provides an apt (and also literal) example of how this is achieved in Blackout by demonstrating an active confrontation of thin, white beauty standards taking place in her bedroom (Fig. 2). Here, black people of all genders engage in the cultural practice of selfie production in a space that can be both physically intimate (their bedrooms) and emotionally intimate as well (posting selfies to overcome body insecurities).

Keller’s context situates online blogging communities and girls’ feminist blogs, prominent components of bedroom culture, as platforms for talking back against structures of oppression. Blackout started on Tumblr, a site comprised of personal blogs where users control their output and facilitate the circulation of posts through reblogging, thereby allowing the opportunity for relationships to form between users who recognize (reblog) each other’s work. Keller writes that the internet provides “new understandings of community, activism, and even feminism itself” by allowing girls to create “public selves through ‘talking back’ and integrating these selves within larger communities and global networks”.[22] These communities are crucial in fostering online identities that then go on to engage in online activism, with blogs being the main medium through which network and community building is achieved.[23] Black girls, along with black boys, women, men, and non-binary individuals, are able to engage in the activism of Blackout Day by sharing their “public selves” (as created through their selfies) on their blogs, with subsequent networks and communities organizing around the hashtag #BlackOutDay. This is how Keller defines today’s online activism; as “not necessarily outcome-oriented” but instead based on the creation of a public self, the first step in seeing oneself as a citizen.[24] Even though blackout does not have a tangible legal/political goal, such as in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, participants can still take on the role of activists through unique and distinct online selves that disrupt the mainstream norms and ideas around black identities.

Blackout exists as a unique form of selfie activism. With its aim to uplift, encourage, and promote non-normative black bodies and faces, selfies are the perfect medium through which this can be achieved. Though some may dismiss selfies as trivial and superficial, their organizational power and ability to articulate public selves that “talk back” against the dominant powers presents a new form of activism unique to this medium. Due to their nature as self-produced, intimate, and highly visible, selfies within the Blackout network empower marginalized peoples to form solidarity networks, have a voice within their own communities, and have a say in their own limiting representations in popular media culture.

Notes
[1] Reese, Ashley. “Everything You Need To Know About #BlackOutDay And Why It Matters.” The Gloss. http://www.thegloss.com/beauty/what-is-blackoutday-hashtag-twitter-tumblr/
[2] Twitter Reverb. “#BlackOutDay”. Twitter Reverb. https://reverb.guru/view/005668079653953456
[3] Swaine, John., et al. “Young black men killed by US police at highest rate in year or 1,134 deaths”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men
[4] B., Sesali. “Why #BlackOutDay Matters.” Feministing. http://feministing.com/2015/03/13/why-blackoutday-matters/
[5] Swaine et al., “Young black men”
[6] Sesali, “#BlackOutDay”
[7] Senft, Theresa M. and Nancy K. Baym. “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1588-1606, 1589.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 1596.
[10] Sesali, “#BlackOutDay”
[11] Keller, Jessalynn Marie. “Virtual Feminisms.” Information, Communication & Society 15:3 (2012): 429-447, 431.
[12] Durham, Aisha, Brittney Cooper, and Susana Morris. “The Stage Hip Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay.” Signs 38.3 (2013): 721-737, 724-725.
[13] Ibid., 725.
[14] Cohen, Cathy and Shannon Jackson. “Ask a Feminist: A Conversation with Cathy Cohen on Black Lives Matter, Feminism, and Contemporary Activism.” Signs. http://signsjournal.org/ask-a-feminist-cohen-jackson/
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Keller, “Virtual Feminisms”, 432-433.
[19] 
McLean, Jessica and Sophia Maalsen. “Destroying the Joint and Dying of Shame? A Geography of Revitalised Feminism in Social Media and Beyond.” Geographical Research 51 (2013): 243-256, 245.
[20] Cohen and Jackson, “Ask a Feminist”
[21] Keller, “Virtual Feminisms”, 431.
[22] Ibid., 430, 444.
[23] Ibid., 436.
[24] Ibid., 444.

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