What happens when white college students who have been posting on Instagram and sharing donation links in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the George Floyd protests come into contact with racists in their own community? At my university (a PWI), the answer disappointed me.

As the George Floyd protests gained traction, my university peers posting and espousing anti-racist viewpoints on social media surprised me, especially since my college experience had been underlined by casual and occasionally overt racism. I wanted to feel excited that my white peers were so vocally supporting the cause. However, there were nagging doubts in the back of my mind. Seeing all these students calling out racism and sticking up for justice online reminded me of how little I felt that sentiment in person, on my campus, amongst some of the same students. While I knew that obviously, Instagram activism doesn’t always translate, I wanted to believe in the best of those around me. But reality came crashing in with the clearest example of how Instagram and reality can be two different worlds, despite the powerful mobilizing nature of social media today.

Online activism, in-person ambivalence

During my freshman year on campus, I had a racist roommate in my four-person room. She made comments disparaging affirmative action, looked down on students receiving financial aid, made racist comments about the Black and Latinx communities, and showed her narrow-minded outlook on the LGBTQ community.

And this year, on our campus, amidst the uproar, I saw her happily socializing with the same people who post radical anti-racist quotes on their Instagram stories. The symbolic “stand” of my white peers seemed to mean nothing. This is not to say that posts and information on social media “do nothing” or that they are unwelcome. However, when the posters fail to call out the problematic people in their own lives when college students fail to bring these same views to their own social circles and be anti-racist in the “real world,” performative activism fails Black people.

Throughout the movement for Black lives and particularly recently, young women have realized the power of their Instagram and other social media platforms to disrupt feeds and to share information, resources, and donations. Beautiful infographics, donation links, and antiracist quotes abound as young women realize that they can be a different type of “influencer.” However, the same women seem to lose steam or forget their power when interacting off-line. Perhaps they miss the comfort and curation of social media. But white discomfort with in-person anti-racism creates comfort and acceptance for racists. It creates like the ease and social acceptance my racist peer found on campus as I continued to feel othered as a Black woman.

How do we make social media count?

I challenge my fellow college students, not only to keep posting resources and donation links on their Instagram but also to make sure their actions in their own circle of friends match their posts. To make sure the language they are using and permitting, and the problematic people in their own life receive as many anti-racist lessons as their social media accounts. If not, social media can fall into the same traps and pitfalls that plague our everyday Instagram usage. Namely, posting for social capital and the distorted reality that stems from the disconnect between our true selves and the one we show online. When activism turns performative, it turns the cause into pageantry. When anti-racism becomes a tool for social capital without real-world actions, the movement for Black Lives turns into a trend to be ignored off-internet, or worse forgotten.

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