#BlackStudentsMatter: Why Digital Activism Is a Voice for Black Students

column | Digital Learning

#BlackStudentsMatter: Why Digital Activism Is a Voice for Black Students

By Jasmine Roberts (Columnist)     Aug 23, 2018

#BlackStudentsMatter: Why Digital Activism Is a Voice for Black Students

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

Social media and social activism appear to be undeniably interwoven among Black users. And it’s increasingly become a powerful medium to elevate underrepresented voices on college campuses, too.

A recent Pew Research survey examining attitudes toward digital activism reported that more than half (54 percent) of Black users “believe social media is an important tool for them to use in expressing their opinion about social and political issues.” Meanwhile, just 39 percent of whites said the same thing.

Part of me is not surprised at the survey’s finding. Many of the heavyweights behind some of the most well-known activist hashtags are Black. Take Tarana Burke, who first launched the #MeToo movement, or April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. This type of Black digital activism mimics the tenacious efforts of, for example, Ida B. Wells, to speak truth to the real experiences of Black people in a society that is eager to suppress conversations about institutional racism that exists today.

Our nation’s demographics are rapidly changing and that is reflected in student populations at universities and colleges. Higher education instructors have to adjust to this and develop a sense of cultural competence. One way to accomplish this is to recognize the ways students of color want and need to articulate their racialized experiences.

This is why people working in higher education must try to understand why Black youth see social media as viable tools to share their thoughts on social issues. So what are the implications of digital activism for Black students, and why should college instructors—especially non-Black instructors—care?

The Rise of Digital Activism and Its Use in Black Spaces

Researchers began to seriously take note of the onset of digital activism in 2011.

“Scholars awakened to the possibilities of social media as a catalyst for activism during the Arab Spring,” explains Allissa Richardson, assistant professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “As the year progressed, the Occupy Movement built upon using social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to share its message.”

In 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag began to surface across social media platforms after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, which sparked widespread outrage. Then in 2014, Michael Brown, another young Black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer. This tragic event catapulted the rallying cry, “Black Lives Matter” into the center stage of countless news and social media outlets.

That year, Richardson notes, “digital activism became much more connective in nature. Suddenly a single hashtag gave one access to a real-time conversation that transcended space.”

The Black Lives Matter movement might not have its current effectiveness without the use of Twitter. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag enabled Black people, particularly Black youth, to publicly discuss their experiences and frustration with racial profiling and police brutality in large numbers. Following the death of Michael Brown, protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., and those at the frontlines of the events posted photos and videos of what was happening. This motivated Black youth to take action and loudly proclaim that police were no longer going to treat them like second class citizens. Digital activism suddenly emboldened their sense of self-efficacy.

“There are great conversations happening on social media and people apart of the ‘Black Twitterverse’ are bringing issues to the forefront. It brings a great deal of awareness to students,” claims Akil Houston, associate professor of cultural and media studies at Ohio University.

Black Twitter: The Lantern for Black Folk

Digital activism among Black users also appears to be the modernization of a communication pattern that has historical roots in the Black community.

“[Black Twitter] mirrors the call-and-response communication style [seen] in the black church of old,” explains Richardson. “When someone from Black Twitter sounds the alarm on a fresh social justice issue, the [virtual] congregation responds rapidly, telling the ‘pastor’ to ‘preach!’”

Black college students, in particular, are looking for ways to collectively respond to injustices beyond police brutality, and social media is often their preferred microphone.

Look no further to the stories of Black students like Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student at Yale. A white student called the police on Siyonbola after she fell asleep in a dormitory common room on campus. The reason? Siyonbola didn’t look like she belonged in the room. She later posted two videos on Facebook detailing the situation, shedding light on the reality of what it means to be Black while occupying a space that is unconsciously deemed for whites.

Stories like what happened to Siyonbola are not uncommon. And Black students are taking to social media to speak about racial biases they experience on campus. These are average Black students in college classrooms across the nation, who self-police their bodies to make white professors and peers feel safe and comfortable. They take to social media to simply “exhale” and express how exhausting all of this can be.

Richardson recalls teaching a journalism class at an HBCU in Maryland when Freddie Gray was killed in police custody in Baltimore in April 2015. “Many of my students were from Baltimore and it hit too close to home for many of them. They could not not report on this.”

Digital activism, in many ways, is an extension and gift from previous prominent Black activists and cultural icons. As Houston asks, “What if James Baldwin had Twitter? What if Zora Neale Hurston was on Instagram? How would they weigh into a particular moment?” It hones in on their enduring spirit.

Limitations of “Hashtag Activism”

Critics of digital activism more often point to “slacktivism,” the notion that digital activism is limited to online discussion, retweets, and likes, and claim this form of action does not produce tangible change.

“There’s a real divide,” says Houston. “Some students [activists] are going to the protests and being arrested. They express their frustration about the other students who just liked or shared an article, but didn’t physically show up when it mattered most.”

But there is a real role for digital activism on campus. And diminishing its power to “slacktivism” ignores the ways in which social media allows students to organize, speak and spread awareness about issues.

We have seen cases in which digital activism can produce real change—and has inspired real political action. For example, after the death of Freddie Gray, Deray McKesson, one of the most prominent supporters in the Black Lives Matter movement, ran for mayor of Baltimore.

“Although he did not win, many youth in Maryland were inspired to see someone who was ‘Internet famous’ spin that name recognition into public office,” asserts Richardson.

In other recent examples, 22-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, Ja’Mal Green announced a run for mayor of Chicago as well as Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, who plans to run for city council in Ferguson, Mo. So it appears that digital activism does have some measurable influence on local and national politics.

Why Should Instructors Care?

So what does this all mean for higher education instructors? Why should they care about the impact of digital activism in marginalized student communities and communities at large?

“Theory is great, but get to know your students,” says Houston. “Know what they’re reading, what they’re watching, and what they’re posting. And if you can do that, you can communicate more effectively with them. Digital activism is a part of students’ world.”

Richardson advises that “higher education instructors should champion digital activism for students of color because it helps them become better civic participants. When students realize the agency they have when they create a successful digital campaign, I have seen that awakening galvanize them to pursue systemic change through traditional means.”

My challenge to higher education instructors from all backgrounds is to intentionally recognize that the America you know is not necessarily the same America that your Black students experience on a day-to-day basis. Humbly listen to the narratives of your students from underrepresented groups. Failure to do this and more might continue to make Black and other students of color feel isolated and misunderstood in the classroom.

As Richardson puts it: “Digital activism can be an entry point to correcting this purposeful drowning out of our country’s future.”

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