The Day Black Selfies Took Over Tumblr

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Any given day on Tumblr features predictable imagery: flowers edited to remove saturation, Starbucks cups held by thin, white hands covered in knuckle rings and turquoise bracelets, Charles Bukowski poetry against the backdrop of pastel Pantone prints. The social networking site is a hodgepodge of overlapping fandoms and teenage angst, an overwhelmingly white visual space.

Last Friday, April 3, it took on a different set of hues. For the second installment of #BlackOutDay, a photo-based movement native to Tumblr that has spread across various social networks, black users posted pictures of themselves and reblogged photos of others using the hashtag. The supportive gestures were simple but drenched in symbolism, rippling beyond the loose community of users sometimes called “Black Tumblr.”

In the high school cafeteria cartography of social networks, the Tumblr table defies categorization. Whereas Soundcloud offers a home to budding musicians, Facebook a virtual knitting circle for the world’s aunties, Twitter a fast-paced stream of consciousness-news hybrid, and Instagram a kaleidoscope of selfies, Tumblr is more canvas than community.

Tumblr’s users skew young, with 46 percent falling between 16 and 24 and 28 percent between 25 and 34. Known for playing host to both graphic innovation and left-of-center ideals, the site boasts around 19.1 million users. It’s the birthplace of countless memes, Internet personalities and GIFs. Users curate their experience on the site similarly to how one uses Twitter—by choosing whom to follow. The “dashboard” is analogous to Twitter’s timeline or Facebook’s newsfeed.

But creative control notwithstanding, much of the site is awash in what is sometimes referred to simply as “#aesthetic,” a catchall term for the sort of images that evoke nostalgia (especially of the 1990s), brooding beauty, and 50 shades of pallor. These popular nuggets of late-capitalist teen zeitgeist are as interchangeable as they are indicative of what it means to occupy a particular form of detached 2015 cool. To be a “universal” (read: white) Tumblr girl in particular is to love poetry, floral crowns, Doctor Who, Starbucks and One Direction—without, like, fangirling over them or anything, you know?

#BlackOutDay gave us blackness straight—no “palatable” chaser.

But what about those of us whose skin tones resist the dimming of nostalgia-inducing filters, whose intertextual, technicolor blackness can’t be edited to fit neatly inside a monochromatic frame?

Black Tumblr, the nebulous entity less studied than its Twitter counterpart, dances around the edges of Tumblr’s aggressively white vibe while creating its own universe of creative magic. When I first joined the site almost five years ago, I was a college student stifled under New Hampshire’s many blankets of whiteness, and I relished the opportunity to engage other young black people with the kind of openness and honesty that neither Twitter nor Facebook allow. Facebook, comprised largely of people I actually knew, seemed like too fraught a place to explore questions about race. And Twitter felt too flippant: How much can you flesh out about the complexity of white supremacy in 140 characters or less?

But Tumblr, with its space for longer text posts and relative anonymity, was fertile ground for the kind of collective knowledge-building I didn’t realize I was looking for (and that my less-than-diverse liberal arts college couldn’t offer). A whole range of black experience was suddenly at my fingertips because I followed so many black bloggers. Sometimes their stories intersected with my own; other times they offered me a more nuanced understanding of blackness by presenting experiences I’d never had. And in so many mediums, too—text posts, music, art, quotes, video, and photography.

So when I logged on this February and saw posts circulating about #BlackOutDay, I felt a familiar sense of excitement—like the pre-party, blasting-Nicki-Minaj-and-dancing-around-my-room-in-my-underwear carefree vibes that always remind me of summer, even in the middle of a New York winter.

On March 6, Tumblr users expect-the-greatest, blkoutqueen and nukirk orchestrated an unprecedented digital movement of black beauty and brilliance. By encouraging black Tumblr users to simply post photos of themselves on their blogs using the hashtag, the three succeeded in filling dashboards all over the site with a celebratory archive of images of blackness.

T’von Green (aka expect-the-greatest) says he proposed the idea in response to the barrage of whiteness both on Tumblr itself and in broader media outlets.

“Of course you always see more white people on magazines, and on Tumblr you always see those artsy model-esque blogs, and I was tired of it,” he says. “My people are beautiful and gorgeous in every way [and] the world doesn’t see us as we see ourselves.”

That sentiment isn’t new: It parallels the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan of the late 1960s, popularized during the height of Black Liberation and Civil Rights struggles. The catchphrase reflected the cultural, psychological arm of the movement for racial justice, which sought to increase black self esteem at a time when the nation experienced tremendous upheaval and violent pushback to activists’ efforts. At its core, it was a reminder that black people are no less deserving of affirmation than anyone else—a celebration of blackness that elevated its collective dynamism.

When Green first had the idea for #BlackOutDay, he joined forces with fellow Tumblr user Marissa Rei (now blkoutqueen, formerly recklessthottie), who coined the #blackout name, and graphic designer NuKirk, who created social media logos that helped the message spread across multiple mediums. (Variations of the hashtag included #BlackOutDay, #BlackOut, #TheBlackOut.) The post that outlined the goals and logistics of the first #BlackOutDay appeared on a blog NuKirk moderates.

Black Tumblr users of all kinds posted during both the inaugural #BlackOutDay, and the second one last Friday. Some users noted that they were normally not comfortable sharing photos of themselves, but found affirmation and encouragement through the hashtag. One user’s widely re-posted photo includes a caption sharing the impetus behind his post: “I tend to avoid posting pictures for a movement,” he wrote. “…However after seeing some pictures of other African-American in similar positions as myself…after some thought I built up the courage.” Queer and trans black people, disabled black people, black Muslims, and black people with a vast range of body types and skin tones—all sharing space and energy. In the democratized space of the hashtag, dominant standards of beauty that privilege whiteness felt far less intractable.

“Just to see thousands of people get behind this, [even telling] stories about how they don’t feel their beauty being black made me feel special,” Green says. “It made me get teary-eyed.”

T’von Green

“Thank god for melanin,” user africanaquarian captioned a photoset of herself smiling and smirking in a stunning gold necklace.

Zimbabwean user vim-bim tagged her selfies: “yes I put on lipstick just to take these pics,” an affirmation of her beauty.

As conversations about diversity in media continue to gain steam (along with thinly veiled racist opposition), #BlackOutDay’s goals feel especially important. The barriers to entry in television, film, publishing and other media industries are often impossibly high for black creatives. Even when black folks “make it” by receiving “mainstream” recognition in these industries, demands that our narratives be “more universal” (read: white) place strict confines on creative representation of blackness itself. Films that depict the subjugation or degradation of black bodies, like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, receive substantially more critical acclaim than films highlighting resistance and agency, like Ava Duvernay’s Selma. Indie films like Fresh Dressed offer some reprieve, but the immediacy, accessibility and everyday texture of #BlackOutDay set it apart from more individualized projects like web series and professional black photography.

Indeed, #BlackOutDay gave us blackness straight—no palatable chaser.

“I wanted to see more black people doing regular things,” Green says. “Just regular black bloggers.”

For three Tumblr users to radically alter the landscape of a social networking site, even just for a day, is powerful. (The residual effects reverberated long after March 6, with users posting pictures with captions like, “Too late for #blackout?”), But not everyone was pleased about the sudden influx of black imagery on their dashboards. Before the first #BlackOutDay even arrived, some white Tumblr users expressed irritation, even going so far as to call the hashtag racist. They coined “#WhiteOutDay,” a limp response to the robust movement—and posted gory, racist images in the #BlackOutDay tag as an attempt to discourage black Tumblr users from participating or looking through one another’s pictures. (Most of them have since been removed.)

White users rushing to decry the “racism” or “reverse racism” of #BlackOutDay often refused to engage the creators’ analysis of power and representation, instead latching onto what they misread as being exclusionary. But creating space for oneself where it did not previously exist is not an act of exclusion; it’s a broadening of what “inclusion” means.

The creators even have a section on the movement’s FAQ page that specifically addresses accusations of racism—the answer to “Isn’t this racist?” reads simply: “The short answer is no. Self love is not to be confused with hatred for other groups.” When asked about the white backlash to #BlackOutDay, Green responds that his focus remains the same: affirming blackness.

“I really stayed out of the #WhiteOut tag for the most part,” he says. The point was “to focus on #BlackOut and reblogging as many people as I could before I hit my post limit.”

Efforts to derail #BlackOutDay were largely unsuccessful; the sheer volume of photos shared by black Tumblr—and the tenacity with which it was done—presented a strong front. Even Twitter, which participated in #BlackOutDay as well, did not produce the same valiant showing as Tumblr. Twitter’s heavy text focus slows the proliferation of images, even among black users. With a site as visually oriented as Tumblr, images spread quickly—many #BlackOutDay posts garnered well over 100,000 notes.

Moving forward, #BlackOutDay creators are working to continue bringing the community together in multiple forums—including, perhaps, IRL. #BlackOutDay will continue online, too.

The movement has made tangible changes to Tumblr culture already; it’s brought people together and showcased the wealth of intellectual, creative and physical beauty within the site’s black community. Black people’s ways of engaging one another—of holding one another through both joy and pain—are reflected in the multiple different channels by which we are connecting online. #BlackOutDay is one testament, forming part of the larger patchwork of black creative resistance. We do this for our culture.

Hannah Giorgis is a black feminist writer and organizer based in New York. She is a contributing writer for The Guardian US opinion section, and her work has also appeared in BuzzFeed, Quartz, okayafrica, and The Hairpin.

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