How “Anti-Racist” Instagram Accounts Can Actually Cause Harm To People Of Color

These infographics should be the first place, not the only place, we engage with activism.

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It has been nearly two years since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, prompting global protests against — and conversations about — police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism.
The anti-racist book clubs that formed in these protests’ wake have since broken up, most corporations have yet to follow through on the promises they made to foster racial equity, and instead of defunding the police as many cities pledged, many cities have increased their police budgets. As we get deeper into 2022, which hopefully won’t be another bleak year of brutal racism and discouraging inaction, social justice slideshows are the last act of performative activism still standing.
These easy-to-read and even easier-to-share carousels were initially created by scholars and activists to disseminate information without mainstream media’s racist bias. But just like every other aspect of Black culture, they were quickly co-opted by anonymous and/or opportunistic non-activists. Many of these anonymous or oft-white-led accounts reproduce or rearrange the work of BIPOC, queer, and disabled scholars and writers, or other news outlets into aesthetically pleasing infographics with incomplete credit (for example, “Source: News Outlet” without citing an article or writer) or monetary compensation. These infographics are meant to educate their audience and inspire them to take action. Instead, they encourage performative activism or “slacktivism” by allowing people to feel fulfilled simply by reading and reposting pretty slideshows.
And they can cause lasting harm to marginalized communities. 

The Time an Anti-Racist Instagram Account With Millions of Followers Misrepresented Itself

Take the So You Want to Talk About account, launched in February 2020. So You Want to Talk About — which has since been renamed So.Informed — is an Instagram infographic account with 2.8 million followers, many of whom followed it after George Floyd’s murder. The account covered everything from anti-Black racism to the orgasm gap. Scholars and activists were invited to collaborate through a Google Form, and their words were repackaged into slides and credited as “So You Want to Talk About x Expert,” implying that both had done an equal amount of research for the post.
There was no explicit mention of the identity of the account’s owner in either its posts or bio. In fact, the account’s name was one word short of Nigerian-American author Ijeoma Oluo’s 2018 book, So You Want to Talk About Race, so many people assumed Oluo was running it, until the account’s owner added a disclaimer stating otherwise in July 2020. Jessica Natale finally announced her name in a post along with her book deal in April 2021 (she’s since put the book on hold) and started to go live on the account. 

These infographics are meant to educate their audience and inspire them to take action. Instead, they encourage performative activism or “slacktivism” by allowing people to feel fulfilled simply by reading and reposting pretty slideshows.

However, her name and the fact that she’s white wasn’t well known until she was called out by Brown Latine Decolonial educator and journalist Constanza Eliana Chinea a few months later. Chinea, who tells Refinery29 she’d had been frustrated by the account for some time because of the lack of transparency about who was running it, reached out to Natale via direct message about an infographic posted on August 4 explaining the history of US immigration.
The post contained racial slurs against the Latinx community — when describing historical events in which the slur had been used by the US government — and was written without a trigger warning or disclaimer. Unsatisfied with Natale’s careless response, Chinea addressed Natale on Instagram a few days later, outlining proper steps she should take for harm repair: pay reparations, answer community questions through an IG Live on Chinea’s channel, step back from her account, and give her publishing deal to a BIPOC author.
Natale deleted the offending post and, through a now-deleted clarification post titled “The Truth Matters,” explained that it had been written by a collaborator and she hadn’t removed the slur because she didn’t want to censor them. She then officially disclosed her identity, explaining she hadn't wanted to make the page about herself.
Nowhere in her apology did Natale mention Chinea or the Latinx community, speaking only obliquely about being “very apologetic to anyone who was harmed by the language used in the post.” Natale also said that she never claimed that her page — which highlights various political and social issues and started as a pro-Bernie Sanders account — was an anti-racist account, and that she’d never represented herself as an anti-racism educator.
Separately, when Ijeoma Oluo responded on Instagram saying, “it has been really frustrating to see these celebrities, these huge pages, share the work of a white woman that is capitalizing off of the work of other people of color and other marginalized populations,” Natale made a now-deleted post stating that she was “listening and learning” followed by a one-sentence apology to Oluo. Shortly after, Natale renamed the page. She moved on from this publicly unscathed, with only a few hundred thousand fewer followers, even though she indirectly benefited from Oluo’s work and disregarded the emotional and intellectual labor of Chinea — two racialized women activists.
In an email statement to Refinery29, Natale said she’d never earned money off her posts: “What I would like to clear up is the misconception that I’ve earned money for the page, ‘capitalized’ on the events of summer 2020, or got my book deal because of collaborations."

Accountability and Action

Natale’s actions — and the actions of similar accounts and the people who follow them — are a part of a larger problem: the Instagram infographic industrial complex. It is impossible to synthesize sociopolitical issues and concepts like anti-Black racism, Indigenous land theft, or the war in Afghanistan — all of which have intricate, interconnected histories that span decades if not centuries — into a mere ten slides, regardless of how small the text’s sans serif font is. “Anybody can make anything on social media and make it seem like it's great just because they have good graphics,” says Chinea. “But [there] are real people who have actually studied these things and are telling you that this is wrong and that's what we need to listen to.”

Anybody can make anything on social media and make it seem like it's great just because they have good graphics. But [there] are real people who have actually studied these things and are telling you that this is wrong and that's what we need to listen to.

Constanza Eliana Chinea
Ideally, these infographics should be the first step when delving into an issue and invite readers to do further research by linking to accurate, in-depth resources. Since the creators behind these infographics often don’t provide these, they often become the first and the last step. Readers skim the post, press like, share it to their stories, and then scroll past it without pausing to do any further research, even if it’s to just fact check what they are reading, or to determine who is sharing the information.
As Beverly Bain, an assistant professor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga explains, these accounts treat knowledge as a product to be consumed rather than something to enlighten. And, just like many other things in their lives, readers discard this information after consuming it instead of savoring it.
“[Perusing these infographics] doesn't necessarily mean that people have allowed themselves to understand their complicity and to even be aware on a day-to-day basis of what's going on around them,” Bain says. According to her, this often occurs because people share these posts for the same reason institutions implement anti-racist policies or listening and learning sessions or townhalls — to prevent accountability rather than undergo actual transformation. Bains’ point can easily be proven through the angry messages Oluo and Chinea say they got from many of So.Informed’s supposedly anti-racist followers for trying to hold Natale accountable.
That may also apply to the creators of at least some of these accounts as well. “It’s important that some of this stuff gets out,” says Bain. “But it’s also important that the people who are putting this out are also people who stand in those kinds of places and experiences.”  
This is because, not only can people with these lived experiences provide more accurate and nuanced information, but also because they have often braved the very real dangers associated with activism and organizing to share it.
In an ideal world, the creators of the accounts capitalizing on these infographics’ popularity would realize the harm they perpetuate and step away so that the scholars, activists, and journalists, whose work they repackage, can accumulate and benefit from the social capital in their stead.
However, that is unlikely to happen. As demonstrated by Natale and so many of these IG accounts, creators are reluctant to give up their platform and the social capital associated with it (and in some cases, the financial capital). So, what can and should happen instead, is more reflection and research on their followers’ part. 

To Follow or Not to Follow?

It is important, before following Instagram infographic accounts or sharing their work, to research who runs the account and whether they stand at what Bain refers to as the intersections that they are posting about. Though these accounts can be transparent and well-intentioned, it is better to directly follow and support organizers, activists, and academics, such as Ijeoma Oluo, Charlie Amaya Scott, Blair Imani, Tiffany Hammond, and Wetsuweten_Checkpoint
While it may be uncomfortable, it’s also essential to reflect on why we are resharing or reposting these infographics  (as in whether it is to educate or to appear educated) and, crucially, what else we intend to do aside from reposting them. These infographics should be the first place rather than the only place for us to engage with these sociopolitical issues, and the online “work” of reading and resharing them should translate to offline work — like donating, signing and sharing petitions, sending letters, organizing, and reading — on a regular if not everyday basis.
Anonymous Instagram infographic accounts have profited from the repackaged work of actual scholars long enough. It’s time we unfollowed.

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