Long Reads

How hashtags have played a crucial role in Black women’s activism online

After seeing the significant position hashtags play for Black women’s activism on social media, one writer decided to follow suit and create one of her own.

History shows that Black women have often been the organisers of movements which seek change, justice, and highlight inequality. Research has traced the history of Black women and their work within the intersectionality of racial justice and women’s right. But too often these contributions go unrecognised.

“We need to understand that these kinds of social movements don’t emerge from thin air,” said Erik S. McDuffie, associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois and author of Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. In a lecture on the subject last year, he explained that “[They] have been essential yet invisible in these movements and conversations.” And it’s a frustrating reality that still rings true right now.

The birth of the internet and social media led to a different type of activism online which is more global and connected in nature, and Black women have been at the forefront of it too.

The #MeToo movement was established by Tarana Burke in 2006 to support survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of colour to find pathways to healing. The hashtag went viral in 2017 following the widespread sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

#BlackLivesMatter was created by Alicia Gaza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometti in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. The movement has since transcended its online origins to help combat anti-Black racism across the world. 

In 2015, #SayHerName was originated by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) to amplify the stories of Black women and girls who are victims of racist police violence but are often erased from conversations around police brutality. The campaign has been spearheaded by professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw who is a co-founder of the AAPF and famously coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s to describe how different types of discrimination interact with each other.

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My friend Adesuwa Ajayi and I are the co-founders of nine to fives, a digital community for Black professionals. In June, we saw Black employees calling out their places of employment online — we knew we had to amplify these conversations. Over the last few months, we’d seen several companies posting black squares on social media, releasing statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, donating to charities that cater to minorities, all whilst failing to address the racism their Black employees were subjected to every day in their buildings. Inspired by Black women who came before us, we created the #BlackInTheOffice hashtag and a safe place where people could anonymously message us about their workplace experiences, giving them the option to also name the employer, which we then shared on Twitter. 

The response to the hashtag was insane. We received over 50 submissions across numerous industries which including banking, law, tech, aviation, fitness, recruitment, the voluntary sector and more. Stories shared included being fired for reporting incidents, inappropriate comments made about slavery and gangs, colleagues attempting to remove Black women’s wigs on nights out, and finding out they were being massively underpaid compared to less experienced white colleagues.

Though we didn’t directly reach out to any of the companies mentioned, a well known British charity who was mentioned did reply to our thread expressing they were working to create a better workplace culture. They only released a statement regarding Black Lives Matter after this, however, which is the type of ingenuous behaviour we are tired of.

With the most recent Black Lives Matter uprising following the murder of George Floyd, there have been increased discussions around the deep-rooted nature of anti-Blackness, racism and the institutional structures which uphold them; from healthcare to education, the workplace and more. 

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Today, Black women are using social media to drive these conversations around systemic racism, putting our voices at the forefront and demanding change that acknowledges the racial injustices we are subjected to, not just at the hands of law enforcement, but in the everyday aspects of our lives. Here are three Black women who have recently used social media to lead the way:

#PublishingPaidMe 

Fantasy novelist L.L McKinney called for authors to share their advances to highlight the pay inequality between Black and non-Black writers. Authors around the world shared their earnings which quickly revealed the racism that exists within publishing, where Black writers are perceived to not be worth as much as their white counterparts. Jesmyn Ward, a Black fiction writer who is the first woman ever to win two National Book awards for Fiction tweeted that after she won her first award in 2011 she had to “wrestle” her way to a $100,000 advance. 

This contrasts massively to information provided by Chip Creek, a white male author, who received an $800,000 advance for his debut book. The award-winning Malorie Blackman, the Black British author of the Noughts and Crosses series tweeted she had never in her life received anything like the sums being posted by white authors. Since the hashtag, a spreadsheet (although not comprehensive) has been created for authors to anonymously disclose their advances, with over 1000 submissions so far from across the world. 

#BlackInTheIvory 

Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Wood set up this hashtag to highlight the racism Black scholars face in Academia. The recent protests made them reflect on their own experiences of racism during their academic career. With universities posting black squares and releasing statements, they felt it was time to confront the systemic racism within higher education institutions.

 The hashtag garnered hundreds of replies, with common themes including white academics not believing the credentials of their Black counterparts, white academics telling Black students they wouldn’t succeed in their chosen programme and more. The women have since created a separate Twitter account which has gained nearly 8,000 followers and has also launched a website.

#PullUpOrShutUp

Sharon Chuter, the founder and creative director of UOMA beauty believed it was important for brands to acknowledge the role they play in enabling racial inequality. She created the hashtag and asked brands to “pull up” — a term popularised from Rihanna after her NAACP awards speech — by sharing the number of Black people they employ on a corporate level within 72 hours of her posting the message and asked consumers to stop purchasing from them until they shared them. 

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Beauty brands such as Sephora revealed 6% of their leadership team was Black, while Revlon stands at just 5%, 8% of L’Oréal’s leadership team is Black and Glossier revealed they had zero Black executives currently. The hashtag has since expanded to include companies outside of the beauty industry.

Whilst the style of activism has changed and evolved, the role Black women play hasn’t, and they continue to be on the frontline, whether in person, online or both to lead the fight for the equality our community rightly deserves. In a world that doesn’t always feel welcoming and safe for us, social media platforms enable us to come together on a global scale to share our struggles, support one another and the use of hashtags enable us to validate our experiences.

Image: Getty 

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