June 1, 2020

WU | Exploring Instagram Activism

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On Friday afternoon, one of my friends shared an Instagram page in our group chat: @nyulambdasisracist. It was a hate page targeted at four NYU Lambda Phi Epsilon members for their racist messages demeaning black people and supporting police brutality. (The page has since been taken down—it not only personally attacked the students involved but also their partners). Scrolling through the screenshots of the NYU Lambdas’ group chat, I was appalled that my peers could genuinely believe that “police brutality actually keeps those communities more safe than without it.” But I was not surprised.

After all, Cornell’s fraternities (and frats across the country) also have a history deeply ingrained in anti-black racism. These are a few of the incidents that have been reported, though they fail to grasp the subtle ways that racism persists in our Greek system: In the 1980 Cornell yearbook, three members of Sigma Nu adopted the aliases “Ku,”“Klux” and “Klan.” In 2012, unidentified individuals on Sigma Pi’s roof threw bottles at and taunted students using Trayvon Martin’s name. And in 2017, Psi Upsilon members yelled racial slurs at a black man and physically attacked him.

As I finished scrolling through the page, I navigated to the little Instagram story circles. All of my friends’ stories featured the ongoing protests — photos of George Floyd, links to news and opinion articles, book recommendations, the Times cover photo and methods to donate money to support the protesters in Minneapolis. Their calls against racism were a far cry from the comments made by the NYU Lambda brothers. Out of all these posts and reposts, two stories in particular stuck out to me.

The first story was a repost of someone’s black bubble letter word art. The timer bar ran out before I could finish deciphering all of the bubble letter text, but the first line said something to this effect — if you are not black and staying silent, then you are complicit to racism. I thought to myself, am I complicit? I had donated to Reclaim the Block and the Twin Cities Recovery Project, but I had not yet posted anything on social media. I have never posted a story on Instagram before, and I rarely post to Instagram or Facebook. While social media is incredibly valuable for sharing information and creating movements, I have an aversion to posting — about personal, school-related, and social issues — in part because it feels somewhat performative, and in part because of my own cowardice and introversion.

I contemplated sharing something to my story, but I couldn’t shake the phoniness I felt — would I be sharing because I believed in the message, or would I be doing so because everybody else was? Probably a bit of both. Like the people posting, I want to live in a community free of racial discrimination, but the reality is that I have been complicit in racism. We all have been. And that complicity is not so easily shed.

In one of my past columns, I wrote about the experiences I endured as an Asian American with a Chinese name. Here, I concede: Just as much as I have struggled due to my Asian identity, I have benefited from the stereotype of being a model minority and a good, quiet Asian girl. As such, I hesitated before penning this column. I cannot claim any real understanding of what black people endure as a result of their skin color. I am far from an activist — my attempts to engage race and racism amount to a few conversations, some books, a couple classes and a school club. Most of all, I felt, and continuously feel, that I have not adequately educated myself nor done enough where I can easily post on social media or write a column about black inequality.

The second story that stuck with me, from a black student from my high school, spoke to exactly that. The post criticized people for posting all over their stories (and in my case, writing this column) without actually doing anything. I thought back to a piece by one of my fellow columnists, Sidney Malia Waite, in which she expresses how her surprise at one of her white friends’ reposts of Ahmaud Arbery illustrates just how low the bar is set for non-black people. Perhaps, the bar was rising.

But, when I exhausted all of the stories and returned to my feed, all the photos, the links to resources and the calls to action vanished. Instead they were replaced by graduation photos, my friends’ quarantine baking creations and more graduation photos. Most of the people I follow are my predominantly Asian and white friends, and as of my writing of this column, I counted only three posts in my feed about racial inequality from the past week. The bar has not moved very far.

I can’t help feeling that my Instagram feed represents the reality of the situation—that for most non-blacks, myself included, supporting the protests is still a compartmentalized and transient investment, as it has been historically. That, like the Instagram stories themselves, there is already an expiration date on our engagement. If we are so passionately calling for permanent change in our posts, shouldn’t the posts themselves at least be permanent?

The people that made those permanent posts were not black, but they were people who constantly engage with issues of racism. And there certainly are people sharing important messages to their stories who do consistently work towards racial equity. But writing your own personal post or story requires a level of thought and reflection that reposting or donating money does not.

The reality is many of us have not left our comfort zones. We are not bigots nor policemen, but we are complicit. Our self-examination is occasional, surface-level, and tinged with a sense of self-righteousness. Our investment has failed to transcend its temporariness into the discomfort of permanence—and we remain in a space that continuously tolerates the racism of the Lambda brothers from NYU, at Cornell, in our own communities and in ourselves. But we can reflect, be uncomfortable and change.
Lei Lei Wu is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at lwu@cornellsun.com. This is the first installment of Get Lei’d, and the column will run alternate Mondays this semester.