Early in the pandemic, businesses battered us with statements about their plans. “Here’s what we’re doing to keep you and our employees safe. Don’t worry about your banking, your travel, your muffler, your glasses.” They had the pandemic under control.
I thought the statement making would stop there. But no, then came the updates. “Here’s our commitment to keeping you safe.”
After the Covid updates came the Black Lives Matter ethical statements. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Netflix all raced to stand in solidarity with Black people. And to let us know.
Because making money is among a company’s top priorities, it’s logical to dismiss these statements as simply a means to that end. I read them with suspicion, cynicism, and distrust. They siphoned attention from an important cause to their brands and not the other way around. Verbal support costs a company nothing. A business can profess morality without touching what it values most—its money. Words matter to writers the way money matters to corporations. If an anthology asks me for a poem, I’m not going to send it a loonie. Although it would be far easier to do that.
Imagine yourself on an elevator that’s piping in Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did It Again.” You are ignored until the chorus starts playing. Whenever Britney sings “Oops,” everyone on the elevator turns to you, pulls your arms, gropes your private parts. Then the chorus passes and everyone faces ahead again. Predictable as this rhythm is, every time the chorus rolls around in New York, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin, one nevertheless is surprised by the invasiveness of the dance, the hands all over one’s body.
Violation may be too strong a word to describe the feeling Black writers have after a few media events on racial violence, but the objectification or commodification of Blackness lodges in our bodies. A history of exclusion and under-representation means, quite simply, that there are not enough of us to go around. Those of us with a public profile crash after events.
True to expectation, within a few weeks of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, no more statements appeared from companies. But folks were already infected. People issued personal statements to let others know how engaged they were, how deeply they felt, what good people they were. On Instagram, someone posted a multipart polemic: “Fear of ‘getting political’ on your social media is, at its core, racist.” A little later, the point gets reiterated as an equation: “To sit in silence is to let people die.”
When you read Instagram posts like this, when inanimate systems are animated to issue statements, you find yourself implicated in an explosive, noisy, political landscape. “So where’s your statement? Huh? What are your politics? What is your plan for action? Where will you post it? Are you angry at something? Have you found someone to hate?”
In a culture that demands statements from corporations and pressures individuals to lay their politics bare on inhospitable platforms, many of us have had to rethink how we translate our personal, inarticulate convictions for public inspection. These public declarations are difficult for people who are inclined to privacy and even more complicated if you’re Black. Black people grow wary of the discrepancy between what people claim to believe and how they actually respond to our existence. By middle age, quite battered by the accumulation of false claims, we find it hard to trust and forgive, to accept a hopeful prognosis because of a promise this time round. Here comes the chorus: “Oops, I did it again.”
When the Instagram post declares, “A refusal to post is, at its core, a refusal to give up your comfort. A refusal to give up your power as a privileged individual,” I realize as usual that this post is not meant for me. It suggests that privilege, not the years spent developing composure under a discriminatory system, is what keeps one calm. It fails to see how, for many Black people, the time that the world is prepared to listen does not coincide with the time that we wanted to speak. You can listen to remixes of our equity movements from the 1860s, the 1950s, ’60s—from any decade to the present. The recent statements, militant in tone, decontextualized by virtue of their platforms, give the impression of being revolutionary. They draw up alliances and enemies. “Tell me whether you agree with me or not. Agree with me or else.”
Ian Williams is the author of Reproduction, winner of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His new book is Word Problems, a collection of poetry.