On June 2, 2020, otherwise known as Blackout Tuesday, countless people posted a black square to their Instagram feeds in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing protests for racial justice and against police brutality. While well-intentioned, the black squares also clogged up the #blm and #blacklivesmatter hashtags, which were used to disseminate important protest information.
Nora Maxwell, a 24-year-old biracial Black woman, posted an Instagram story of about 15 slides in response to the phenomenon, where she warned against the performative activism that can result from posts like Blackout Tuesday, and defined white fragility, specifically for her white and non-Black POC followers.
For our series on youth activism, we talked to several young activists about their passions and how they’ve changed the world for the better. Maxwell’s story, like others in our series, illustrates millennials’ and Gen Z’s unique voice and reach. In her case, Maxwell turned her Instagram from a personal photo sharing platform to a valuable resource in allyship.
At the time, she had little more than 1,000 followers, mostly friends, family, and personal acquaintances. It was also her first Instagram story about antiracism and allyship. As of December 2020, her follower count has grown and she says her posts are shared up to 4,000 times each, mostly by strangers who value her digital lessons on how to be a sustainable ally to Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“One of the biggest things I was processing [this summer] was, for what felt like the first time at least in my life, there was so much national focus on this issue of racism, of police brutality, of just general racial injustice in the US,” Maxwell said. “And my fear was, when is this trend going to move on? And how can we keep the conversation going for longer than just a passing week or month or however long the attention was going to last on the issue?”
As the summer went on, and as her following grew, Maxwell continued posting her digital lessons. They focused on topics like implicit bias, ongoing action, and “ally fatigue,” subjects she felt resonated mainly with her white and non-Black POC followers, as they were the ones who most often reposted or directly replied to the posts.
“I would say probably 75% of my posts are targeted to white people who are trying to become better allies, or trying to implement antiracism in their life. There’s a good chunk of my posts that also apply to non-Black POCs. And then there actually are a few posts too, that I think could apply to everybody, no matter the race. For example, I did a story on colorism, and that is something that we as Black people certainly perpetuate, and that is something that I think everybody needs to talk more and learn more about.”
The stories quickly grew to use 100 total slides, the maximum amount that Instagram allows. While her stories are long, they’re designed to be digestible – each slide consists of small chunks of easily read text, accompanied by eye-catching graphics and interactive content that hopes to keep the reader engaged. Once the 24 hours of her live story passes, she saves each lesson to a highlight on her profile, where anyone can revisit them.
Keeping up her content is a time- and labor-intensive hobby; Maxwell said that she could easily spend 40 hours a week researching and crafting her posts, on top of her full time job.
But it’s more than worth it, as Maxwell is very passionate about her Instagram activism. In addition to educational posts, she also uses it to hold successful digital fundraisers for local, community-based nonprofits like The Loveland Foundation, Assata’s Daughters, and Trans Justice Funding Project. To date, she says her fundraisers have raised about $10,000 spread across multiple organizations.
Because Maxwell identifies as biracial and Black, she emphasizes that a big reason as to why she feels called to do this work is her own privilege amongst the Black community.
“I do feel like I have a responsibility as somebody with more privilege within the Black community to be amplifying voices that are not my own, and also educating white people, which is a burden for any person of color to do. My goal is to never take away the platform from somebody who experiences more oppression than I do. It’s something I’ve tried to keep in mind and use to center myself in the work I do.”
While she currently has no plans to take on Instagram as a full time job, Maxwell is early in her professional life and wants to continue prioritizing antiracism and allyship work, in whatever form that may take.
Here’s what else she wants you to know:
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. What’s one piece of advice that you’d give young people looking to get involved in activism?
“I think there’s something I have sort of conveyed in a lot of my Instagram stories, to not underestimate the power of your own network and the size of your own platform. Sometimes it can feel a little weird to get up on your soapbox if only five people are listening. But really, I think people underestimate the power that they have over their circles.
Young people especially, while we may lack power in more institutional spaces, like workplaces, we do hold power in our own social circles, our families, our larger communities. It’s OK if it takes you a long time to say it, you don’t have to say it perfectly. Say it and start somewhere, and I think you would be surprised by how many people are willing to listen.”
2. Why are young people’s voices integral in allyship and antiracism work?
“I think the fearlessness of young people is so needed. [We have] a bluntness from growing up in a more politically active, civically engaged, social justice-oriented climate. For young people, I feel like it’s encouraged [for us] to be like, ‘I’m just gonna say this, and I don’t care if you don’t like it, like, you’re boomers. I’m gonna say what I want.’
And one of the most poignant things is, [we] are the people that are now bearing the burden of these multiple and compounding crises that have been created by the older generations and politicians for the past decades. Now all at once, people are experiencing a climate catastrophe, and insane racial inequality, police brutality, student loan debt crises, all of this is happening at once. So this is now the generation that is left with all of this, [we] are the ones who live through this. So I think people are willing to listen to us.”
3. What are some tools or resources that budding young activists can use to inform and propel their activism?
“The first thing that comes to mind for me would just to be active on social media. Where I found the most help has been Twitter and Instagram, because there are so many people doing amazing work, and also disseminating their information via social media. If you don’t know what your first step is, take the lead from all of these youth-led organizing and activism groups. I also think it’s really helpful to just find people that you look up to and want to emulate. I think a wonderful example that I think everybody feels is AOC. Something that feels really inspirational about her is that she has made being a Congresswoman and being a politician accessible, especially for Gen Z and people who are active on social media.”
4. What would you tell someone who feels disillusioned with politics or the current state of the world? Why is it still important to get involved?
“I think when you make it really, really small, like, ‘Well, what can I do in my school, or in my classroom, in my workplace, in my home with my family?’ that is really where real change happens and where it starts. That’s what grassroots organizing is based on, is that we can affect change by building movements within our own small little pockets of the world.”