What happens beyond the Black Squares?
It’s been just over two weeks since we witnessed a mass of black squares appear on Instagram.
We all watched as #BlackOutTuesday flooded our feeds on 2nd June: shared by friends, followers and brands, posting them in an attempt to express solidarity with those protesting the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (and despairingly there are more names to add to this morbid roll call of Black lives taken), and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
What originally started as #TheShowMustBePaused (a social media protest set up by Black music industry executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyeman), you would see the black square posted over and over again, often frustratingly with #BlackLivesMatter tagged into it which in turn, drowned out vital resources that were being shared on the BLM hashtag.
I was one of the millions of IG users who posted a black square. And I will also freely admit that I grappled with the idea of keeping it on my feed, wondering, like many other folks on social media platforms, if posting it could be doing more harm than good.
I kept my square up. But I also kept an eye on brands and publications in the cycling and outdoor industry who also posted black squares. It would be remiss of me not to, as they’re the circles I’ve moved in – sometimes uncomfortably – for the past 10 years.
Some squares were shared with just the hashtag and nothing more; others with mission statements, promising to ‘be better’ and ‘do more’. In an ideal world, I’d have felt encouraged seeing some of these goliath brands and publications coming out in solidarity – but it’s not an ideal world. It was impossible not to feel sceptical about the sudden outpouring of diversity, equity and inclusion sentiments and strategies when it’s taken the death of yet another Black man and the BLM movement to ignite the blue touch paper for some cycling and outdoor brands to take a stand and promise to make changes.
Being on a bike means the world to me, but it’s also been my world to speak out on the lack of diversity, inclusion and the blinkered ignorance on this matter in the industry too. When you repeatedly bear witness to zero changes and no engagement being offered, it makes you question if anything will ever really progress.
Black people have been engaged in discussions about feeling like we’re left out and not reflected in the cycling and outdoor industry for the longest time. A lot of us out there have been speaking on this and saying exactly the same things for the longest time. It’s absolutely exhausting, very often demoralising and proves that we still have to shout even louder than the last time to be heard. I know for me at least, it’s been the last 10 years I’ve been on a bike, and I’m still talking about it. I’ve lost count of the amount of panels, workshops, focus groups, campaigns and discussions I’ve been part of – all seemingly positive ones – expecting and hoping to see a shift in the narrative and it falling completely flat. Even when I was fully employed in the cycling industry, there were plenty of times when working to a brand ethos for change and inclusivity felt like utter bullshit.
I’m tired of feeling like I’m losing my voice, and having my voice along with my worth shot down, repeatedly.
It’s been fascinating to watch wider discussions opening up on social media as the BLM movement gathers incredible momentum. Take a moment out of your day to look at the #PublishingPaidMe tag on Twitter for some insightful and eye-watering conversations in the world of publishing. Grab a cup of tea and scroll through some being spilled on the @InfluencerPayGap account on Instagram. Frank discussions on influencer work, and what it’s like to move in those circles as a Black woman for the past 10 years have brought back painful memories. I spoke out on the wild experience I had with a major outdoor/active publication (and then their subsequent comeback to me), which I’d been too embarrassed to talk about before. I was also reminded of experiences I had within the television industry (once upon a time I used to work as a presenter), and being point-blank told I was ‘misinformed’ about the fee I was entitled to even though I’d done my homework, knew what I was talking about and spoke to people in the industry who did similar work and advised me on what it should be. I loved the idea of doing more television work, but that’s never been the case since.
But I just sucked it all up. I sucked it all up because I knew what the repercussions of simply and confidently standing up for yourself as a Black woman would be. It feels absolutely MAD to be afraid to speak out on things because of fear. There is the very real fear of being labelled ‘difficult to work with’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘feisty’ and the fear that you’ll lose further work opportunities if you say something. Seriously. As highlighted in an ace blog post by Marcus Ryder, there is ‘the very real issue of the repercussions Black people face when speaking our truth’, whether in public or at work.
So, what happens next?
I know I’ll still be ‘Lady Velo’ and will also continue to use my voice, even though me doing this appears to have come as a surprise to some. Discovering folks in what I call my ‘Cycling Family’ who I thought have had my back since forever and actually don’t, has been eye-opening. You might think of me as being a sad person for keeping an eye on who’s staying silent and who is literally dropping off my radar by unfollowing me in all of this, but it’s an absolute education on who your allies are.
I’ll still be me, so I’m not going to apologise for being ‘a bit too much’ for you at the moment or if being associated with me in cycling is now ‘way too political’ for you. I’m not going to apologise for speaking up, or clogging up your feed with images that are not just tasty looking bikes, smart kit, beautiful vistas from a saddle, and banging outfits. Yes, I post about that stuff… but not all of the time. I’ve been like this from the start but this comes as a surprise to some of you… now?
I’d love to be able to just tune-out of all of this madness and go on nothing but a permanent self-care vacation. But for me and other Black folks like me out there, this madness is every day. None of us wants to be talking about just this stuff all the time. Even when we switch off from the news and social media and try our best not to scroll through what’s going on, we’re constantly scrolling through this shit in our minds, over and over again. I wish I had the luxury of being able to completely switch off and not worry about anything and just ride it out on my bike – but that’s not how it is.
The sound of me speaking my truths in cycling and what I’ve experienced – good AND bad – it’s always been activism. My cycling has always been a form of activism – even when you don’t clock it as that. The sight of me on my bike, filling up your feeds for other Black people out there to see me and know that we exist in this world – it’s always been activism.
So what happens next for these brands and industries?
I say this to all of the brands I’ve ever worked with (even those outside of cycling), and those who I’ve yet to have dealings with for many reasons: Your mission statements to be more diverse and inclusive, making things more equitable, and implementing changes have to be acted upon, but in a correct manner: If it’s taken you until this moment to realise you need to do something/take action, perhaps have a think about why that is. Reflection is also key here. Do it, but do it right.
Seeing some of you coming out in support of Black Lives Matter and change is long overdue. It’s a long overdue fight against systemic racism… but this momentum has to continue. Don’t let this just be a performative and disingenuous moment on your part.
As many of you go back to your daily lives, all of this still continues. You need to still stand with us and your mission statements when #BlackLivesMatter is no longer trending. Be about the continued action, and not just about the rhetoric because it suits the mood and gets you bonus clicks. We are watching you on this. We always have been (even if you’ve not been looking at us and we are RIGHT under your nose), and we always will be.
Black lives and experiences will still matter, even if you’ve decided to stop tweeting or ‘gramming about it.