BLM-washing: the case for a new term

Amazon faced criticism in June 2020 when it voiced its ‘support’ for the Black Lives Matter movement despite having sold its racially biased facial recognition software to a number of police forces across the US.

Sunday, 23rd August, the National Trust posted a thread on Twitter as a part of its commemoration of UNESCO’s Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. In the thread, the Trust acknowledged and explained the links between various artefacts in its collections and colonial-era slavery.

A significant number of users responded to what they saw as the ‘politicisation’ of the National Trust, with many threatening to cancel their memberships.

The National Trust’s post marks their admission to an ever growing group of organisations that have recently chosen to speak out about racism in the UK today and about the deep and troubling links between modern-day Britain and its slaving past.

On 2nd June, a huge number of individuals took part in ‘Blackout Tuesday’ on Instagram, with each user posting a solitary black square in protest against racial inequality and police brutality.

The blackout started as a movement in the music industry under the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused, but it quickly grew into something much bigger. In almost no time at all, Instagram was camouflaged against the background of the new zeitgeist, its feeds transformed into walls of black squares.

Some criticised the performative nature of the blackout. Activist and graphic designer Dominique Roberts called the blackout a display of “performative allyship” and said, “it’s centered around you.”

Roberts is right. For many, blackout participation was an inconsequential, isolated act. Lots of the blackout’s participants only posted a black square without, for instance, doing any meaningful research or self-education, and without protesting in any other way. Worse still, some blackout participants were undoubtedly under the impression that, in having completed their one-post protest, they had done their bit and could rest easy.

I’ve never experienced racism, so I’d be lying if I claimed to understand how frustrating that must be.

It’s clear that Britain has begun to think about its racist past and its racist present more intently in recent months. Individuals have expressed their allegiance to the BLM movement en masse and — possibly because of the weight of individual expression — organisations have begun to do the same in ever-increasing numbers. Britain’s racist past and present has perhaps received more attention in recent months than ever before.

But paying attention isn’t enough. We don’t just need to post black squares and say we support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Modern racism is so much more complicated than that — its systemic, structural and pernicious. What Britain needs to do is come to terms with its racist past and its differently racist (but still racist) present. That requires some serious thinking.

Some might say that the widespread nature of recent support for the BLM movement in the UK is a sign that Britain has already come to terms with its racist past and present. They are wrong. As a country, we have a very long way to go. The vocal minority that responded with such hostility to the National Trust’s efforts to improve the accuracy and balance of the historical information about their collections is a perfect example of the continuing existence of those who haven’t even begun to engage with the issues at hand. The vast numbers of people who failed to realise the futility of just posting a black square on Instagram are more worrying still.

That being said, the National Trust also presents an excellent example of how organisations can lead the way in coming to terms with Britain’s slaving past and racist present. Its post, unlike those made by Blackout Tuesday participants, was the very opposite of performative. Rather than simply signalling its allegiance, it used its platform and influence to educate the public about Britain’s deep links to slavery. It did something that undoubtedly made many people think about their own relationship with slavery. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to a nation coming to terms with its past, rather than just superficially looking as though it has.

Widespread expressions of support or allegiance are obviously beneficial when it comes to raising awareness but, as we’ve seen, they’re prone to being performative. A performative expression of support is characterised by a lack of accompanying meaningful action and, as such, it’s likely to do very little to improve the situation beyond surface-level awareness-raising. A non-performative expression of support, by contrast, is likely to improve the situation by improving individuals’ understanding, making company policies fairer, or just making people think.

This is why “performative allyship” is so problematic. When it is widespread, not only does it achieve very little beyond surface-level awareness raising, it gives people the impression (a) that they fully understand the complex nature of racism today, and (b) that we as a society have already made leaps and bounds in coming to terms with our racist past and present. Neither (a) nor (b) are true.

Like Dominique Roberts, you might think that individuals should be called out for engaging in performative allyship. I agree, but I can certainly see the argument that, at this point, raising surface-level awareness is better than nothing.

The case of organisations is, as I see it, less controversial. Performative expressions of allegiance to the BLM movement on the part of organisations are absolutely unacceptable and should be called out at every opportunity.

Organisations usually have greater influence than individuals, and that influence ought to bring with it greater responsibility. The risk of disengagement is generally lower when calling out an organisation compared to an individual — indeed, the more harshly and the more publicly an organisation is shamed, the more likely they are to listen and change — and the overall potential impact of any resulting change is usually greater.

I’m calling for a new term to allow us to succinctly call out a particularly awful and hypocritical type of performative allyship where organisations proclaim their support for the BLM movement whilst failing to tackle racism behind the scenes, or even whilst exacerbating it.

I call it BLM-washing.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a type of marketing spin that involves the deceptive use of green, leafy marketing to falsely imply that products are environmentally friendly.

British Petroleum’s marketing is a particularly notorious example of greenwashing. The company claims that its ‘Helios’ logo, which it adopted in 2000, represents “energy in its many forms”. If BP’s case tells us anything, it’s that greenwashing works: a 2008 survey found that consumers perceived BP to be one of the greenest petroleum companies in the world.

Companies that practice greenwashing signal to the public that they care about environmental issues when their policies and behind-the-scenes practices either do nothing to protect the environment or, worse, actively perpetuate its destruction.

The term greenwashing is helpful because it gives us a succinct way of calling these companies out. Covering product packaging in green hues and leafy patterns is pointless, and profiting from public concerns about the environment whilst continuing to destroy it in the background is grossly immoral.

BP vs. Blackout Participants

Although there are many parallels between greenwashing and individual performative allyship, there are some key differences.

BP implicitly signalled its ‘greenness’ with the sole intention of preventing their profits from being harmed by growing public concern about the environment. As I see it, many blackout participants expressed honest views about racism, undeveloped and unsupported by further actions though they may have been.

What many blackout participants did by failing to properly reflect the sentiments of their one-post protest in their actions was, at worst, thoughtless hypocrisy, or perhaps a sort of moral negligence.

What BP and other companies do by greenwashing, by contrast, is worse than thoughtlessness or negligence. It’s calculated exploitation. It’s the sort of behaviour that makes it clear that the organisation doesn’t honestly hold or hasn’t honestly developed a view on the issue they’re claiming to support.

A company that markets itself as green whilst quietly continuing to destroy the Amazon, for instance, hasn’t developed an honest view about the environment. The company doesn’t have a view on the environment. Its only view is that it doesn’t care and it wants bigger profits.

As a variety of performative allyship, this is what makes greenwashing so disgusting. It’s the fact that the organisation has the audacity to associate itself with environmental responsibility when it actually doesn’t give a damn.

BLM-washing

BLM-washing is a sister term to greenwashing. BLM-washing is when an organisation cloaks itself in BLM messaging and marketing without taking enough anti-racist action in its own ranks or, worse, whilst actually perpetuating racism and racial inequality behind the scenes.

In recent months, a number of organisations have faced criticism for actions that may amount to what I’m calling BLM-washing. They range from Amazon and Twitch to the British Museum and Frontline (a graduate scheme for social work).

Some of these cases are particularly heinous. Amazon, for instance, exploited the BLM movement for its own gain when it adopted BLM messaging despite having recently, directly and knowingly proliferated structural racism in law enforcement technology in exchange for cash. Other cases are characterised by negligence rather than premeditation. Frontline, for instance, adopted BLM messaging despite having put apparently no thought whatsoever into its own policies and practices.

To be clear, I’m advocating a broad definition of BLM-washing, which includes cases where organisations ignorantly adopt BLM messaging despite not having done enough to take thoughtful and balanced anti-racist action internally. In this sense, my conception of BLM-washing is broader than the concept of greenwashing, which typically doesn’t apply if an organisation refrains from damaging the environment without actively taking steps to protect it.

My hope is that discussing these four examples will clarify what I mean by BLM-washing whilst also making it clear how important it is that we have a term that allows us to identify it and succinctly call it out.

Amazon

In June 2020, Amazon faced criticism for sharing statements supporting the BLM movement and police reform.

The landing page of Amazon’s website on 4th June 2020.

On Twitter and on its website, Amazon highlighted “the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people” in the US and changed its cover photo to a BLM banner with the tagline “Amazon stands in solidarity with the Black community”.

Public documents released in 2018 showed that Amazon had sold its facial recognition software, Rekognition, to a number of police forces.

As far back as 2015, Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a leader in the Black Lives Matter network, issued warnings that Rekognition, if sold, would become a tool of surveillance that would disproportionately target Black communities.

Cyril was right. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) ran an experiment on Rekognition around two months after the news emerged of its sale. The experimenters used the software to run the faces of every member of US Congress against a database of the mugshots of people who had been arrested for a crime. The software disproportionately misidentified the faces of non-white members of Congress with mugshots on the database. People of colour accounted for only 20% of Congress members and yet 39% of the false matches Rekognition made involved Congresspeople of colour. Put simply, the software was racially biased.

Make no mistake about the gravity of these facts. Amazon sold racially biased facial recognition software to police forces across the US. This software was actually used in law enforcement. Decisions to use force were based on the outputs of this software. Arrests were based on the outputs of this software. When mistakes were made on the basis of software errors, non-white people were disproportionately the victims.

Amazon was happy to rake in the cash every step of the way.

Amazon’s failure to acknowledge concerns over Rekognition would be enough on its own to make this a strong case of BLM-washing. Incredibly, Amazon plays a number of other highly problematic roles in the perpetuation and exacerbation of structural (and indeed explicit) racism. The company remains the last large advertiser on Breitbart, the far-right news outlet. It has also been criticised for enabling racial profiling through its commercial partnerships between Ring and over 200 US police departments and for maltreatment of workers in its warehouses, which was found to disproportionately affect Black workers. I could go on.

This is a case of BLM-washing. It’s a particularly awful case because, not only was Amazon failing to take adequate anti-racist action in its own ranks, it was actually exacerbating structural racism whilst claiming to do the opposite.

I’ll get a little technical here — this is a strong case of BLM-washing. What makes this a strong case, as opposed to a weak one, is the fact that Amazon’s adoption of BLM messaging constituted premeditated exploitation of the BLM movement for its own profit. In a weak case, by contrast, an organisation’s BLM-washing betrays ignorance and a lack of thought rather than premeditation. This neatly mirrors the distinction between blackout participants (weak) and BP (strong).

The case of Frontline, which I’ll discuss later, is a good example of weak BLM-washing.

Twitch

Twitch, a live streaming platform for gamers, also faced criticism when it posted a video in support of the BLM movement.

The video itself, which Twitch later deleted, was dominated by footage of white content creators. Only 11 seconds of the film featured Black content creators, despite the fact that a significant proportion of users and creators on the platform are Black.

In June, a number of streamers called for a day-long Twitch blackout (essentially a temporary boycott) as a way of calling on the site to do more to act on incidents of racial and sexual abuse.

Twitch’s case certainly isn’t as appalling as that of Amazon, its parent company. Although the platform has well-known and long-standing diversity and inclusion issues, it has made attempts to remedy them by, amongst other things, appointing Katrina Jones as new head of Diversity and Inclusion.

Perhaps this is a case of BLM-washing, although it does seem to me that Twitch has a nascent honest view on racial issues that it’s beginning to reflect in its actions, albeit with some hiccups along the way. The question for me is whether its negligence in the production of its BLM video and in its historic management of racial issues betrays a lack of any real view on racism or a genuine view beset by carelessness.

Twitch, for me, sits on the borderline between a weak case of BLM-washing and a non-case. I’ll leave readers to make up their own minds.

The British Museum

British cities are still dotted with inherently venerating statues of slave traders. Treasures and artefacts looted from former British colonies still sit in British museums. These lingering remnants of Britain’s slaving past are familiar sights in modern Britain.

With that in mind, you might think it ill-advised for the British Museum, loot-exhibitors-in-chief, to issue a pretty uncompromising statement in support of the BLM movement. But that’s exactly what it did.

In a statement released on 5th June, the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, wrote, “We are aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere”. Quite a bold start. He went on to say that the protests at the murder of George Floyd had “brought home how deep the experience of racism is for so many in our societies” and referred to “injustices that must be overcome”.

Enter, stage left, the Benin Bronzes. The Bronzes are a set of plaques and sculptures that were looted from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin — in what is now modern-day Nigeria — by British troops in 1897. They continue to be held by the British Museum to this day. Nigeria has repeatedly requested the return of the Bronzes since it gained independence in 1960. In June 2018, it was forced to consider accepting a temporary return of the Bronzes as a loan. Other nations whose stolen historical artefacts are held by the museum have refused to accept loans of their own stolen property.

I don’t know what it’s like for a Nigerian person to walk around the British Museum and see their country’s ancient artefacts still being held by their country’s former colonial oppressor, more than 60 years after independence, but I don’t imagine it’s a particularly pleasant experience. Perhaps such an experience is the sort of thing Fischer was imagining when he wrote of just how “deep the experience of racism is for so many in our societies”. Perhaps the museum’s continued stranglehold on artefacts such as the Bronzes is one of the many “injustices that must be overcome” that Fischer wrote about.

Of course not.

The museum’s newfound deep understanding and its desire to remedy injustices past and present doesn’t extend that far. It continues to embody a particularly heinous variety of white, post-colonial arrogance. The museum’s statement on the BLM movement unleashed a Twitter storm of criticism.

You might point out that the British Museum didn’t come out in support of BLM for purely profit-related reasons, as Amazon did. That’s probably true, and it makes this a case of weak BLM-washing, in the technical sense.

I think it would also be fair to point out that the museum expressed genuine concern about racism — especially violent racism — in the USA and elsewhere. The problem, though, is that the museum engaged in some pretty shameless cherry-picking when it selected the domain in which it was prepared to be concerned about the effects of racism and racial inequality — law enforcement was in, its own collections were firmly out.

Frontline

Frontline runs a number of training programmes for social workers, which it says are aimed at “developing excellent social work practice and leadership”. Its main programme is a two-year fast-track graduate programme leading to qualification as a social worker, with an optional master’s degree.

On 2nd June, Frontline posted a statement in support of BLM on its social media channels. In the statement, the organisation acknowledged that it could do more to stand against racism and inequality. It went on to provide a rather vague list of ways in which it would do this before saying “we especially want black colleagues and participants to know: Frontline is standing with you.”

For many Black colleagues and participants Frontline’s statement rang hollow. Many chose to voice their concerns on Instagram. “How exactly are you standing with black colleagues and participants?” one participant asked. Another said:

“I feel as though it is continually down to black participants on the frontline [sic] programme to highlight issues around race to leadership… Participants are feeling let down but not surprised by this late response.”

On Twitter, one user also pointed out that, whilst 36% of those accepted for social work courses in general identify as BAME, figures are much lower for Frontline participants. Frontline’s first cohort of 104 participants contained just two Black trainees and a government report in 2016 found that Frontline participants were more likely to be from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and to have gone to private schools and Russell Group universities than trainees on other routes.

Frontline’s statement made it clear that it had assumed it was doing enough as an organisation without really having given the matter anything near the amount of thought it deserves.

Frontline’s social media statement on the BLM movement was another example of weak BLM-washing. Frontline thought itself justified in posting a rather gushing statement in support of BLM when it was clear that it hadn’t done anything near enough to combat racial inequality and injustice internally. That level of negligence in any organisation is unacceptable, but it’s especially unacceptable when that same organisation explicitly claims that it ‘stands with’ its Black participants despite providing insufficient support.

Why call out BLM-washing?

One word: change.

Calling an organisation out for BLM-washing isn’t a call for it to fall silent, it’s a call for it to act.

All four of the organisations I’ve accused of BLM-washing were criticised at the time, usually with charges of ‘hypocrisy’ or similar. All four of the organisations I’ve written about listened and changed.

In June, Amazon withdrew its Rekognition software following the backlash over its support for the BLM movement.

Twitch, as I explained above, withdrew their ill-advised film shortly after release. Hopefully any future support that the company expresses for the BLM movement will be more impactful and well-considered.

The British Museum hasn’t given back the stolen parts of its collections. No surprise there. However, in August, it did take the decision to replace its rather grand and venerating statue of its founder, the slave-owning Hans Sloane, with a series of artefacts that put his work in the context of the British Empire and the slave trade. This following so closely after the lambasting it received for its BLM statement is surely no coincidence.

Following the criticism it received on social media, Frontline apologised for the statement it made. It took some time for consideration, and then issued a more specific and tangible ‘Racial Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan’.

Clearly, calling these organisations out can be done without having a specific term like BLM-washing. These organisations were called out, and it forced them to be better. It forced them to take more meaningful and appropriate action. It forced them to take the sort of action that helps a country like Britain actually come to terms with its racist past and present, rather than just adding to an orgy of performative expressions of allegiance.

I believe that by adopting BLM-washing as a term, and by developing a clear, shared understanding of what BLM-washing is and why it’s problematic, we can bring about more of this sort of change, more quickly.

Perhaps then more organisations can begin to realise that supporting the BLM movement is about more than just PR or social media presence, it’s about taking action. Perhaps that in turn will lead to more members of the public realising the same.

Mark Paul is a Philosophy post-graduate student at King's College London. Find him on Twitter @m_s_paul.

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