Color dissonance: many critique the possible posturing behind social media activism

Amid a sea of information overload in bold text, students question the sincerity behind ASU’s announcements to protect their diverse student body

It has to be bold and pastel to fit the theme; it should have large text with a wide typeface and follow an “assert, prove and explain" model. 

Kay Shao checks these requirements off a list as she designs vibrant graphics for the Instagram page @bluevirtu. The page was founded in July of this year, and what started as an attempt to create a literary space for BIPOC quickly grew into an educational resource for over 10,800 followers and counting. 

Shao, an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville pursuing a degree in human and organizational development, founded the website and Instagram page with one goal in mind: to learn and unlearn simultaneously. The Blue Virtu team is comprised of over 40 collaborators between the ages of 13 and 40, of various non-white backgrounds. 

“We want to continuously strive to replace older intellectual moral ideas with newer and more equitable ones,” Shao explained. 

Shao is one of many of the growing number of activists taking to Instagram to share their perspective on or post resources about various social movements. The increase in social justice slideshows skyrocketed in June— a reflection of the pedestrian influx that saturated streets across the country in light of George Floyd’s murder and the revived Black Lives Matter movement. 

The overexposed Lightroom “themes” influencers commonly use to coordinate harmonious profiles began to convey more serious tones with monochromatic texts, a phenomenon also seen in more performative acts like the #BlackOutTuesday trend. 

In one attempt to retaliate against this self-serving allyship, a letter signed by more than 300 students and academics was sent to education secretary Gavin Williamson and higher education funding officials, criticizing the racial inequalities many universities still possessed, despite these universities stating support for the racial justice movement. 

ASU takes to Instagram

In parallel, many students took to the comment section below images ASU posted on Instagram in early June to express their resentment regarding a lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some called for the severance of the University’s relationship with the Tempe Police Department, a stark contrast in tone against the bright bubbly yellow theme of the school’s profile that showcases students’ smiling faces.

Although the University did not take a stance on the platform, President Crow sent out an email to students and faculty that condemned “the unfair treatment of individuals based on their race and ethnicity by the very government designed to protect and defend their rights as citizens.” 

“We have always tried to ensure that our visuals and written content represent the diverse communities we serve,” said Kelly Krause, Media and Communications Manager for ASU’s College of Health Solutions, in an email. “This is not new, and we did not adopt this approach for the Black Lives Matter movement because we already had a strong awareness in place to represent the diversity of our community as best we can.”

On July 6 of this year, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced that nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. 

Mark Searle, Executive Vice President and University Provost, issued a statement the next day to reassure students that this announcement would not impact current ASU international students who were or would be enrolled in campus immersion courses at the University.

According to a University spokesperson, the five countries that contributed the most international students to ASU in 2018 were China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, India and the United Arab Emirates. 

President Crow released a statement that read: “The present effort to remove these talented, skilled and generous individuals from America’s economic and cultural landscape is a thoughtless and deeply misguided mistake, and ASU will vehemently oppose any effort to do so.”

The University’s Instagram post regarding the decision was met by criticism in comments such as “okay, now remove ICE on campus” or “I wonder if there’s a financial incentive.”

Luis Zambrano, a senior studying journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and member of ASU’s chapter of Undocumented Students for Education Equity, said he concurred with those criticizing the University.

“I was disappointed by a huge response or seeming lack of accountability of them allowing ICE on campus,” Zambrano said. “And then ASU’s response was ‘well we didn't invite them; one of our clubs that we (have) as an institution did.’ And that goes to the point where ASU presents itself as one thing but allows this kind of stuff to go on under their watch and then wrings their hands of it all.”

The rise of Instagram activism

What used to exist as a space for pictures of puppies and sunsets began to showcase political and human rights outcries. It seemed that anyone, no matter the following, took to Instagram stories to cleanse white guilt or simply share resources with the public. 

So what changed? Paisley M. Benaza, doctoral student of Mass Communication and Socio-Economic Justice at ASU said the sudden spike in self-proclaimed social media activists may have been provoked by a combination of the work of “on-the-ground activists” and as a side effect of quarantine boredom. 

“If that was the way it got to policy change, and the work of the activists and lawyers and everybody who's been doing the justice work for so long finally reached the governors and politicians and the mainstream media, then that was a positive thing,” Benaza said.

She said the platform provides engagement through visual identity. This resource could let any content creator infiltrate a space without fact-checking, but she hopes the tools and opportunities to further educate oneself prevail. 

Instagram’s carousel feature, more commonly known as Instagram stories launched in 2017, has served as an asset for both educational purposes and to make announcements through a growing preference for still images.

Zambrano said recent student protests against ICE on campus were met with hostility from the University, and that he wonders where Crow’s loyalties lie due to recent lack of protection for the immigrant community.

“Whenever I see Border Patrol agents, I have that memory of my family members getting that phone call saying, ‘Hey where's my mom, where's my uncle?’ And scrambling trying to figure out where they are and they've been taken again. It’s just a somber realization that we're going through this again, and it hurts.”

Zambrano said when undocumented students have a question, they tend to ask Undocumented Students for Education Equity or Dreamzone, and he wishes the University itself offered the resources and safe environment their community needs to feel comfortable enough to reach out to the University.

“I'm all for ASU doing more and actually working towards improving its image,” Zambrano said. “I really do hope (President Crow) takes our ideas, and works towards fulfilling ASU’s mission statement.”


Reach the reporter at ivcrespo@asu.edu or follow @ziacrespo on Twitter. 

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