Starting yesterday, several different European football clubs and organizations—the Premier League, the English Football League, the Women’s Super League, the Women’s Championship—began participating in a three-day social media blackout. This blackout is intended to show that these organizations won’t stand for the racial abuse thrown at Black footballers, which was prompted by former Arsenal forward Thierry Henry deleting his social media accounts. Henry’s boycott served as a way to open up conversation about racial discrimination, which the leagues are now hoping to replicate on a much larger scale.
As with many things on social media, the desire to participate in this break from social media has spread across various corners of the globe. Which means, of course, that Formula One drivers have started announcing that they’ll be taking part in a social media blackout, too.
It has raised some difficult questions among the series’ fans, especially as F1 has become a stage upon which conversations regarding racial equality have been playing out. Some people have wondered why it’s so much easier for a driver to take a social media break to protest racist discrimination online than it is for that same driver to kneel before a Grand Prix. Others have wondered why some drivers have completely omitted the word ‘racism’ from their posts announcing their social media breaks, instead opting to speak more generally about online bullying.
It’s a pretty complex subject, so I’m going to try to break it down step-by-step.
My husband sent me Lando Norris’ announcement regarding his social media break on Friday morning and put a few questions to me right away: Why does this break matter? And why are people so upset that Norris went the more general online bullying route if online bullying is still a thing that needs to be addressed?
While there’s plenty of debate about whether or not silence is an appropriate way to solve problems, it is obvious that this social media boycott is one thing: a symbol of unity. It’s a way for various members of different communities to join hands and say, “We’re with you.” It’s less about the immediate pursuit of change via political action or online policies; it’s mainly a gesture of solidarity.
Gestures do not inherently solve the world’s problems, but they do provide a meaningful way to engage with difficult topics like, in this case, racial discrimination. Symbols, in a more general sense, provide a way for us to interact with our world; we don’t need words to understand what a red hexagon is asking of us. Symbolic actions of solidarity expand on that basic concept. They serve as signals to let others know what social groups you subscribe to and what you believe in.
The social media blackout serves the same symbolic purpose as standing for the National Anthem or putting your pronouns in your Twitter bio (and yes, those are rhetorically similar actions!). When you stand for the National Anthem, you signal your allegiance to the country in a way that is entirely symbolic; you’re not completing an action that directly contributes to the country, like voting, paying taxes, or enlisting in the military. When you include your pronouns in your Twitter bio, you signal that you recognize transgender identities as legitimate but aren’t pursuing a more activist bent in, say, writing to your local politicians.
In both instances, you thoughtfully complete a very simple gesture as a way to show your inclusion in a specific group. That action serves as a signal to others, letting them know that you’re, say, a conventionally patriotic person or that you oppose racist discrimination. This social media blackout serves the same symbolic purpose; it signals your beliefs about racial equality. It doesn’t change anything—it doesn’t, say, force Twitter to better police instances of harassment—but it serves the important purpose of showing that you, as a person, oppose this specific ill. And simply encouraging that visibility can be an important step.
At the end of the day, this gesture is less about whether or not you personally have experienced racist harassment and is more about showing that you stand with a group of people who feel that online racial harassment is intolerable.
Now, let’s say you decide to join this social media blackout, but your official post noting your position makes a general statement about online bullying but does not mention, specifically, the racist discrimination that lies at the heart of this movement. Where does that leave you?
We’re entering murky ground here. You’re kind of hovering on the borderline of showing solidarity without actually going so far as to say it—and it takes away from the meaning of both your personal gesture and the intention of the larger movement.
It is, in some ways, like standing for the anthem… except you don’t put your hand over your heart, remove your hat, or stop talking. You’re performing part of the symbolic action that conveys your national respect, but you’re also performing other symbolic actions that are at odds with the initial action.
It’s also kind of like improperly using a slang word. Saying “yeet” indicates that you’re part of the kind of hip youth culture that uses that word, but using it in the wrong context (“that shirt is so yeet”) puts you at odds with the image you’re trying to convey. You look silly, and the people who appropriately use “yeet” are going to be annoyed.
There’s no doubt that online bullying, in general, is hot garbage. It’s not okay to be a dick to someone just because you can do it through an anonymous venue. But that’s not what this social media boycott is about, and trying to make it about something else signals a kind of annoying callousness that accompanies a dude saying, “Well, men face harmful stereotypes, too,” at a meeting that’s specifically tackling the way cis women experience harassment in the workplace. Yes, you are definitely right, and we’d definitely be on your side in a normal instance—but this is not the time, nor is it the place, and trying to advocate for your cause in this specific context not only diminishes the purpose of the whole meeting, but it also kinda makes you look like an asshole.
And now we come to one of the stickier concerns: why not just take advantage of the scheduled pre-race moment to kneel, which is designed to show that F1 is a front united against racism?
It’s tough to parse out. You have someone like Lando Norris, who kneels before every race, taking a social media blackout in opposition to online harassment, generally, and avoiding the word ‘racism.’ Then you have Charles Leclerc, who does not kneel, joining the movement and specifically calling out racism. Why wouldn’t Norris specifically mention racism? And why would Leclerc? Why are some forms of activism easier than others?
I’m going to address that last question first, because a lot of it comes down to action versus inaction. Taking a knee is a very symbolically charged action. It’s a thing you have to do, and you usually have to choose to do it with the heavy weight of cultural connotations on your shoulders. As a driver, you’re also doing it physically, in public, adorned with the team and sponsor’s logos that you are paid money to represent.
Let’s compare that to a social media boycott, which is, in contrast, a lot easier. Instead of having to do something, you are instead not doing something. Your action is defined by inaction, which kind of makes life easier for you, because you’re a lot less likely to piss off a sponsor who paid good money to put a logo on your politically neutral car. If you yourself are actually absent from the cause you’re fighting for, it becomes a lot easier to do something, because in reality, you aren’t doing anything.
Think about the ‘End Racism’ t-shirts that everyone on the grid wore last year during the pre-race ceremonies. That’s an action defined by inaction, because it was requested by F1.
And then there’s the inclusion of Carlos Sainz Jr., whose tweet about the blackout was perhaps the most sensitive to the issues at hand. But Sainz Jr. has also repeatedly chosen not to kneel, his family’s karting business has been embroiled in a blackface scandal, and he’s also made jokes about a Chinese restaurant in Shanghai possibly serving him cat—which makes his strongly-worded message about opposing racism fall a little flat. Some fans have used Sainz Jr. as an example of the fact that we need more conversation and education, not silence.
Where does that leave Norris and Leclerc? It’s hard to say, since the process of making these decisions are highly personal and are influenced by factors that these folks are both conscious and unconscious of. You’re also dealing with folks who are required, by the nature of their profession, to face the public but who may not even be aware of the nuance that accompanies their choice of words or actions.
I also had someone ask me: what about Sebastian Vettel, who doesn’t have social media, or the countless other people who don’t use Twitter or who might be taking a break this weekend for other reasons? Basically, being away from social media doesn’t inherently mean you’re standing for the same cause. It could just be accidental. Hence why it’s important to put words to your actions and explain why you’re making them.
At the end of the day, it’s a strongly-charged situation, but my goal here has been to lay out the thought processes behind the importance of the boycott and, in addition, why people are upset about seemingly conflicting concerns. It’s not easy to parse out, but it’s the nature of our evolving society.