On Sunday night, beauty YouTuber Allana Davison posted a 23-minute long video that opened with a general, brief mention of the protests around the country in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“I don’t feel like it would be right to post a video without acknowledging what is happening in the world,” she says. “I know a lot of the information I’m getting is from Twitter and Instagram, so if you wanted to read more about what is happening right now, I’m going to put a few links in the description box below.” She added: “Spread some love, because that is what’s needed today.”
Davison then launched into the second-to-last installment of her self-created #EverydayMay, a series in which she posts a vlog or a tutorial every day for the month of May, her demeanor switching neatly from concerned and slightly unsure citizen to confident and bubbly influencer.
That Davison gestured to the protests and Floyd’s murder at all is notable, as many of the other YouTubers whose content I consume with alarming regularity have remained unresponsive to the protests. Influencers like Davison and the small swath of beauty YouTubers that I watch in the fleeting moments before sleep are essentially brands, narrowly confined to a set of invisible rules better suited for an inanimate selling machine than an actual person. This authenticity is a carefully constructed facade, engineered to get views and grow an audience. Conveying a genuine sense of authenticity is a surefire way for a brand to attempt a chance at real connection with the consumers whose money is inherent to their survival.
But it fails almost every time. Influencers, on the other hand, are people. Expecting a person to show empathy in the face of law enforcement and other government bodies intent on erasing the humanity of others is not a big ask, but influencers cower to the demands of their audience and the brands that sponsor their content. Their job isn’t to be a mouthpiece for their own personal politics, but to provide a distraction and respite from the world. When the real world erupts in collective crisis, silence around those issues is inexcusable. But saying anything more controversial beyond the generic message of needing love rather than hate is impossible because acknowledging that difficulty takes a kind of self-awareness that most influencers are incapable of inhabiting and requires stepping back from the tried and true tactic of unwavering positivity.
The cognitive dissonance of an actual human being speaking in the same vague, delicate, and ineffectual language used by brands and corporations is jarring and highlights just how much influencers are expected to act as human extensions of the various beauty and lifestyle brands that provide them with sponsorships. Now that the protests around the country are national news and impossible to ignore, influencers’ refusal to act not as brands but as people is much more apparent. Some influencers, like beauty YouTuber Jackie Aina, are adept at doing the work because of an innate understanding of the power of their platform. Aina has long been a refreshing presence in the beauty influencer space, unafraid to share her unvarnished opinions about products or companies that don’t meet the very basic standards for inclusivity. Aina has partnered with brands like Anastasia Beverly Hills and Too Faced for collaborations on products that work for darker-skinned women like herself, and she is unsparing with her criticism when a brand fails to meet the needs of the vast amount of women looking to buy beauty products that actually work for their complexion.
Aina’s public reaction in the face of recent protests is very much in line with her personal brand of authenticity and truth-telling. In her Instagram stories over the last week of May, Aina called out brands like Pretty Little Thing, FashionNova, and Revolve for their silence. “As we know, there are a lot of brands who love capitalizing on black culture, black music, black aesthetic, but are dead silent when it comes to talking about black issues and black struggles in our community,” she said. “So just as much as y’all love hanging out with Ty Dolla $ign, and Saweetie, and Blac Chyna, can y’all at least say something when people are being brutally murdered by cops? Donate to the families affected by this stuff?” This authenticity, which is markedly not manufactured, is an outlier in the beauty influencer space and it is what makes Aina’s fans so devoted.
During #BlackOutTuesday’s confusing rollout, Instagram was flooded with black squares. The messaging was muddled; some posts were tagged #blm or #blacklivesmatter, two hashtags that activists and supporters use to share and disseminate information about protests. Influencer Instagram accounts quickly pivoted from self-promotion to ad-hoc activism. Noted racist Jeffree Star took to his Instagram story Tuesday to repost links to petitions and information on ways to support the cause for his followers; on Wednesday, he addressed his viewers in a bathrobe, using a Snapchat filter that smoothed his skin and added golden butterflies to his hair. “Okay, finally some good fuckin’ news for those who aren’t watching the news or who don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “The officer who killed George Floyd with his knee, his charge went from third-degree to second-degree murder.... Thank god. Real justice is going to happen.”
Speaking up about cataclysmic events only feels authentic when the person behind the message is, too. Influencers whose content makes it seem like they live in a bubble speaking out about police brutality in terms so vague and general that it feels ineffectual is not refreshing, but jarring. “It’s funny. You see all of these content creators and they edge around being somewhat political, but they don’t ever really say what they really think. But she does. She’s laying it on the line,” Moj Mohdara, the CEO and co-founder of BeautyCon, told Buzzfeed in 2019. As other influencers grapple with their discomfort in real-time, the results of those mental gymnastics come off as vague and ineffectual, and fatuous—much like the language employed by brands that, as Alex Jung noted at Vulture, have co-opted the “language of the activist left” to reassure their consumers that they are there for them, too. This behavior is born out of the Twitter-era conception that, at least on social media, brands must behave like people.
But it’s not that the language doesn’t exist: It’s worth noting that many white influencers, especially in the beauty space, are usually very careful with their words when it comes to blanket callouts for inclusivity in the beauty space. Ever since Fenty Beauty launched in 2017 with 40 shades of foundation covering both ends of the spectrum, beauty influencers have been diligent to call out other new product launches that don’t meet these standards. When it comes to this particular issue, beauty influencers are exacting with their language. A concealer that might work for a white influencer in the summertime when she is “tan” or “bronze” isn’t too dark, it’s “deep.” While “dark” is the more accurate descriptor for a color that is literally shades darker than another, “deep” is neutered and safe, removed from any possible racist connotations. If an influencer can undertake the kind of mental gymnastics required to be inclusive in their language when reviewing a foundation launch, then it would stand to reason that they could do the same when addressing police brutality.
Taking up social justice work with the vigor of someone in the honeymoon stage of a new relationship is vacuous but it could perhaps spur at least change within the community. In a best-case scenario, the authenticity that influencers are now tentatively embracing by urging their followers to sit up and pay attention to the news could transform into something more. Lists of black-owned beauty brands and influencers proliferate on Instagram now, amidst cries for justice and links for followers to sign petitions. The public performance of allyship might eventually calcify into real, sustained, work, behind the scenes, but influencers have a duty to their fans and to themselves—to recognize that they are people with opinions and to use their platforms for good.
The choice between selling and influencing shouldn’t be difficult, but for an influencer to really use their platform, it means risking their brand for the sake of actually saying something instead of offering empty platitudes. Otherwise, filling the grid with black squares and hands of many colors clutching each other in unity is nothing more than a hollow and empty gesture.