Taking Responsibility For Our Mistakes In The Age Of Instagram

01.09.19

One of the things you, the reader, have come to love most about The Twenties Club is its commentary on what’s going on in the world. I’ve made a habit of sharing and speaking to whatever’s making headlines on any given day; it could be pop culture, the fashion industry, global politics or the Trump Administration. And the risk I take by doing this is, of course, that I’ll offend someone; someone who takes a different position to mine, who’s lens through which they view the world is different to my lens. And it usually doesn’t matter if that persons opinion is based on *facts* or not – if you’ve stoked the bear, the bear will make sure you know about it. But the greater risk, the fear that troubles me the most, is that I will accidentally report on something inaccurately. That I’ll share a headline that is, in fact, wrong. Maybe I misinterpreted the situation, maybe it was a story that was still developing, or maybe I simply didn’t see that by sharing a screenshot of a funny tweet, I was reinforcing a flawed and faulty narrative into our collective social conscience. That’s the worst possible outcome for me, because not only do I upset readers who know more about the situation than I do, but I’ve essentially used my platform to perpetuate a story that isn’t real.

I was reminded of this last week when I was going through old magazines, issues I’ve kept from the past ten years or so, and unearthed one of my favourite Vogue covers. It was the April 2008 “Shape Issue”, featuring the world’s most famous bodies. An amalgamation of supermodels and America’s top Olympians and athletes at the time. The front cover saw NBA player LeBron James in a black Nike basketball kit with a ball in one hand and Gisele Bundchen, in a jade Calvin Klein Collection dress, in the other. I posted a photo of the cover on my Instagram Story with the caption: “One of the greatest covers of all time.” What I failed to see, both in 2008 and – embarrassingly – again in 2019, was just how problematic the racial undertones of that cover were. On two separate occasions – 2008 and 2019 – I failed to see that the harmful racial profiling that has plagued communities of colour for generations were being reinforced in this image. I didn’t compute that Vogue had, intentionally or not, portrayed a famous black sportsman as an angry, savage, white-woman-obsessed beast. So not only was it not “one of the greatest covers of all time”, it was actually one of the worst.

For a little more context: The April 2008 issue was the first time an African American man had appeared on the cover of Vogue. A number of news outlets at the time also pointed out the eerily similar visual of James in his gorilla-like pose, baring teeth, with that of “King Kong” – again reinforcing racial stereotypes that portray black men as dangerous. I could lie to you and say that I knew all of this when I posted that image on my Instagram Story, but the truth is it wasn’t until I started receiving messages from girls who were saddened and disappointed in my post that I realised what I had done. Let me be clear: that’s a painfully embarrassing sentence for me to type, especially as someone who claims to be well-read and well-versed in most pressing social issues of today.

So then I was faced with two options: I could delete the Instagram Story immediately, pretend it never happened, not reply to the messages of those I’d offended and carry on with my day, or I could leave the Instagram Story up, knowing I’d receive more messages, let myself by humbled by my lack of judgement and apologise. Instagram has fostered this environment where it is so easy to erase evidence of our mistakes: we can delete posts, edit captions, remove comments, block users and switch our accounts to private quicker than you can say “My account was hacked!”. And because of this, not only do we barely ever see people’s flaws on social media anymore, but we literally don’t know how to cope when it happens to us.

I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t woke enough to realise how problematic that Vogue cover was – twice. That my privilege, my lens, didn’t allow me to immediately see all that was wrong with it. But in 2019, when it’s commonplace to curate a public persona based on all your best attributes and none of your flaws, what would it take for you to be okay with sitting in the discomfort of your mistakes instead of retreating? To leave your errors where they could be seen, to take responsbility for them, and allow yourself to be educated by those who know better? And then, maybe, could you afford the same grace to someone else?

That is our new challenge.


Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club