If you are Black and active on social media, no doubt you’re all too familiar with its social hierarchies (looking at you, Black Twitter). Beyond the blue checks and heavily followed “micro-celebs” are also legions of fandoms, thought leaders, influencers and woke police who create the echo chambers so many of us navigate as we attempt to find validation and belonging in a vast sea of avatars.
Jill Louise Busby knows those waters all too well. The former diversity trainer turned writer and filmmaker rose to internet fame as Jillisblack, a straight-talking, no-holds-barred social media presence offering insights and critique on race relations, microaggressions and more, dovetailing nicely with a growing racial justice movement that reached its apex last summer after the murder of George Floyd. However, while America was in the midst of yet another “racial reckoning,” Busby was doing some reckoning of her own as she worked on her first book, Unfollow Me: Essays on Complicity (Bloomsbury). And in an abrupt departure from the alter ego she’d constructed online, she began with herself.
“Jillisblack was just a handle that I thought of quickly when I was getting on Instagram in 2011 or whatever year that was,” she explains during this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, later adding: “But it’s not until I directly confront, like white people that it goes viral. And so after that, Jillisblack became a whole different ballgame because now the name works and it is the handle that sort of sticks.
“I think it becomes problematic because it’s the most extreme of who I am,” she continues. “It’s my ego, it’s my reactions, it’s when I’ve had a hard day at work. It’s when I don’t want to understand someone else’s perspective. It’s when I need to be right to feel safe. It’s when I need to control my environment down to ‘I need to know everything about this group of people so that I can feel like I know myself in my place in all of this.’
“That is what Jillisblack is. And I think that that is a tool,” Busby adds. “I think that if you are not engaging with what’s going on around you and you’ve got to run to the edge to see it, OK; but you can’t live on the edge. So ultimately, I could not live there. And what I certainly could not do is encourage other people to live there with me or through me, because that did not feel like a good use of an opportunity.”
In Unfollow Me, Busby takes the opportunity to retrace her steps, call out her own hypocrisy, and challenge the belief systems she’s become accustomed to, both online, and much closer to home, with her family.
“That’s what I feel like I’m doing with this. It is a call, not a closing,” she says of confronting even some of her nearest and dearest—including the entity formerly known as Jillisblack. “It’s saying ‘I’m calling out to you. I’m not closing it down.’ And if someone reads it that way, then it’s just not quite true. I would rather have the conversation always.”
Hear more from the eminently followable Jill Louise Busby in Episode 48 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: We Can’t Unfollow Jill Louise Busby, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript of this episode is also available.