By Kinjal Ruecker and Angad Joshi
#BlackGirlMagic is a viral hashtag mainly prevalent on the social media platform, Twitter. The phrase came from CaShawn Thompson in 2013 via a t-shirt she created with the phrase “Black Girls are Magic,” although where the hashtag originated is unknown. The hashtag was intended to uplift black women – from celebrity achievements to getting post-doctorate diplomas to little girls at dance recitals – and celebrate them on their accomplishments. The ‘author’ for this movement is a collective of black, independent women wanting to applaud one another for impressive feats despite the discrimination each one goes through and the negativity that surrounds them in society. Mainstreamed by Barack and Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland, Corinne Rae Bailey, Solange Knowles and the likes, the hashtag has been a headliner of organizations worldwide, being featured in the magazines Times and Essence. But there have been many critics against this movement despite its good intentions. Society fetishizes black women already, from size of body parts to how they should behave, and many feel that #BlackGirlMagic propagates this fetishization instead of making black women out to be people too, making them real. Another critique is that #BlackGirlMagic only lauds respectability, and ignores the triumphs of black women who fall too far out of the norm. #BlackGirlMagic is an online tool used to propagate black feminism and combat misogynoir.
Historical and Cultural Context
There are three events in 2013 that influenced Thompson in the making of her shirt. The first is the 2012 presidential race outcome. Barack Obama continued his seat as the first black American president, starting his second term on January 20th, 2013. This was a major victory for minorities in America, which had been steadily growing to about 30% population at that time (U.S. Federal Statistical System) . Although racism was, and is, a very real thing, a black man holding arguably the most powerful seat in the world showed signs of change and created black pride within the black community. It was a symbol that black people were fully American, even if racial injustices made it seem otherwise. From this pride being celebrated, the black community would want to celebrate other accomplishments as well, choosing to continue to feel appreciative of one another instead of celebrating only one accomplishment from one of their own.
Another major event in 2013 was the murder of Trayvon Martin by self-declared “watchman” George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin was a seventeen year old black boy, who was unlawfully followed and murdered by George Zimmerman. This controversial killing sparked outrage when Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury of peers on all counts including manslaughter and second degree murder in July. Due to the questionable nature of this case and the fact that the defendant was a white male, the jury was attacked for being biased in the selection of its constituents. Because a juror can not have any knowledge about the case beforehand, it became exceedingly difficult to find people indifferent to the Zimmerman v. Martin case, and critics of the jury argue that those indifferent are of the same political and social mindset (Pew Research Center). Both created to combat this mindset, #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackLivesMatter resulted from the fight against systematic oppression of the black race by the court system, and strengthened the collective mindset of black Americans.
Social media sites were at a prime during this heated debate, and this case was the basis for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As one of the first online activist movements, #BlackLivesMatter set the tone for the usage of social media as a platform for activism. With a new form of activism comes a new set of rules, primarily centered around the movemen’s decentralization. #BlackLivesMatter, much like #BlackGirlMagic, is a decentralized movement. Patrice Cullors, one of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter, described the activism as a community effort, saying “[leaders] don’t get [people] onto the streets, they get themselves onto the street” (qtd. in Miller). She also emphasizes the importance of local, as opposed to national, events and organization in junction with online activism. Online activism sources its ideologies from the community and discourse among members, not through the ideas of a leading group. In a similar fashion to #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackGirlMagic creates a sense of activism through upliftment. The act of peer-to-peer validation within the black community is activism.
A study found that 36 percent of Twitter users tagging #BlackLivesMatter for the first time used it again. “Other hashtag movements have helped spread awareness about important issues, but many of them quickly lose their momentum,” said Shagun Jhaver, co-author of the study. “The Black Lives Matter movement realizes it’s part of a long-term social transformation and shows continual engagement. And it continues despite having no formal hierarchal [sic] structure” (De Choudhury et. al).
Themes and Style
#BlackGirlMagic is a decentralized crowd phenomenon, which means the creative process is not defined by a specific rhetorical body. In other words, the lack of a uniform purpose for the movement creates a lack of a uniform message and delivery. The formal features of note are defined by the medium of social media. Online, messages are delivered in brief packets bound by character limits, which develops ideas that are concise enough to be easily remembered and reshared. The audience is also engaged in the work via features of comments and replies, creating “threads” of comments. In fact, often times the same author will reply to himself, creating a timeline of events or a story proving the point the author is trying to make.
This self-editing form of communication contrasts forms of written communication from the past that were inaccessible to uneducated and otherwise subjugated black communities. Past means of written communication were not deliverable or
accessible to these communities, so black communities often did not get a say in conversations about them. Even the noted academic and arguable father of sociology W.E.B. DuBois was, for example, stripped of access to the academia when “white elites of his day … preferred Booker T. Washington’s message that blacks should accept and embrace their subordinate status” (Wingfield). Additionally, analyses of the injustices against minority communities that were accessible were written in highly abstracted, academic language and published in resources that are too difficult to access by those they talked about, leaving only the highly educated class able to understand and affect these analyses.
The inception of the movement was soon after the rapid growth of sites like Twitter and Facebook, during a time focused on the nuances and powers of digital communication. Suddenly discussion was accessible to these communities, as apps on ever-present phones. It was volatile for communities fighting for social justice and racial equality since social media allowed for news of injustices to go viral, and allowed for immediate dialogue of events happening live. This dialogue is able to grow and react to new information, and the social media presence in activism grows the crowd exponentially.
But the movement, because it originated Twitter, is a hashtag. A hashtag is a way of connecting tweets with similar content by “labeling” the tweet on concepts touched upon within the tweet. If two tweets share the same hashtag, they will be linked, so if the hashtag is searched, both tweets will appear. This fuels the “collective” mindset of the black female community because the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic will connect tweets by millions of different users scattered all over the world.
Throughout American history, black women have been black and women, but rarely ever both at the same time. #BlackGirlMagic goes further than #BlackLivesMatter in thatit focuses specifically on black women and not just black people, establishing its intersectionality in activism. Intersectional feminism, or black feminism, goes beyond equating men and women in America; as bell hooks claims, feminism that solely seeks to equate men and women is futile because not all men are equal (Hooks). The intersectionality between race and gender is especially important to #BlackGirlMagic because it separates it from any other online movement. With the tools of social media, various causes naturally find themselves checking each other and, thus, intersectionality forms organically. The social media movement, #BlackGirlMagic, attempts to counteract that constant oppression through a steady stream of encouragement.
The continued use of the hashtag into 2017 speaks to the need for an amorphous, varied body of work that solely focuses on uplifting black women. As noted black feminist Dr. Patricia Hill Collins remarks, misogynoir is established through societal images that depict black women as inherently secondary. As Collins, in a discussion of her involvement in black feminism says, “ff [black women] truly believe what this culture told us about [them, they] would all be crazy because [they] would have committed suicide by accepting those images of [themselves]” (UALRTV). #BlackGirlMagic seeks to correct these societal images by broadcasting images of black women contradicting societal expectations.
In the decentralization of #BlackGirlMagic lies its power and weakness. The article “Who Gets to Own ‘Black Girl Magic’?” explores those weaknesses and discusses the legal battle over trademarks and how corporations derail the movement by attempting to own its entirety. The controversy involved in these legislative battles is that it questions the authenticity of the movement without a leader or unifying, nuanced ideology. The industrial attempts at owning the rights to the hashtag undermine the purpose of the hashtag – a unifying, community complex of thoughts and support of black women – and ownership actively works against the goals of the movement.
Additionally, the hashtag is critiqued for creating a stereotype of black women. In the article “Here’s My Problem With #BlackGirlMagic,” Linda Chavers explores the idea that black women are not magic, they are human. She argues that labeling all black girls as magic insinuates that black women go through specific struggles because they are able to, not because they have no other choice. Chavers additionally argues that #BlackGirlMagic is a way of overemphasizing the strength of black women in hostile environments, saying that it enforces the “strong black woman” archetype that perpetuates the claim that black women can survive anything and withstand everything. That archetype, as Chavers argues, sidelines black women who are not necessarily societal respectable in most or all aspects: black women who are not heterosexual, cisgender, fiscally stable, able-bodied, or stereotypically beautiful are less embraced by the movement. The stereotype of “unfazed black women” is a forerunner in how black women are supposed to act; if black women are expected to be strong all the time, when is there time to be weak, to suffer, and to help each other through suffering?
In the article “Not Your Superhero,” the damaging nature of the strong black woman archetype is described in that “[black women] aren’t offered (and don’t know how to ask for) the help [they] need.” They are taught to be independent to the point of self destruction, because that archetype associates success with a toxic amount of strength and self-sufficiency. Mothers teach their daughters this through example, and then the daughter grows up in self-destruction only to teach her daughter what she was taught. It becomes a positive feedback loop that is very hard to escape.
However, Chavers’ claims in her article were criticized for ignoring the intention of the movement. Jenn M. Jackson, as quoted in the article “Why are people arguing about ‘Black Girl Magic’?,” says that because #BlackGirlMagic came from black women, “[black women] are setting that standard [of being strong and independent themselves.]” Jackson argues that because those standards come from other black women, they come with context and an awareness of the history of black women and do not represent a stereotype.
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