After about a year of waking up and immediately logging on to Instagram, I noticed my habit was jeopardizing my happiness. While it certainly wasn’t the wisest practice to begin such intensive screen activity first thing in the morning, my mindset was worsened by how my feed was curated. I’d added my friends of course, but Instagram also suggested, per a drop down menu for every account added as well as the explore page, featured users they presumed I’d enjoy: popular street style stars, Instagram models, baddies and natural hair influencers.
Soon, I noticed a pretty clear trend: colorism. Black culture was over represented among IG’s suggestions, it seemed, while dark-skinned, West African looking folks, like me, were underrepresented, and certainly underappreciated.
I began to think about how my choices had contributed to my feed being as it was — and where IG’s suggestiveness led me down this path. And so, I began to push back against this tide by seeking out the people I wasn’t seeing: indigenous people, West African people, queer people, fat people, people who used their photos for community and discussion, not just to show off their ability to conform to a narrow standard of hotness — people who affirmed my own belonging on the platform.
It’s a reflective practice I’ve entitled #BrownUpYourFeed. Although the vile political climate of the U.S. cannot be overcome with clever hashtags, or even the most insightful of inspo-memes, platforms such as 4chan and Facebook have been major sites of political organizing in the last two elections. And if Arab Spring revolutionaries utilized Twitter to facilitate the toppling of repressive governments throughout the Middle East, can the choices we make when interacting online help fight the encroaching fascism of our government?
Fascists, conservatives and Trump alike have long utilized potent imagery to drive their hateful politics: no matter how unrealistic or unlikely these stereotypes are, no matter how many alternative, positive stories aren’t being publicized. By criminalizing people, painting them as drug dealers and rapists, terrorists, “illegal aliens” or undesirables, politicians increase the public’s anxiety about safety and lower their threshold for cruelty in the name of maintaining security. This language dehumanizes people and justifies family separation, deportations, racist immigration, systematic underprotection and over-incarceration.
But what if we could work against this imagery — on the image level? If we see Mexican people as otherwise, how would that strengthen our resolve to fight on their behalf or act as a bulwark against stereotyping in the first place?
In particular, social media has lowered barriers to making and sharing images, and this democratized production has lead to more positive representation of minorities since its inception. Today, many accounts portray men of color in a more upstanding light than the picture painted by the president and other politicians, companies and pundits who seek to malign them for political or financial profit. Curating our feeds to incorporate diverse perspectives of men of color reminds us of their humanity, their deservingness of safety, protection, love and respect. To that end, here are five feeds that will most certainly do so…
Cheb Moha is an Arab visual storyteller, photographer, curator and stylist living and making work in Dubai. He documents his travels throughout the Middle East — photos featuring stylish friends (primarily of Arab and North African descent), local people and routines. Moha lends followers the opportunity to peak into unfamiliar spaces, amplifying accounts that have less visibility by geotagging most of his photos. His images are soft: film hazy and cinematic, dusty, but rich in hue.
The men in his photos and videos hold hands, stare tenderly at the lens from behind a curtain of bougainvillea, stretch each other out before and after soccer games. Arab men’s fashion is typically represented by tones of gold, ghurtas and glamour, but Moha captures young men in sporty streetwear, bridging the divide between youth cultures of the East and West.
Allen Salway is a Dine (indigenous) college student who uses Instagram to amplify and share ideas about indigenous representation in the media. While mostly impersonal, Salway’s feed is comprised of text and analysis of images. It’s a source for news and criticism that challenges the mainstream native visual vocabulary and indigenous erasure.
In one notable analysis, Salway breaks down a photo from Miami Swim Week. It’s a show by swimwear designer, Silvia Ulson, featuring models wearing native motifs on skimpy bikinis and mono-kinis, native war paint and headdress. Here Salway reminds followers of the statistics on missing and sexually assaulted Native women and then makes a pivotal connection:
So @lilnativeboy establishes IG not only as a platform for sharing images, but also examining their meaning and role in visual ecologies.
Jordan Watson’s Instagram career is notable for how elegantly he’s been able to monetize a great feed and following. He began posting to Instagram as a hobby, but today, Watson runs several accounts with his partner, Aureta Thomollari. All of the accounts are art, fashion and design adjacent, but the @Watts account is the more personal, zany and trippy of the lot. An esoteric collection of weirdo VHS art, cartoon edits, texture close-ups of oil paintings, and finally, Watson himself — golfing, sunbathing and visiting galleries. Perhaps what’s most notably alternative about Watson’s online presence is his ability to monetize. It’s certainly not the emphasis of the feed, but he’s an example of a black man who was able to utilize the platform to build a career. In a medium where black men’s creativity is frequently utilized without remuneration, Watson’s success reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way.
L.A.-based artist Sebastian Hernandez (@brownskinhazel) curates @brown_commonz, a feed documenting everyday scenes in L.A. Hernandez photographs men, mostly — on trains, in restaurants, communicating gently. Nothing is sensational or dramatic, good or bad. It’s normal.
And because it’s so normal, it normalizes. Hernandez’ work does the thing the mainstream media don’t do for men of color — it documents small ritual, typically, unseen moments because they’re so quotidian. Hernandez also maintains a uniquely clear stance about ownership: They ask followers to not repost the photos anywhere else. Commanding this respect reminds viewers of the sanctity and privacy of these scenes, and the vulnerability of images of non-white people.
The feed belonging to artist Grant Strudwick is a showcase and interaction. Strudwick’s work has been widely circulated, although underattributed, on Instagram — specifically, his “Black Power ABC’s,” an alphabetized vintage photo deck, has become a meme-like presence in black web iconography.
Stylish, but deeply critical of fashion, a loyal confidante to fellow artist @virtualtai, Strudwick’s feed is comprised of works in progress, historical photographs, texts and others’ artwork.
But it’s not just a moodboard. Strudwick is here for a dialogue and deeper engagement in the captions and comments. When the Drake blackface controversy emerged, Strudwick compiled a carousel of split images, Drake and 1920s Bahamian-American entertainer Bert Williams, both of them in blackface. The juxtaposition highlighted ongoing themes of black men in the entertainment industry.
Meanwhile, on June 21st, Strudwick criticized a New York Times Style Magazine headline about the dearth of great black art dealers, writing that these sorts of stories “erase any sense of positive histories we do have and dupe us into illusions of progress and a false sense of comfort in the present.”
In the comments section, he goes toe-to-toe with the author of the piece, unyielding in calling out the headline for its alarming and factually incorrect tone. Strudwick’s account is unique in this way: He’s unapologetic, strange, intellectual and productive. Which is exactly why it’s essential that you follow him and all the men mentioned above.