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The ‘Yellow Square’ Instagram Controversy, Explained

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Instagram accounts are sharing a "yellow square" in honor of the eight victims of shootings at three Asian spas in Atlanta.

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On March 17 2021, the day a spree shooter reportedly killed eight people at three Asian spas, the verified Instagram account @88rising shared a simple yellow square — content which led to significant and tense discourse.

The Incident

On March 16 2021, eight people were killed during a spree shooting across three Atlanta-area spas:

A man suspected of killing eight people at three Atlanta-area spas was headed to Florida “perhaps to carry out additional shootings” when he was arrested Tuesday night, Atlanta’s mayor said Wednesday, citing investigators.

“This could have been significantly worse,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a news conference at Atlanta police headquarters.

And preliminary information indicates that the killings — of six Asian people and two White people — may not have been a hate crime, but instead may have something to do with the suspect’s claim of a potential sex addiction, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said at the joint news conference.

Still, it was too early to know a motive, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said. “There’s still a lot more work to be done. … We’re just not there as of yet,” Bryant said.

Police say Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Georgia, is suspected of opening fire at the spas late [March 16 2021 in the] afternoon and early evening, first at a business about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, followed by two more at spas in northeastern Atlanta … Bottoms, acknowledging most of the victims were Asian, said “we know (violence against Asian Americans) is an issue happening around the country; it’s unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.”

As the CNN.com article noted, early reporting suggested a possible anti-Asian motive in the mass killing.

Background Context for the Yellow Square, and Black Squares on Instagram

In early June 2020 and amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, white Instagram users decided to flood feeds with a “black square” for “Blackout Tuesday” — an ostensible show of support.

A June 6 2020 NBC News article later reported on problems with “Blackout Tuesday”:

On [June 2 2020], as Americans across the country searched for ways to express solidarity with black people, #BlackoutTuesday took social media by storm. It was an ostensible display of allyship — posting a black square with the aforementioned hashtag — with a promise not to post anything else that day and instead take the time to think about the ways in which many nonblack Americans benefit from structural racism.

[…]

Two problems quickly arose. The first was that many people posting their black tiles as a sign of solidarity were using the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM. This well-meaning display of solidarity was drowning out crucial information for organizers and protesters. The second problem was that, on a more theoretical level, silence is not really the preferred mode of allyship for something like police brutality. And as many black people explained, showing up, seeking out discourse about racial injustices and listening to and elevating black voices were much more important to many activists than inaction and reflection.

[…]

Invariably, as the backlash swelled Tuesday afternoon [June 2 2020], warring factions emerged. The dialogue became reductive, self-righteous and at times hostile. A number of people on my feed railed against those who participated in the “performative allyship” of #BlackoutTuesday — the irony, of course, being that these condemnations became equally performative. Quickly, the whole thing started to devolve into a game of “Who’s the better ally?”

Nevertheless, “Blackout Tuesday” was widely recognized and viewed on social media — and some thought of it as a responsive show of support or solidarity, regardless of the mixed outcome.

@88Rising’s Instagram Post

In the early hours of March 17 2021, @88rising shared a plain yellow square:

 

88rising is described by its founder as a “hybrid management, record label, video production, and marketing company.” A caption on the post read:

Enough is enough. Heartbroken with the disgusting and senseless violence in Georgia tonight. Violence against the Asian community has to stop. Let’s protect each other and stand against hate. More from us soon.

The discourse about it on Instagram was mixed, with one user captioning the square as “sus af,” and writing:

@88rising @brianimanuel BRIAN IK YOU’RE NOT ALRIGHT W THIS KING this is sus this is sus 🤨 RIP TO THE 8 ASIAN WOMEN KILLED BY A RACIST IN AMERICA, no yellow squares needed to crush the skulls of racists & companies that center themselves in the wake of tragedy!!!!! 🤨

Yellow Square Discourse on Twitter

The discussions on social media centered around the notion that the Atlanta shooting was motivated by anti-Asian racism.

At 11:58 PM on March 16 2021 (before @88rising shared the yellow square on Instagram), a user appeared to predict the use of a “yellow square” as a social media trend:

Not long after @88rising’s Instagram post appeared, users who encountered screenshots of it said they initially believed it to be clumsy satire:

A deleted tweet simply critiqued the concept, as did others:

Nobody:

Absolutely nobody:

88rising: you know what would reaaaally help out with all the anti-Asian racism in the world right now? A yellow square.

One user explained (in a response to a screenshot of the @88rising yellow square) why it was potentially offensive:

aaaand before y’all come for me of course I stand for the protect Asian lives movement – just think the “yellow” square is useless, performative and extremely ironic since “yellow” has been used as a derogatory term towards many asians for the longest time.

Others were simply surprised the post existed:

Almost overwhelmingly, tweets referenced or include screenshots of @88rising’s Instagram post.

Additional Instagram Reaction to the Shootings

Several users shared a “#StopAsianHate” graphic, involving the words on a yellow square background:

Around noon on March 17 2021, the official @NAACP Instagram page also shared a “Stop Asian Hate” square — with yellow letters on a black background:

Yellow square backgrounds were also utilized in a completely different fashion for responses to the deadly mass shooting:

Summary

On March 16 2021, eight people, six of whom were of Asian ethnicity (the other two were white) were killed in the Atlanta area in a spree shooting. Separately, a controversial “Blackout Tuesday” campaign in June 2020 took place during widespread Black Lives Matter protests; that involved Instagram users posting a “black square,” in a trend that was later decried by some as performative and stifling for necessary communications during ongoing demonstrations. On March 17 2021, the Asian-American Instagram account @88rising (which was not, to the best of our knowledge, a “coded” 88) shared a plain yellow square along with commentary about the “disgusting and senseless violence in Georgia tonight,” and “violence against the Asian community.” However, we found no evidence there were many people sharing “yellow squares” in the same manner.