Unfollow Me: Essays on Complicity
- By Jill Louise Busby
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 224 pp.
- Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro
- September 13, 2021
An influencer confronts her online persona.
In the summer of 2016, after Jill Louise Busby created a short video in which she “called white people out for their intentional gradualism, their masking of a desire to maintain their racial status with varying degrees of external naivete” and uploaded it to her Instagram account, she became an overnight sensation. The 29-year-old Black queer woman working in diversity and inclusion at a nonprofit in Tacoma, Washington, suddenly became an influencer widely known by her social-media handle, @Jillisblack.
In Unfollow Me, Busby traces the trajectory of her fame in a series of wide-ranging essays that call out white people and Black people alike, with some of her most unflinching — even caustic — criticism aimed at herself and her own complicity in benefiting from the systems of oppression and racism that were the original targets of her videos. As Busby explains, she went from making “Dear White People” videos to “Dear Black People” videos, and finally, “Dear Jillisblack” videos.
In “Still, Until,” the first full-length essay in the collection, Busby describes the promise she initially saw in her Jillisblack persona:
“I want to use Jillisblack. I want her to be honest without consequence. I want her to say everything about race and racism, power and privilege, hierarchy and hypocrisy that I can’t say at work without getting fired. I want her to take risks I can’t afford to take. I want her to speak without interruption, any way that she wants, for every time that I couldn’t.”
With an online platform, Busby holds a new form of power, and a year later, she finds herself at an elite party for influencers at the Langston Hughes House in Harlem, “in a room full of diversity efforts — two of everything that exists so far, like Noah’s Ark.” Talking to a fellow partygoer, Busby is at a loss to explain what she actually does in her one-minute video letters.
“I could lie to you and say they’re about white people or black people, but honestly, I think they’re starting to just be about me,” she says. “They’re about parties like this and what I’ve learned by being at parties like this and what questions I have after parties like this.”
Those questions are precisely what Busby grapples with in the rest of the essay. Writing in the second person, she examines the rift between the public performance of influencer — which her interlocutor seems to have mastered — and her own insecurities about what she is doing:
“You were supposed to say that you create content around race, power, and hierarchy, and when you’re not filming content for a creative project, you’re working on your book proposal. Your book is supposed to be about your identities and how you learned to love to write about them. Your book is supposed to be about being the token other and how you achieved personal success ‘in spite of’ that token otherness.”
But Busby is acutely aware of the ways in which she is benefiting from her multiple identities. By peddling her experiences, she is complicit in a system that asks her to showcase suffering for mass consumption. At every step of the way, she questions her own motives: “You say progress, but maybe you mean money. You say unity, but maybe you mean money. You say revolution, but maybe you mean money. Maybe you always mean money.”
“Flowers for the Black Artists,” which comes later in the book, is an essay “in which the (nice, rich, white) liberals (colonizers with a heart of gold), through their (nice, white, liberal arts) foundation (tax shelter) choose (gift as a charitable deduction) eight (black) artists to (receive money/time/opportunity/access) retreat (passively network) for a week on the coast in two four-bedroom houses (off-season Airbnbs).” As one of the eight artists, Busby is resistant to the (white philanthropists’) subtext that pervades her experience and that she renders in italics throughout:
We can’t wait to hear all about how our racism influences your art.
If you make us feel guilty enough, we’ll call you brave for your efforts. We’re paying you.
You can’t make us love blackness, but you can make us love the way you use it.
How will you use it?”
As “the black people with the permission slip,” the artists get “dressed up to go on display” at a public program that includes a Q&A. Once again reading subtext, Busby reinterprets the questions of the white audience: “Tell us what we are. / Tell us what we’re like from the outside. / Tell us what we’re like from your insides.”
Elsewhere in the book, Busby similarly takes white people to task. In a “Dear White People” letter (transcripts from a number of Jillisblack’s video letters appear in the book), Jillisblack says that an “ethnic potluck” is “an example of how you’re at the center of everything and everyone else is just an ‘other.’” She concludes: “Well, if I’m here just to season your life, I’m going to make sure you’re extra salty when I’m done.”
There is a crucial distinction between Busby and her Jillisblack persona, and interrogating the chasm that separates the two is one of the key projects of Unfollow Me. In the short “Identification” that begins the book, Busby notes that Jillisblack became “the expression of a flattened identity, on repeat,” and that after the first year, “I was just parroting the expectation.”
Though the success of Jillisblack is perhaps what landed Busby a book deal, her goal here is not merely to amplify her internet persona: “I seek the parts of us that can never be labeled.” She continues:
“But instead of avoiding my own compliance and accountability, I seek to aim the questions directly at myself, challenging the current narrative about race, gender, and sexuality and examining all the ways that I benefit from it…Ultimately, this collection is a look behind the curtain of identity, a search for the answer of why we fight so hard to stay so disconnected. It is an exploration of honesty, self, and ego and what exists beyond rage and being right.”
In the final essay, “Unfollow Me,” Busby confronts her persona head-on, defying Jillisblack and threatening to tell “the only Jillisblack story I don’t like to tell. The one I will absolutely never allow to be in the final essay of this book.”
Of course, she proceeds to tell it — despite the protestations of Jillisblack. In fact, Busby explicitly dramatizes her conflict with Jillisblack in an extended conversation between herself and her online persona. At one point, in one of many moments of meta-commentary, Jillisblack says, “I don’t think you have enough followers to get away with this. Like, you’re not famous enough to pull off having a conversation with your online persona.”
The story that Jillisblack does not want told — and that Busby eventually tells — is about engaging online with a Proud Boy who called her racist and homophobic slurs. “I want to talk to the primary source,” she writes. “I don’t want everything I think I know to come from someone else.”
In the end, the conversation “doesn’t climax with a callout. There is no follow-up story or public consequence.” In other words, Busby has broken the rules of being Jillisblack, which is to publicly react to everything and to grow her platform at any cost.
“You can’t do what you do without me,” Jillisblack threatens at the end of the essay. “You don’t have your own ideas. You can’t speak for yourself. That’s not even your real face. You’re filtered with thirty-five percent intensity Ludwig, contrasted, highlighted. I dress you. I get your hair cut.”
The push to capitalize on her internet fame, to keep trending, to write the book that will further galvanize her Jillisblack persona, that will speak in the voice of the curated self is powerful indeed. But Busby refuses, laying claim to an identity that is deeper, more complex, ambiguous, and mysterious.
To make the same point over and over, to endlessly react to everything, to achieve weak rhetorical victories, to be caught in the recursive loop of a curated identity is the bread and butter of many social commentators and influencers. But Busby — defying Jillisblack — wants more than that. And she shows us that we should, too.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.