#9: I've been wanting to talk about this for a long time
And am glad I have now have the space to do it.
Good morning, bad morning, whatever morning! Welcome to Maybe Baby no.9.
There were so many things I planned to write about this week, but I’ve had trouble focusing on anything other than the news. Three events in particular:
A white woman named Amy Cooper employed systemic racism when she threatened the life of Christian Cooper, a black man who asked her to leash up her dog per the rules of the park.
A white cop named Derek Chauvin employed systemic racism to murder a black man named George Floyd.
The Minneapolis police employed systemic racism to apply excessive force to people protesting the murder of George Floyd (leading to more protests across the country, and more escalation from police).
It’s easy to tie these tragedies together, but more important to remember they represent centuries of documented and undocumented institutionalized racism in this country—the very kind that built it and now sustains it. I qualify this kind of racism as “institutional” not to downplay the individual racism of Amy Cooper, Derek Chauvin, or the Minneapolis police, but to emphasize that these people are relying on legal systems to carry out white supremacy.
A lot of white people assume “white supremacy” only applies to crooked cops and men in white robes or red hats, but in reality it’s carried out every day all over the country, by people all over the political spectrum, even if it’s subtle or its benefactors aren’t employing it consciously. It’s important to note that Amy Cooper is a registered democrat who donated to Obama. I think it’s safe to assume she would not have labeled herself as racist, and yet that did not stop her from calling upon her white privilege without a second thought. It was pure instinct.
The Complicity of Performance
Following the news cycle this week, I saw people all over the country and all over the political spectrum post their support of Christian Cooper, George Floyd, and the Minnesota protesters (at least until they were deemed looters, and then many rescinded their support). This kind of social media solidarity inspires mixed feelings for me. Viral hashtags and posts can be effective at rallying attention or funds where they’re sorely needed, but sometimes I have trouble believing they properly represent a movement. What does it say about the potency of social media activism that someone like Amy Cooper likely would have participated if she hadn’t been involved herself? When the list keeps growing—Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—and the violence never stops, it’s easy to start seeing these tools as largely performative if they’re treated as the end rather than the means to meaningful change. And when they’re coming from white people, brands, and groups that otherwise uphold oppressive institutions, they feel more like PR campaigns, or a tool for conscience-soothing, than genuine activism.
I know this isn’t fair as a blanket reading, and it’s certainly cynical, but social media has become inextricably linked with self-promotion. It’s never been easier to align yourself with values you don’t actually demonstrate in real life. And I don’t just mean the hypothetical hypocrisy of someone like Amy Cooper posting that #blacklivesmatter and then calling the cops on an innocent black person—I mean anyone who knowingly or unknowingly supports institutions that uphold oppression (which is, frankly, most American institutions) then gets outraged online when those systems work exactly as designed. I’ve been that person. I probably still am in ways I don’t see yet. It’s much easier to think of wrongdoing as the result of bad eggs or other people than consider whether much larger forces are at work from which you directly benefit. And by “you” I don’t just mean white people, I mean anyone with any kind privilege, especially class privilege.
When I hesitate to speak out online, it’s not because I don’t care, am unsure of whether it’s my place, or don’t know evil when I see it, it’s because the medium of social media so often lulls us into believing it’s enough. That the right post makes us Good. And I’m just not convinced. The more I read and learn about the corruption in this country, and the subtle ways our culture has embraced it through language, habit, and manipulation, the more certain I become of just how far I (and all of us) have to go. I agree that silence is complicity, but when we only equate the alternative with reposting or retweeting, I fear we’re not ultimately calling for much. Or worse, are calling for empty gestures that make people (and brands! Ugh, the brands!) like Amy Cooper feel they’ve done their part. How do we reconcile that possibility with the need for people to come together in digital spaces and harness the power of virality? How do we square the hard work of untangling our implicit biases and unlearning most of the lies we learned in school with the ease of posting on Instagram?
There are so many great thinkers, academics, writers, and activists considering these questions, and my hope is that I can promote their work and do my part without falling into the trap of assuming moral superiority or performing my values to better my brand. For anyone in pursuit of the same goal, I think one obvious thing we can do is commit to doing decidedly less visible work. Such as:
Actively supporting local organizers and joining groups (like unions) with progressive aims.
Constantly assessing our role in institutional oppression—whether that means vigilantly questioning the systems we’ve been taught to trust, challenging our assumptions that we are “the good guy” or “on the right side,” or examining how we move through the world in contrast to someone with less privilege.
And the critical one that undergirds the first two: educating ourselves.
In light of the last one, I’ve decided to share some pieces of writing that have fundamentally changed how I think about race and class in this country. They’ve also changed how I behave, donate, and vote. They’re not quick reads (sometimes they feel more like homework), but each of them challenges something most American kids were and are taught in school. There have been many times in my life where I thought I was far more progressive and educated than I actually was, and so I’ve made it my mission to always presume I have work to do. Luckily, the work is deeply gratifying. When I better understand the invisible forces at play in our everyday lives, I feel less alienated, attacked, and confused. So many things I’ve read over the past years have provided answers to questions I didn’t even realize were worth asking, and they’ve mobilized me on matters I didn’t realize were up for debate. That’s what self-education can do for all of us.
1. “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic
I grew up in a liberal household where my parents, especially my mom, constantly told me I was privileged for having food on the table and access to everything I needed. She took me and my siblings to do volunteer work in impoverished neighborhoods every summer as kids, asked us regularly to confront and help people from different walks of life, and even sent us to a school across town because it had a Hispanic majority whereas the one near our house was primarily white. She instilled in us a fervent belief in public education, diversity, and giving back. I was proud of these things, to the extent that into my early twenties I privately took credit for my mom’s work, and didn’t continue my own education. I went to business school with a bunch of white kids and fucked around on Tumblr before it was known for being “woke.” I didn’t understand institutional racism, affirmative action, or class warfare. I didn’t really know anything about politics, capitalism, or the poverty trap. I voted for Obama, had a simple set of “liberal” principles, and essentially dusted off my hands and considered myself a good person.
Then I read Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” This piece of writing, which would go on to win multiple awards, irreversibly woke me up and changed my point of view on racism in this country. It forced me to question everything I’d ever learned about America, and ultimately led me to read more political work and give myself a cobbled-together liberal arts education on the internet. It’s worth noting that Coates has been more embraced by the establishment than other black intellectuals, like Dr. Cornel West, who thinks Coates’ work stops short of inspiring real change and therefore might be more “palatable” to white people.* So it’s important to read his work alongside others’, but “The Case for Reparations” has been lauded as an arresting and accurate cataloguing of the black struggle in twentieth-century America (especially the critical role property has played in the oppression of black people), and if you’ve never read it, you should.
*Speaking of Cornel West, he had an incredible appearance on CNN on Friday, talking to Anderson Cooper about why protestors turn violent.
2. “The White Space,” by Elijah Anderson
In 2015, a Bay Area comedian (where I lived at the time) named Kamau Bell blogged about a racist encounter he’d had in a Berkeley restaurant called Elmwood Cafe, where an employee had essentially shooed him away for talking to his white wife, believing him to be bothering her. The story went viral, and it was Bell who pointed me to an academic paper called “The White Space” by Elijah Anderson. You can read a much shorter version of the paper here, but I recommend reading the whole thing if you can. It changed how I understand and move through the world, changed how I interpret peoples’ actions and anger, and has served as a constant reminder that I will never fully understand what it’s like to live as a person of color in the US, and therefore need to spend more time listening than talking.
3. “In Defense of Looting,” by Vicky Osterweil for The New Inquiry
This piece, written in 2014 in response to the Ferguson protests that followed the murder of Michael Brown, is much shorter than the other two, but fundamentally altered how I perceive protest. In it Osterweil explores the inextricable links between race, class, and capitalism in America, and the problem with always seeing non-violent protest as good, and violent protest as bad. A quote:
“White people deploy the idea of looting in a way that implies people of color are greedy and lazy, but it is just the opposite: looting is a hard-won and dangerous act with potentially terrible consequences, and looters are only stealing from the rich owners’ profit margins. Those owners, meanwhile, especially if they own a chain like QuikTrip, steal forty hours every week from thousands of employees who in return get the privilege of not dying for another seven days.”
I don’t offer up these resources as the ultimate guide to understanding race relations in America, but as a few places to start if you’re looking to write over the sanitized bullshit you learned in school. This is an ongoing process (I’m currently reading A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn which, 45 pages in, has already taught me so much I never knew), and one I’m committed to as a white person, writer, and voter. I may be dubious about certain strains of social media activism, but I don’t want to sit idly by, either. Educating myself and staying self-critical is one of the most important ways I participate. I hope this helps others looking to do the same.
A Few Other Self-Education Recs
One of the biggest shifts in my political education in the last few years—and especially learning to place race issues within a larger context—has been learning more about class and capitalism (and under those umbrellas: workism and neoliberalism). By broadening my education I’ve learned how to criticize the failures of the Democratic party and corruption in the mainstream media without feeling like I was siding with the right. The answer has been essentially to move further left, and to appreciate just how large and diverse the political spectrum is compared to the binary we’re so often sold. It’s leftist thinkers who have helped me realize that there are more important matters for achieving progress than simply amassing an increasingly detailed and sophisticated set of rules about how to speak and behave as an individual (and policing it online), and most of them concern collective action and policy change.
If you’re interested in learning more about this stuff, here’s a little starterpack of people and outlets whose work I follow:
-The podcast Citations Needed, hosted by Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, which covers the way media shapes stories about power and consistently blows my mind (listening recs: “The Neoliberal Optimism Industry” or “Trumpwashing -- How the Media Uses Trump to Launder Our Criminal Past”; also relevant: “The Media’s Default Setting of White Supremacy”)
-Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, writer (reading rec: “The American Way of Life Is Shaping Up to Be a Battleground”)
Thanks for Getting This Far
My hope is to continue to use this space not just to explore uncomfortable emotions but to speak more openly about politics, social media, and the strange intersection of the two. I know I’m not the only person who finds it tricky to participate when that participation comes with so many caveats, so I want to give that complexity space here, and invite you to air your own thoughts on the matter in the comments. I am not an authority, and am aware that I participate in many of the institutions I criticize. But I’m committed to sharing what I learn as I learn it (even when it’s uncomfortable), to not patronizing you, to making complicated ideas more approachable, to exploring how to better live according to the values I espouse here, and to doing all that within a moral framework concerned primarily with progress and not the furthering of my personal brand. These are not things I could do for an ad-operated media site, so thanks for giving me space to figure out what it means in this format, and even letting me mess up from time to time, as I’m sure I will.
Dare I Pivot? 7 Things I Consumed This Week
1. The latest video from Times internet critic Amanda Hess on all the weird corona-virus themed ads:
2. “In Praise of the Walking Coffee,” by Rachel Sugar for Grub Street, because I love writing that captures the magic of the mundane.
3. Inexplicably, an episode of Even Stevens.
4. A ton of Lauren Oyler’s criticism (I’m in awe of her sharpness and willingness to not be liked or agreed with), but especially this piece on everyone’s obsession with being a good person, along with her 2017 criticism of Lady Bird, particularly this opening graf, which I keep thinking about:
“Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m living in hell, by which I mean high school. My peers are reading Teen Vogue. I’ve been encouraged not to spend time alone with the opposite sex or say things that might offend particular people, especially women, who could be described, depending on how you view quality/quantity of social media followers, as popular. Gossip is being celebrated as a radical tool for fighting oppression; disagreements are public, often initiated by cryptic denouncement followed by frantic asking around to figure out who did what to whom. Trending topics prompt acquaintances to write lengthy Facebook posts that read like ninth-grade English essays. People having parties to which I was not invited document them, live, on Instagram, and it feels bad. The president just called Kim Jong Un ‘short and fat.’ I recently joined a club. “
5. This Twitter thread about embracing “Before” noses, which I found sweet.
6. YouTuber ContraPoints’ latest video on why we cringe at ourselves and others.
7. Simply Lemonade, but poured into a mug, frozen, and eaten with a spoon.
A Final Question
What’s a piece of writing that’s had a profound effect on how you see the world, and which you think has played an irreplaceable role in your growth as a person?
Thanks so much for reading this week. Hugging you in my mind.
P.s. Here are some organizations that could use your attention/donations in light of recent events and ongoing institutional oppression:
Minnesota Freedom Fund (to help bail Minneapolis protestors out of jail)***Update: MFF is overwhelmed with donations and suggests you donate to one of the others listed here.
Reclaim the Block (“a coalition to demand that Minneapolis divest from policing and invest in long-term alternatives”)
Bail Project (to provide bail assistance to anyone who needs it, because “no one should be in jail because of poverty”)
Black Visions Collective (a Minnesota organization dedicated to black liberation)
We Love Lakestreet (a fund to help immigrant- and POC-owned business rebuild in Minneapolis)