Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Dear Fellow White People: Virtue Signaling is Not Enough; We Have Work To Do

I find myself feeling pretty damn irritable these days.  Like everyone else, I'm a bit stir-crazy from nearly three months of my big excitement being going to Aldi on Thursday mornings when it's not busy.  I've been angry about Trump for over three years. And then there's my just general customary cynicism. And then there's the last eight days, in which four policemen, no different from the many policemen who have been summarily executing black men in the street without trial, finally did it one too many times.

For the last eight nights, there have been demonstrations in big and small cities all over the country.  The American people who aren't part of the Trump Cult have finally had enough.  And predictably, the protests have been co-opted by the usual crypto-anarchists who always end up at these things, and in a more terrifying development, but the neo-Nazis and KKKers who have formed an underground army of loser incel white men, armed with guns to hide their anxiety about their tiny penises, trying desperately to cling to whatever privilege they have left after billionaires have sucked out their livelihoods, blaming people of color for their problems.  It feels like the last stand of white patriarchy, and that patriarchy has made clear that it's not going to go down without an awful lot of blood being shed.

For those of us who remember, and in some cases participated in, the unrest of 1968, this is all depressingly familiar.  We had hoped to live in a different world.  We had hoped to make a difference.  We failed.  I don't know why we failed, but we did.  The millennials want to say we all sold out to Ronald Reagan and Wall Street, but it's not that simple. The truth is that the hippies that the news media covered were NEVER the majority.  And most of them DIDN'T sell out and become stockbrokers.  The stockbrokers are the guys in the plaid pants who ratted out the kids who were walking out of school to go to anti-war protests.

But that's not what moves me to write today. Today I'm here to talk to my fellow white people about virtue signaling.

Yesterday, white people everywhere put black background images on their Facebook and Instagram  pages for what was called "Blackout Tuesday."  This was supposed to be a day for artists and companies to "pause and reflect."  But people hate to let a good opportunity for virtue signaling go to waste, so most people replaced their cover and profile images with a plain black background.  Most of them kept on posting all day anyway, which meant that the advertisers for whom YOU are the product, much as TV programming is simply a vehicle for delivering your eyeballs to advertisers, got their money's worth.

I did NOT change my cover and profile images, because I knew damn well that I wasn't going to "pause and reflect" while reporters were still being attacked in the street and police were advancing on peaceful protesters spraying them with tear gas and pepper spray as if they were that 2" long hornet that found its way into my windowshade in my home office last year.  A lot of bad shit can happen while white people are pausing and reflecting.  I didn't succumb to this exercise in self-righteousness because it seemed not all that much different from those "I'll know which of my friends care about [cancer / domestic violence / autoimmune diseases / animal cruelty / domestic violence] by who shares this" memes that people insist on perpetuating.  I call this, variously, "Facebook Emotional Blackmail" or "Facebook Guilt Tripping." The idea that clicking "Share" on Facebook is the ONLY way to TRULY PROVE you care about the cause in question, and that sharing a black background is the ONLY way to show you recognize what Black people are going through, is  emblematic of the kind of facile, drive-by "caring" to which social media lends itself.

As Madison Malone Kircher noted yesterday at

That day is today and instead of using this movement to reflect on how Black artists fuel culture and sharing resources support ongoing solidarity protests around the country, #THESHOWMUSTBEPAUSED has been co-opted by well-intentioned Instagrammers clogging up the #BlackLivesMatter feed. If you search the hashtag on the app, you’ll find almost nothing but black square posts. A number of black artists, including Kehlani and Little Nas X, have pointed out how this is ultimately an ineffective way to help, given that Instagram is a vital tool for organizing. A great example is the @justiceforgeorgenyc account, a centralized hub for information on daily protests in New York City. A flood of black squares wastes useful digital space that could be devoted to the real cause.
But more importantly, blacking out social media during days of demonstrations, which in an age of corporate media, is often the ONLY place to get eyewitness reporting on the ground, is to black out possible useful information about the protests.  But why let logistics get in the way of a good way for white people to feel all "woke" and virtuous and caring?

Yesterday, the food blog Serious Eats participated in some world-class virtue signaling:

As a food website that publishes international recipes and runs reported feature articles, personal essays, and the like, we’ve long had a commitment to celebrating global culinary traditions. But while we’ve endeavored to be sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation, to represent diverse voices, and to assert that food is always, at its core, deeply political, we are also part of the problem. 
Serious Eats has no Black people on staff at this time, and we’ve never had a Black editor. The underrepresentation of Black voices in food media is well-known and often remarked and reported upon, yet it remains endemic to our industry. That’s not a coincidence, nor is it an idiosyncrasy of media broadly or food media in particular: It is a reflection of the power structures that define the United States, and it is not okay. 
We are committed to making more Black voices heard on our site, to honoring Black foodways, to being a home for Black stories, and to standing back and shutting up to listen to Black voices elsewhere. What that actually means is that we’ll be refraining from publishing new content this week and instead using our homepage to provide a list of links and resources to help people get involved in the necessary fight against racism in this country. We’ll also be using that time to have difficult conversations about our organization and the content we produce, and to plan for the future accordingly.

Wow!  "Difficult conversations!"  How virtuous!  How "woke"!  Look, I'm not trying to single out Serious Eats, a site I really enjoy. But seriously -- they're just noticing NOW that they have no Black people on staff?  THEY DIDN'T NOTICE BEFORE NOW?  They didn't notice when any of the OTHER Black men and women who have been murdered by police over the last decade that they didn't have any Black people on staff and weren't publishing content by Black authors?  George Floyd had to DIE for them to notice this?  And yet, they publish a letter like this, and all over social media, white people are kvelling about how wonderful they are.

I understand the need to find some light in the universe right now.  I don't want to be a complete Debbie Downer.  I too decided to follow young Jalen Thompson after seeing how he recruited his town's police chief to march with him in O'Fallon, Missouri. I too am moved at the sight of demonstrators embracing police offers as a gesture of reconciliation. But I'm not kidding myself that any of this means anything in the long run IF WE ALL DO NOT CHANGE.

Pointing out these "points of light" are the "All Lives Matter" of the current moment.  It's dismissive of the reality that people of color living in this country deal with every day.  Yes, not all cops summarily execute black people in the street -- or in their beds, as in the case of Breonna Taylor.  But enough of them do, and those who don't are doing nothing to stop them. Yes, not all white people are gun-totin', Trump-supportin' lunatics.  But we have not done enough to say "Enough."  We have not taken enough action inside our own heads.

Virtue signaling is fine, when it's part of an overall soul-searching of how we contribute to the structure that has made the murder of George Floyd and others possible, and how we benefit disproportionately from it. I'm no paragon of racial virtue, believe me, and black backgrounds on Facebook won't make me so. Only I can do that. I MUST do that.  Do or do not. There is no try.

I spent most of my life in northern New Jersey.  In all that time, I never lived in a neighborhood that had any more than MAYBE one or two token black families.  The town where I spent most of my childhood had a "black section" on "the other side of town." It wasn't till I got to high school where I had any interaction at all, most of it through political activism, with people not the same skin color as mine.  The town I moved here from is still 96% white.  The next town over from that one, a pretty tree-lined suburb with a thriving downtown, was for years regarded as less desirable because it has "a black section," tucked away behind the hospital.  It's a pretty, tree-lined neighborhood, but it's "the black section."  To my Jersey eyes, moving here was an eye-opener, because Durham, at least, is less segregated than northern New Jersey is.

But when you grow up without significant day-to-day interaction with Black people, you absorb the messages of the larger culture in spite of yourself, and no matter how bleeding-heart-liberal your parents are.  And then you grow up and you clutch your purse more tightly in the elevator when the Black bike messenger gets on.  Or you feel a pang of fear when you go to Caldor after dark and there's a young black man walking from his car behind you.  It's practically reflexive. And you don't even think about it.  Until you realize that you have to. If you've ever said "I'm not racist but....", you're racist.  You might not be an alt-right, Charlottesville tiki torch racist, but you're racist.  And so am I.  Until that little gut-twist goes away, we're racist.

Racism is a sickness, and it infects far too many of us.  It's hard to acknowledge that.  But we have to.  Symbolic gestures are fine, but we've had symbolic gestures for years.  They're not effective. Dealing with racism starts in our own heads, in our own communities, and at the ballot box.   We may never be "past all that."  We can't erase the history of this nation.  But we don't have to perpetuate it.  We know what we have to do.  It's up to us to do it.