White supremacy, “real names,” disaster communism

A Letter

The chief television critic at the Times, Alessandra Stanley, purports to write how one black woman in America surpassed the stereotypes, evidently failing to understand that there is no obligation on the part of the oppressed to overcome their oppressor’s expectations. Hanna Giorgis, writing for The Guardian, notes how Stanley’s review centers whiteness and reinforces the “angry black woman” myth while simultaneously claiming to break it down. Giorgis writes:

In a 2012 Oscar roundtable discussion about the lack of roles for black actresses, Viola Davis, who stars in the upcoming Rhimes show, spoke to the perception that she is automatically less attractive than women who “look like Halle Berry”—women with lighter skin or more loosely curled hair. It was a candid reflection on the way white supremacy manifests itself in the industry: Eurocentric beauty standards simply drive Davis (and people who look like her) out of the competition for roles for which they are qualified because decision makers think a “whiter” look is more relatable or desirable. Actress Charlize Theron then interrupted Davis’s complex critique of the political nature of beauty standards to say simply, “You’re hot as shit”—failing to process any deeper meaning whatsoever. The moment was not, as Theron seemed to understand it, about Davis having low self-esteem or seeing herself as less beautiful than Berry, but about understanding how the Hollywood system both fails to create roles for black women—especially those with dark skin—and see black women inhabiting roles not specifically created for them.

Theron’s mistake is telling: she imagines the problem not as one of systemic discrimination, but as a culture of Photoshop that limits women and girls’ acceptance of their own beauty. Yes, unrealizable beauty standards are a kind of oppression, and a dangerous one at that. No, they are not the end of the story.

The Times public editor rightly points out that underneath Stanley’s unforgivable essay is a team of editors who are just as complicit. And, of course, just as white, which is likely a large source of the problem. Nikole Hannah-Jones, of ProPublica, remarks that newsroom diversity isn’t just a moral high ground or do-good practice; it’s a necessary precondition for good journalism. Meanwhile, Anne Helen Peterson, writing for Buzzfeed, deconstructs the Times longstanding derision towards television as art, which, when combined with institutionalized racism, guarantees that the Times television coverage will remain irrelevant.

Elsewhere, Facebook takes its old but never consistently enforced “real name” practice and uses it to bludgeon trans performers. Notably, the crackdown comes after an increase in the rate of Facebook users’ flagging accounts belonging to prominent drag queens for using “fake” names: in other words, the policy itself, and Facebook’s reliance on community reporting, is being used as a tool for oppression and transphobia. Beyond an obvious criticism of Facebook’s naive concept of identity—centered on white, cis men who have no need to navigate multiple identities because theirs is our culture’s default—the practice also draws attention to the meek set of systems in place for dealing with abuse online, and the ways even well-intentioned systems (which the real names policy is not) can be used towards other ends.

Of the thousands of people who apparently signed up for Ello this week (myself not among them), many noted the lack of privacy and abuse controls. Had a new social network launched with robust tools and practices for preventing and dealing with harassment and abuse, that would have been notable. But it would also have been insufficient: we desperately need to evolve the ways we interact online to make it safer for everyone. Block tools and pseudonyms are table stakes; it's time we moved beyond them.

A long and fascinating essay on the organizational structure of Occupy Sandy notes the idea of “disaster communism”—as opposed to disaster capitalism, the subject of Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine. Disaster capitalism is the corporate practice of descending on crises (or fomenting them) and using them to transfer wealth or resources away from the public sphere and into the corporate one; disaster communism, then, is the reverse—taking advantage of disasters to turn towards more cooperative, communal efforts. Klein’s newest book extends that principle to climate change, and makes the connection that climate change isn’t a problem that can be solved without drastically altering the capitalist system. A cautiously optimistic report from Germany shows how a society can successfully demand a shift away from fossil fuels. Rebecca Solnit writes, with characteristic force, that “climate change is violence.”

Related books

The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein

Klein expertly and devastatingly reveals the history behind a model of capitalism that first fed on disaster, then fomented it.

Naomi Klein’s newest book has a singular and irrefutable claim: responding to climate change requires nothing less than dismantling capitalism from the ground up.