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The Allies of Whiteness

In publishing, the barricades do not fall easily

A few long weeks ago, during the Covid-19 pandemic but before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, I wrote about racism in publishing, looking particularly at whom publishing lauds and applauds. The Pulitzer Prizes, those cherished gewgaws of the would-be kings and queens of publishing, had just been handed out a few days earlier. As my column noted, the award for feature writing was handed to a young white male journalist named Ben Taub. A darling at The New Yorker (who has, per one journalist who served with him on a panel, “an unlimited budget”), Taub won his Pulitzer for an article titled “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret.”

None of this was surprising; staff writers at The New Yorker (whose editor David Remnick sits on the Pulitzer Prize Board) win Pulitzers all the time and almost ritualistically; the only question seems to be who among them will be selected. Except that there was a problem. Much of Taub’s story was drawn from a book by Mohamedou Ould Salahi about his time in the Guantánamo prison, not from any length of field reporting (he spent only a week with Salahi). Salahi’s book, Guantánamo Diary, did not receive a Pulitzer Prize. A white man won a prestigious award for telling a story that a brown man had already told. The white people involved noticed nothing amiss. Nor did any of them—either those at The New Yorker or anyone associated with the board of the Pulitzer Prizes—ever bother to respond to questions I had raised.

I bring this up now because in the weeks since, as America’s simmering pot of racial cruelties has boiled over, many who are instrumental in lubricating the rise of the Ben Taubs of the world, or scores of others like him, have cast themselves as “white allies.” Never mind their routine preference for promoting those in whom they “see themselves”; never mind their secret biases, their always-white darlings. Those who once simply hid behind a haute snobbery (think Vogue editor Anna Wintour) are now, thanks to the fear of cultural irrelevance, donning the garb of white allyship.

It is a tricky situation. At a time when so many feel their public face requires some sort of pretense to being “white allies,” it becomes necessary to distinguish them. White allies, the long-standing and authentic ones, are not simply performing allyship on social media; they have been—since before yesterday—finding ways to make changes; they are reaching out in real life, considering and critiquing their own choices and their own complicity. (Margaret Sullivan’s column this week in the Washington Post is a good example of this.) On the other hand, these interloping others—I call them “allies of whiteness”—are interested only in the most superficial, most easy-to-use, convenient-from-country-homes sorts of allyship.

Allies of whiteness are not interested in making any actual changes to their organizations, their friend groups, their workplaces; they are are interested in riding out this period of racial upheaval.

Allies of whiteness are not interested in making any actual changes to their organizations, their friend groups, their workplaces; they are simply interested in riding out this period of racial upheaval and tumult until they can return to the business of ensuring, ever so subtly and far more cleverly (than, say, the average Trump voter), the continuation of the status quo.

In the meantime, these allies of whiteness will perform wokeness, carefully asking for the correct pronunciation of your name in front of others, splashing pictures of their “butter chicken” recipe on Instagram in the morning, their turmeric latte in the evening, peppering their sentences with “y’all” and “girl.” It is all for show. Here’s an example. In the very early days of the pandemic, I was (like all the rest of us) a near voracious consumer of a particular newly born literary form known as the “Covid-19 Diary.” Provoked by the “historic” feel of the moment, these were splattered on nearly every publication, writers finding themselves suddenly possessed with plenty of time and bounteousness of a moment when everything was material.

One of the websites featuring this conversion of moment to material was that of The New York Review of Books, a publication of great renown that has, by and large, featured white and usually (read: nearly 80 percent) cisgender males. The 2018 VIDA Count, which looks at gender and racial demographics of literary magazine contributors, noted that “The New York Review of Books (whose previous editor Ian Buruma resigned in 2018 after an uproar owing to his publication of an essay by a Canadian radio broadcaster who had been accused of sexual assault by multiple women) had the most pronounced gender disparity among the fifteen publications they studied, with only 27 percent of published writers who are women.” Though it is much harder for researchers to provide a tally of bylines by race or ethnicity, the Pew Research Center reported last year that only 7 percent of newsroom employees in their 2013–2017 survey were black, while 11 percent of U.S. workers overall are black.

Even still, I was not thinking of any of this when I started to read the diaries published by the New York Review Daily section. But a cursory glance at the entries revealed a curious pattern: white contributors were writing about any place that they might be, anywhere in the world. Non-white contributors, by and large, were writing from “where they belonged”: India, Thailand, etc. On March 29, I tweeted at @NYDaily, saying simply, “The list of quarantine entries over at @NYRDaily is an interesting insight into who gets to claim what ‘place.’ It appears, as per usual, that white writers can write about anyplace while others have to stick to ‘what they know.’”

A courteous reply pointing out that I was wrong would have done the thing. But those were days before we were talking about systemic racism again, about how white people define the cultural narrative while authors of color are stuck in their various niches, experts only on race or curries, etc. I was not even sure that I was substantively right. It didn’t matter, though; there would be no further discussion of the point. Not only did I not get a response, I was blocked by their Twitter account.

The example illustrated what usually happens to writers (or any other profession) of color when they question a system that they perceive is marginalizing them. Even while the NYRB now features articles on race and the ongoing protests, no one from the editorial staff has, despite my repeated inquiries, responded to my observation. That kind of exchange, which would take place privately via email or a phone call, is not required in the performance of woke-ness in which they are now engaged. Actually having a dialogue with a female writer of color, one that reflects an openness to reconsider the editorial assumptions made by their website, is something a white ally must do—but it has no place on the to-do list of “allies of whiteness.” They’re simply waiting out the moment of reckoning, without engaging in any reckoning.

Another example: the well established book critic Carlin Romano has remained on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle after vehemently disagreeing with Hope Wabuke, one of six people of color on the twenty-four-person board, who had attempted to draft a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests. Many board members resigned in solidarity with Wabuke. Romano has not—and he has threatened to sue anyone who votes to remove him. Allies of whiteness never cede space; they simply wait for the outrage to be over, then carry on as before.

Allies of whiteness quite simply are those who are invested in maintaining the architecture of white supremacy even as they pretend to deplore it. They join in condemnations of systemic racism in theory, but they never actually do anything that would end it. Allies of whiteness will condemn racial discrimination in an abstract sense but never take a position against someone specific: a co-worker, a friend, a relative. They will hide within generalities, condemning someone already condemned (Donald Trump, for example), some epoch of the past (Jim Crow), some inchoate act that cannot be attributed to any one person (racism in the media at large). They will never take a stand, never make overtures toward racial equality without a public audience.

It is the underlying current of the nation’s racism; hard to quantify, because racists are both systems and individual people, and so many racist acts that deserve scrutiny do not make national news. Racists are not all public figures; they are more likely people who work and study with you. Acts of racism are not all shootings and lynchings. Most, such as the now infamous video of the dog walker in Central Park, happen in ordinary circumstances and interactions; racism is enacted by people who are certain that they have done nothing racist—nothing that they will be held accountable for. Racists everywhere have been able to survive and thrive because allies of whiteness have enabled them, made excuses for them, stayed coyly quiet instead of exposing them.

It’s also true that allies of whiteness can be brown or black. If some black and brown people have spoken out against racist systems of preference, others are riding on risks that others took for them, the benefits of which they are eager to reap. Like South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott, they will say next to nothing about matters of race, but will eagerly become the face of racial “reform” because they are the safe brown or black people, whom the allies of whiteness can trust. Scott fronts for GOP Senators like Mitch McConnell, who suddenly need to make a show of their belief in police reform.

In recent weeks, as protests have raged through the country, as video after video of white entitlement and its consequences has surfaced, many white people have been wrestling with whether they are being good allies to black people and other people of color. This is an urgent and worthwhile reckoning. My category “allies of whiteness” may be inexact, but it encapsulates the silent supporters of those with overtly racist views, those who fight to keep up statues that celebrate slavery, those who actively create new structures of oppression.

As we go deeper into what will—I hope—be a social and cultural transformation, it is essential to identify a theoretical basis that understands and exposes the different technologies that white majorities have deployed to ensure that things remain as they are. In the meantime, nearly three months after I was blocked by the New York Review Daily, I have been unblocked. But I have not received any response or communication from either their editors or their publisher, all of whom I contacted in the hope of a dialogue.