Today is a problematic activism double-feature. The AP issued a statement on non-capitalizing “white” when referring to the racial group (as opposed to Black). And I got a an email from a group of activists. Other than both being ostensibly about “antiracism,” both happening on the same day is a coincidence. They’re unrelated. Or are they?
Of course not.
Like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, if you dig into any popular social justice issue today, odds are you find they shared an actor.
So, what’s the problem? Let’s start with a quick dip into the AP statement.
AP: Capitalize Black. Don’t capitalize white. Because we said so.
In the statement released yesterday, the Vice President of Standards at the Associated Press (whose conventions here will ripple down to countless smaller institutions), wrote:
“AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses. This decision follows our move last month to capitalize Black in such uses. We consulted with a wide group of people internally and externally around the globe and considered a variety of commentary in making these decisions.”
This statement was made in response to pushback, it seems, from their decision to capitalize Black. Which, if I had to guess (because I’ve gotten these annoying emails, too), probably had big “Why isn’t there a straight pride parade?” energy.
But the decision itself – the reason they landed on the little “w” side of the picket fence – is clearly one of our doing. The “our” here being social justice people, of course. Or, more specifically, racial justice advocates continuing a decades-long lineage of Black-women-led capitalization.
The AP even says as much:
Is it unhelpful that they state that there is “clear desire” for capitalizing Black, while “less support” for capitalizing white as objective facts? Without recognizing the obvious positionality (to use a fancy social justice term meaning who you are shapes your understanding of truth) embedded in those statements? For sure.
(What I mean there is only “a clear desire” for the one decision, and “less support” for the other, within a certain subset of the population. Choosing whose opinion you value is fine, and rejecting others’ opinions is also arguably fine. Just say you’re doing it.)
But that’s not the problem with this bit of journalistic activism. Let me add another dot, then I’ll connect them.
As a “white anti-racist speaker” I’m supposed to tell you what my fees are.
Yesterday, before I had read the chance to read the AP statement, I got a message via my blog reply form.
Here’s what it read (emphasis mine):
Dear Mr. Killerman,
As a white anti-racist speaker who has profited from the work of BIPOC we are writing to ask you to disclose how much you are paid as a speaker. This is necessary for us to confront the disparity between white anti-racist speakers and BIPOC and actually deconstruct white supremacy.
Please respond with your fees and the total amount you’ve been paid in the years you’ve been publicly speaking on race.
This response will be made public. As will your lack of response. If that makes you uncomfortable please consider your privilege and if you actually believe in the goals of anti-racism.
Is my name spelled wrong? Of course.
Am I not a white anti-racist speaker, and therefore mis-targeted by this message? Also yes.
But does the gist of this activism still apply to me (someone who has, for about a decade, made most of my living speaking & performing about social justice)? It does.
The call to action immediately felt familiar, but I couldn’t place why.
At first glance, I read this message as being a response to my blog post asking “What Are Your Best Arguments Against Financial Transparency in Social Justice?" Then I realized it didn’t come from the contact form there, but on It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, where I haven’t written about that (yet). I also wrote about this in the Problematic Activism book, but that’s not out yet. So what gives?
After searching through messages, emails, and other chats with colleagues to figure out why I felt like I had heard this before, I found a tweet I had discussed with a friend a few weeks ago:
This tweet is from a prominent Black antiracism author. And while it seems like a one-off missive from her with zero follow-ups in the recent weeks (she was probably venting some anger as everyone that week was attempting to estimate the gargantuan income of a different, and white, antiracist author – another topic for another day), this is probably where the call-to-action I received originated. Or at least they share a common source.
Dot added. Time to do some connecting.
Power Inverting beats Internal Contradictions every time.
In a sort of Rock, Paper, Scissors of dogma, I’ve often talked with fellow activists about which rigid rule supersedes the other, when they’re clearly in conflict?
Or, analogizing in different direction, what are the cornerstones of social justice dogma, upon which everything else is built?
And just like how ridiculous it is that “paper beats rock,” a lot of the outcomes of dogma are similarly dumbfounding when brought into the real world, or applied 3-dimensionally.
The AP is doubling down on power inverting.
What’s going on in the AP statement on lower-casing white while upper-casing Black? They’re enacting a social justice power inverse, both symbolically and literally.
Symbolically, it’s by the “legitimacy” conveyed by capitalizing letters. By capitalizing Black, but lowercasing white, they’re granting more legitimacy to Black (thereby reversing the power dynamic of a racist, white supremacist society). I’m not mind-reading, they said as much:
“But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”
And literally, the AP is reversing power by choosing which voices they listen to, and who is given power to alter their styleguide. They’re not listening to white people (definitely not white supremacists). They’re listening to Black people
(To be more specific, they’re listening Black activists, or activists for this tactic of antiracism. As much as we paint it otherwise, there really isn’t a monolithic perspective on capitalization, or any other issue; and I’d wager most people, of all races & ethnicities, really don’t give a shit here.)
In this way, I should stop talking this being a decision made or argued by the AP at all, because it really is just them lending their platform to racial justice activists.
But I won’t. Because it’s the AP that is amplifying this tactic, and they’re providing their own (contradictory, hand-waving) argument for it, so I can happily point that out without doing any power-non-inverting myself.
What are the pitfalls of AP’s argument? Here’s one:
- They say, “People who are Black have strong historical and cultural commonalities.” They add, “That includes the shared experience of discrimination due solely to the color of one’s skin.”
- At the same time, they argue, “White people generally do not share the same history and culture.”
One of these statements must be false. (I honestly don’t have a horse in this race, because I’d be just as happy to not make either of these points in this argument.)
If there’s a collective experience of discrimination, there must be a collective experience of discriminating. Or not being discriminated against. We have LOTS of words and phrases and theories for this in Social Justice Land, but “white privilege” will suffice.
Here’s another hiccup:
- The AP makes clear their lens in this decision is “a global news organization,” and state that the capitalized Black identifies the commonalities of people “even if they are from different parts of the world and even if they now live in different parts of the world.” This all goes to say that they’re referring to all Black people, globally, with this capitalization, not Black Americans (or African-Americans).
- Meanwhile, Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the Black women people cite in the capitalization of Black, wrote in her seminal paper on intersectionality that capitalizing “Black” was important due to its interchangeable usage with “African-American”, because in that case it “constitutes a specific cultural group.” While “whites” or “women of color” do not, and are therefore non-capitalized.
Here’s Crenshaw applauding Brookings for their statement on capitalizing Black, which makes clear they’re referring to “census-defined black or African American people.” (Pay no attention to that lowercase b.)
So, again, the AP has painted themselves into a corner. Do they follow Crenshaw’s lead, which would allow for a lowercase white and an uppcase Black – with consistent rationale! (But can’t be applied globally.) Or continue to square a circle?
Speaking of squaring circles: let’s talk about white antiracist speaking fees.
Asking (just) white speakers to disclose their fees to address racial disparities doesn’t add up.
It’s not inherently unhelpful (or racist, or whatever) to focus our attention solely on white people. Or for us to create a rule or imperative or call-to-action that isolates a racial group, in the name of social justice.
If that action is necessary for us to recognize injustice, and is compatible with living social justice (i.e., we could see ourselves continuing along this road toward our goal, as well as once we’re there), great.
When it’s justifying one injustice now for the sake of some future justice? Less great.
And when it’s likely only to create harm in response to harm – some public square enactment of retributive justice – it’s not great at all.
This brings me back to the message I got, which is a perfect example of when we give ourselves a pass to unhelpfully target a racial group, merely because that racial group is the one holding power (AKA: applying the social justice power inverse).
If the message wasn’t targeting only white (“and white passing”) antiracist speakers, we’d immediately spot the “paper beating rock” situation here. But because it’s power-inverting, we miss the obvious:
You can’t address a disparity without knowing what everyone involved is experiencing.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that paying Black people to be antiracist speakers less than you pay white people is a barrier to social justice (I’ve laid out why it’s not that simple in The “Pay Them” Paradox). Getting every single white antiracist speaker (a group of which I’m not a member, despite the email) to disclose what they’re charging and making doesn’t solve that problem.
We’d need to know what everyone, of all races, is charging and making to address disparities.
But the call-to-action I received (and saw on Twitter, and have seen in lots of different shapes over the years) wasn’t that: it was aimed at white people only. And why are we giving this a pass in Social Justice Land (where we’d generally not be the driving force behind anything “whites only”)?
Two reasons, I think:
- We’re okay with targeting white people only if it’s inverting power hierarchies.
- Asking for true financial transparency – from everyone involved – is liable to blow up in our face.
Anecdotally, and while I’m in a slightly different world (I was generally hired to talk about gender and sexuality and social justice – not racial justice), I can say that my experience would complicate the narrative. I’ve almost always been told (as a white, man, straight person) that my speaking fees were the lowest at any big event I’ve been at (where there were other speakers, who were people of color, women, and/or queer). I only say “almost,” because this wasn’t something I asked about – the disparity was outlandish enough that the hosts would volunteer this information themselves (e.g., “We’re so grateful that you agreed to such a low fee. We spent almost our entire speaking budget on XYZ Person.").
The norm in social justice spaces to “pay them” (“them” being a somehow non-alienating general descriptor of marginalized group members) has been so galvanized it’s become a more. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the racial disparity didn’t shake out in the way this activism is suggesting.
That’s a good (if not cynical) reason not to ask POC speakers to disclose their fees, if you don’t want to open the door to that outcome.
Finally, and most importantly, any disclosure on this front is likely to be met with intense, forever-lasting criticism. It doesn’t matter if you charge $50, $500, $5,000, or $50,000 per speaking engagement, if that information becomes public, there are going to be people thinking it’s too much. It’s evidence of reckless spending. And you are evil for being paid it.
Putting white people in this public hot seat, knowing they’ll likely be targeted, is justice; threatening to out them if they don’t respond positively to the call is “accountability.” Doing so to people of color would be unjustifiable – public dragging, painting a target on an already vulnerable person, adding insult to oppression.
At least I’m guessing that’s what the line of thinking is here. And I’d agree with half of that.