The people who believe themselves to be white

(crossposted on Medium)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, repeatedly refers to “the people who believe themselves to be white,” sometimes varying it with “the people who need to be white” or (quoting Baldwin) those who “think they are white,” as in the epigram that starts part III of his book:

“And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”

This curious phrasing opens up the possibility of hope in what for me, as the father of two black children, is otherwise a terrifying and disturbing book. Because the phrase clearly indicts and indicates me — I do believe myself to be white — but also because it suggests that whiteness, like blackness, is a category that is subject to manipulation. It is a point of leverage for those who might want to effect change.

Quinn Norton writes about the dynamic of whiteness in an essay called “How White People Got Made,” and it is an important read for the people who believe themselves to be white for several reasons.

First, insofar as race is a social construct (which it is), it’s useful to examine how that construct was built, and how it has two sides (at least). The category of “black people” could not exist without a complementary, equally made-up category of “white people” to stand apart from them. And sure enough, the early history of American racism shows that this is exactly what happened. Poor whites were inducted into the category of whiteness to buy their loyalty to the overall system, as compensation for their poorness, and to set them against the blacks.

Second, this construction gave them something beyond economic value: Respect. No matter how poor you might be, at least you were white, and you had that to your credit. Not surprisingly, the notion of respect is behind much of this year’s election year rhetoric and, I think, behind the anger and fear felt by many white conservatives.

Third, the category of whiteness has itself been fluid. Poor Irish and Italian immigrants were not white, at first. Jews were not white. Catholics, even after their immigrant assimilation, were for a long time only marginally white; a similar thing happened with Mormons.

It may be that we are in the midst of a continuous updating, a redefinition, of what it means to be white, and we simply haven’t perceived it yet. Perhaps we believe ourselves to be white, but we do not know what that actually is, or has only recently become.

In my own lifetime I have witnessed the disappearance of white ethnic categories as a meaningful form of identity. In 1970s Ohio, it seemed to me that many people identified as Irish, Italian, Polish, or other ethnicities, even while also (implicitly, or secondarily) being white. Such ethnic identification was already a bit quaint, even then. But in 2010s California I hear and see much less ethnic identification among whites. We have faded into a large, undifferentiated mass of whiteness. Only Jewish people seem to hold themselves partly apart from that assimilation, by virtue of having their own, grounding ethnicity.

That the grand bargain of becoming “white” turned out to be a spectacularly bad deal is sometimes hard to see.

Let’s be clear: White privilege is real, and yet often so obvious as to be invisible. As Norton writes, “selling” white privilege is like putting a sticker on a box of cereal saying “contains no arsenic!” As if arsenic were something that you could even contemplate putting into your breakfast cereal. Or lead into your drinking water. And yet, here we are: A century and a half after the end of slavery, putting lead into the drinking water of the mostly black residents of Flint, Michigan (and who knows how many other communities whose water supplies have not yet been tested).

White privilege means not having to worry about whether there is arsenic in your breakfast cereal or lead in your drinking water. Not having to worry about whether you are going to be shot by an officer while lying on your back with your hands in the air, or while following an officer’s instructions to remove your wallet, or while being put into a chokehold on the ground, or while playing in the park.

These privileges are real. But what have we, the people who believe ourselves to be white, given up in exchange?

Hundreds of years ago, the complicity of poor whites was bought in exchange for their privileges, which blinded them to the fact that they were still poor, still on the short end of the stick.

And today: Those of us not in the wealthiest 1% are likewise still on the outside. We have no access to capital. The bottom 90% hold 70% of the nation’s debt.

We may have access to small opportunities, to a good job and the dream of a house in the suburbs. We may even have an actual house in the suburbs and dream of a successful startup that will send our children to college and keep us from having to work again. Or we may be scraping by as greeters and laborers and servers and hoping merely to be able to pay the rent and hang onto our trucks at the end of the month.

In other words: Look past the racial divisions and you see that we have much in common. Black, white, or brown, all of us are on the outside. None of us are on the receiving end of the massive transfer of wealth that has been happening in the past few decades.

Set aside the economics, and there is still a cost, and this is perhaps the biggest one. By letting ourselves be cut off from the rest of humanity, we “whites” lose our own sense of completeness and humanity. The “other” remains other than us, outside, even though those people are our friends, neighbors, brothers. By taking our privilege for granted, we have become spoiled, insensitive to the conditions of our own success, unaware of what keeps us afloat.

What more pitiful sight is there than the person who merely believes himself to have accomplished something?

So for those of us who believe ourselves to be white, we should ask: In exchange for the privilege of not being shot by the police, not having to inherit generations of forced poverty or redlined neighborhoods, of not being denied education and voting rights and respect — very real privileges — what have we forgotten? What have we lost?

Because in the world ruled by capital accumulation and state-sanctioned violence, there is a cost for everything. Even things that you might think were beyond price.

However: What was created by human agency can also potentially be undone, or rebuilt in a different way. And this is where I find a glimmer of hope in the phrase “the people who believe themselves to be white.” That hope is: Do we have a choice in that belief? Can we refuse the categorization? Can we refuse the privilege, reject the belief, deny our assent to the systematic plundering of black bodies, of poor white bodies, of the very planet we live on?

Can we bring humanity back from the edge of oblivion?

I am not so naive as to think a simple, single refusal is enough to absolve me and those like me of responsibility, or to get me out of this unwanted, unasked-for condition of privilege and oppression.

But perhaps there is a way, steadily and surely, day by day, to refuse to be complicit.

The people who believe themselves to be white

A future we may not want.

Originally published on Medium

Last night I went to hear Kevin Kelly speak on “The Next 30 Digital Years,” a talk that was part of the Long Now Foundation’s series of Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

I admire and look up to Kelly for many things, but the talk was a disappointment. His previous book, What Technology Wants, was ambitious, informed, deep, stimulating, and surprising. His argument that technology has an autonomous tendency towards unstoppable expansion and lifelike growth, beyond our volitional control, is disturbing but also important to consider. And he mustered an enormous amount of research to make the argument.

By contrast, last night’s talk felt like a superficial attempt to draw the most obvious lines from current trends in the tech industry. The best thing about his talk is that the vision he painted was very disturbing: A world governed by alien AIs, with screens on every surface, crowdsourced advertisements and influencer marketing campaigns assaulting us from all directions, and overwhelming flows of ephemeral data and “facts” making it impossible to judge the truth of anything. In short, it was very much like today’s world, except more.

Is this really what we want? I think it is important to ask this question, over and over, and I am glad Kelly helped point it out.

This video paints the picture much more vividly I think.

A vision of our augmented reality, screens- and advertising-everywhere future.

But what was more disappointing to me was Kelly’s lack of context or of truly long-term thinking.

As to context: He repeated the canard that ownership is becoming less important, as Uber is a huge taxi company that owns no cars, Airbnb a huge lodging company that owns no real estate, Facebook a huge media company that owns no content, etc. But this is false: Each of those companies is very much concerned about ownership. It’s just that what they want to own — the marketplaces and networks they control — is not what they appear to be selling.

As to long-term thinking: His sketch of technology’s arc seemed divorced from any long-term trends outside Silicon Valley, such as the steady increase in global temperatures, the relentless destruction of biodiverse ecosystems, the concentration of wealth in smaller and smaller populations and the concurrent increase of political anger, resentment, and instability among the rest. Other more techie trends also went without mention: Massive changes in energy generation, for instance, or the shift towards robotic manufacturing, both of which have already had global economic impacts and seem poised to do far more. It seems to me that any of these macro trends have a strong potential to disrupt any internal “inevitable” tendencies of the tech industry, with potentially significant effects both during and well beyond the next three decades.

And finally, apart from one comment about how ubiquitous tracking of everything we say, do, places we go, and even expressions we make might be “sort of scary,” Kelly didn’t offer much of a path for people to make choices about this future, or to even evaluate whether this future might be good or bad.

Kelly does have a knack for the thought-provoking coinage and sound bite. His redefinition of AI as “artificial smartness” is clever and on point. He referred, provocatively, to many different kinds of intelligences and minds, and suggested we are about to see a “Copernican revolution” in intelligence, where the human mind is no longer the central or most advanced or most general-purpose type of intelligence. Instead, Kelly said, “Our job for the next century is to discover and invent as many kinds of intelligence as possible.” I think that’s intriguing and worth thinking about deeply.

But in practical terms, he suggested that means adding AI to everything we can. (Something that hundreds of tech startups are clearly already doing.) In that world, he says, humans’ earning power will be predicated on how well they get along with these alien artificial minds. Another sort of scary point!

Despite this somewhat dystopian (to my mind) vision, Kelly’s an optimist. He thinks that we are still in the earliest stages of the Internet revolution, and that people in 2046 will look back enviously at the opportunities we have. “All the easy things to find are still before us — and we’re going to find them in the next 10 years,” Kelly said.

However, I think Kelly is naive. During the Q&A session, he and Stewart Brand started discussing how capitalism might be reaching its end point, superseded by an emerging sharing economy where ownership is unimportant, and where accumulating wealth is less important than, I don’t know, accumulating experiences, or collecting useful AIs like Pokémon. I think this is hopelessly clueless.

Uber, Facebook, Airbnb: These companies are triumphs of capitalism. They are not about to change the ownership paradigm. They are the culmination of it. They have found a way to eliminate consumers’ ownership of things and replace it with their (the companies’) ownership of what really matters, in a new dimension where individuals and smaller companies cannot hope to compete. And, in that way, these companies are contributing to the concentration of wealth and power among the few, not distributing it.

A truly long-term perspective would have to ask: Can these trends last? Do we want this kind of a future? What happens if we get there and it’s awful? What happens next? Can we do anything about it? And if so, what?

A future we may not want.

The VR office of the future.

“Oculus Rift headsets are expensive, bulky, and block out the real world completely. But like the early Logitech webcams, they’re just the starting point. Eventually, VR tech will become smaller, lighter, and—especially in the case of mixed-reality—far less intrusive. When that happens, VR is going to reshape business collaboration and communication even more profoundly than videoconferencing did 10 years ago, or email 20 years ago.”

This Is What Your Future Virtual-Reality Office Will Be Like, by Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork (a Tweney Media client)

The VR office of the future.

Narrative specificity.

Narrative specificity means avoiding generalizations and using details to make your story come to life. Leave it out, and your words will be hollow and dead, like empty snail shells strewn across the dirt.

It’s not surprising that many writers miss this point, particularly in politics and business. These writers are concerned about getting a point across, so the most natural thing to do in that case is to emphasize the point itself: Our product is terrific, our company means well, our candidate is an honest and trustworthy person.

The problem is that merely making assertions is empty and unconvincing: You need to illustrate the point you want to make with concrete examples, images, details, anecdotes.

As a result, one of the most common things I do when working with clients’ copy is to push them to include more concrete detail. I often ask them to tell me personal stories. I look for unusual and specific customer cases, or unique turning points in the company history, and then I ask for details around that. I ask them about their childhood, and how they got started in this business. I ask them to tell me about the biggest challenge they faced, or (better yet) the worst day they experienced when they were starting their company/building their product. With luck (and patience), you can often draw out a much more compelling narrative in this way.

If you’re not trained as a writer you may not be aware of this, or know how to put together a good, concrete illustration of a point. So it’s not surprising that many people miss this. But what is surprising is that the speechwriters of a major address at a U.S. political convention would overlook this basic point: And that’s exactly what seems to have happened with Melania Trump’s speech last night. Not only does it appear that Melania lifted at least a couple paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, it seems that Melania’s speech never moved far beyond empty statements and platitudes.

From New York magazine:

“Dressed in snowy white with poofed things at the end of her sleeves, she looked beautiful, and spoke pleasantly enough. But the words that came out of her mouth were empty, meaningless. If she had really paid attention to Michelle’s speech from 2008, what she should have taken from it was a lesson about the power of narrative specificity: Michelle told detailed, intimate stories of her life as a young person and her life as a wife and mother, details that shed light on her life, her personality, the nature of her relationship with her husband.”

I don’t expect this shortcoming will hurt the Trump campaign: Most of the people at the convention are already convinced he is their candidate, and they don’t need an eloquent speech by Melania to firm up their convictions. Likewise, no one outside the convention who isn’t already for Trump is going to have their mind changed by any speech by the candidate’s wife, no matter how eloquent.

Still, it is a squandered moment. Instead of making a moving, memorable speech, Melania gave an address that will be remembered only for its plagiarism and hollowness.

That’s not her fault — that’s the fault of her speechwriters and the organizers of the convention. They should have done better.

Narrative specificity.

“I have to say, I get a lot of inspiration from just going out and pretending I’ve never been to this planet before. It’s a great way to remember just how absurd, strange, beautiful, and unlikely everything is around you.”

Brendan Constantine



Yesterday I realized a dream I’ve had ever since I started open water swimming around 2010. I swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco. It’s about 1.25 miles though we covered a bit more water than that due to fighting the current a little. In all, it took me one hour and 13 minutes in pretty calm and 60-62 degree water. I was swimming with a group of 5 other swimmers, plus a pilot, Bill Wygant, the president of the South End Rowing Club, who took us out to the island and then watched over us as we swam back.

I saw cormorants, a huge flock of pelicans, a speeding pilot boat, a big-ass Hanjin freighter thankfully well behind us, and a cute orange jelly — a few feet below me and out of reach. (I am a bit freaked out by jellies, and while it was pretty to look at, I’m glad I didn’t touch it.) Plus I got to see a gorgeous sunrise over Alcatraz.

It was a terrific experience.

When I first dipped my toe into San Francisco Bay, at Coyote Point, in 2010, swimming Alcatraz was something that seemed only distantly achievable. I’ve been swimming all my life, but never swam on a team and never learned to swim distances. At the time I could barely swim 100 yards before needing to catch my breath. I realized pretty quickly that if I was going to keep going into the Bay I’d need to learn how to swim better. Over the next few years I pursued it only sporadically, though. I studied Total Immersion videos, DVDs, and books, and went through a whole series of TI-based drills to correct the obvious “windmilling” flaws in my stroke. I tried to get in laps at the Y when I could. And I returned to Coyote Point occasionally, never venturing too far from shore.

But last year I took a stronger interest and joined a Master’s swim team at Burlingame Aquatics in September. US Master’s Swimming has an impressive sounding name, until you realize that “Masters” just means “old,” and “old” means “anyone over 18.” “Adult Swimming” would probably be more accurate. In other words, you can be slow and have a terrible stroke, like me, and get along just fine in Master’s swimming, as long as you’re a grownup. You don’t have to compete in swim meets. Heck, you don’t even have to finish the workouts. The main advantage is that you get some coaching, and for me that structure was critical. It forced me to swim longer than I would on my own (2,000+ yards per workout instead of 1,000-ish as I would do if undirected). It also provided a context where I could learn from my lane-mates and my coach. And my coach, Cory Ferrara, has been amazingly encouraging and constructive.

With the help of these workouts I was able to improve my 100-yard interval (the pace I can swim on a regular, repeatable basis) from about 2 minutes and 10 seconds to about 1:45 or 1:50. I can sprint a 100 in 1:30, which was unthinkable a year ago. That’s still not very fast, and there are still a lot of things I can improve, but I’m on the right track.

Most importantly to me, I can swim comfortably for longer amounts of time. Last weekend I was in the water for an hour and 35 minutes on a challenging swim from Pier 7 to Aquatic Park, just as the tide was turning and started to push against us. And then there was Alcatraz yesterday. Both swims were challenging but well within my capabilities.

I also joined the South End Rowing Club, an organization that’s been in San Francisco since 1873 and is devoted to rowing, swimming, running, and handball. But mostly it seems dominated by swimmers, people like me who really enjoy swimming in the Bay. The South End has provided lots of opportunities to go on shorter swims around the Bay, and to pick up advice and encouragement from other swimmers. (Some of whom have swum Alcatraz 1,000 times or more!) Plus, it has a sauna.

Alcatraz course, July 13
Alcatraz course, July 13

Isn’t it cold, you may ask? Well, yes. But here’s the amazing thing: You get used to it. Sure, that initial shock of cold is always there. But while I used a wetsuit when swimming in colder water before, last winter I decided that I would try doing without it. As the temperature dropped below 65 to 60 to 55 over the course of a couple months, I just kept going in the water, a couple times a week. And I acclimated to it. The process is partly psychological but I believe also physiological, and your body actually gets better and better able to tolerate cold water. (And a sauna helps a lot at the end of your swim.)

For me, swimming in the Bay or the ocean is a lot like hiking. I do it because it connects me to the world, because I see things like cormorants and jellyfish (and sometimes sea lions) up close, and because it makes me feel relaxed and alive.

So that was the big thing about Alcatraz. I achieved a goal I’d set for myself years ago, yes. But in another way, it was just another beautiful swim in the jade-green water. And I’m sure I’ll be doing that swim again soon.


You have to take it upon yourself to be an infinitely fantastic person.

Henry Rollins: “Since an upgrade will not occur on a national level via presidential pen stroke or SCOTUS decision, you have to take it upon yourself to be an infinitely fantastic person every single day. There will be times when it will be a bitch to be so awesome, but you’ll handle it. This century will be about incredible individuals. Bold acts of kindness and a genuine desire to at least try to see things from someone else’s perspective are but two of the mandatory requirements for betterment moving forward.”

Henry Rollins: White America Couldn’t Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day

You have to take it upon yourself to be an infinitely fantastic person.