The Allies of Whiteness

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

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.

More here.