Everything that matters much more — the delivery driver’s poverty and his undocumented status — gets obscured by a broad telling of history and a few handpicked complaints about how white people ask, “Where are you from?” These instances of identity slippage remind me of a style of sleight-of-hand where the magician provides you tiny, seemingly identifying glimpses that trick you into thinking the card in his hand is actually the card he has secured in his pocket.
This way of thinking is quite common in the academy, the corporate world and the media. Once you notice it for the first time, you start seeing it everywhere, and efforts that seem to be in the name of social justice start to feel a bit hollow. You might, for example, be skeptical about the way corporations almost immediately funneled money into their “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” initiatives during the George Floyd protests. You could also conclude from Mackenzie Fierceton’s story that there is no actual empathy within elite institutions unless you perfectly fit into the trauma hierarchy they have created, which preferences the types of overcoming-adversity stories they can place in a brochure. You might conclude there is no virtue in these elite spaces outside of a purely gestural and ultimately transactional kind.
I would mostly agree with you. These formulations of identity have been on my mind for my entire career as a journalist. I have tried to be critical of them when I see them. But while I believe there needs to be a broad reset on how we talk about oppression and the less fortunate, I’ve also worried these critiques may be taken up by people like Wax as a way to justify the silencing of all talk about race, gender and sexual identity.
If, for example, you have concluded that every critique of the criminal justice system comes from a “woke” lawyer who went to Harvard, you have committed to the same sort of cloistered, dismissive thinking as Wax. You are, in effect, practicing a toxic form of identity politics where you reduce the content of a person’s claim down to the name of the institution on their degree and the amount of money your parents make.
Perhaps the lesson to draw from all of this is that the campus, the newsroom and the corporate marketing boardroom are not the world. If the only conclusion you can draw from the Floyd protests was that some craven corporations and individuals draped themselves in the mantle of social justice and profited, then you missed out on the millions of people who took to the streets because they felt genuinely outraged by his murder and wanted to express their desire for change. They are far more important and there are so many more of them.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”