How To Pass As White

A few select non-white bodies manage to walk through the doors of US media organisations. These are the compradors. They parrot the imperialist discourses of the West, celebrate its achievements, speak from Eurocentric frames, and volunteer to act as “go-betweens” between the West and the rest. They are the “native informants” who speak the local language, perhaps even reside in the formerly colonised world, and offer a “local” and “native” perspective on issues while remaining committed to the fantasies and myths of the “fabulous” West. They are of a particular class, educated and nurtured on Western educational, political, and cultural ideologies absorbed during years abroad at Western universities or careers in Western metropolises and through popular Western visual and literary media (fiction, non-fiction books). Spivak succinctly described this class and its ascendency in NGOs and Western academia.

There is an internal line of cultural difference within ‘the same culture.’ This holds not only for the nation of original but also for the state to which the cultural minority has immigrated. The academy is a place of upward class-mobility, and this internal cultural different is related to the dynamics of class difference.

[Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, 2012:127].

Merely being a “native” does not resolve the divide between the elite and the rest. Class cohesion creates ideological allegiance as Dabashi put it–in simpler and harsher terms.

In providing her services to the predatory empire, the comprador [journalist] does her share to normalise the imperial centre and cast its peripheral boundaries as odd, abnormal, and grotesque….To sustain the legitimacy of the predatory empire, the comprador [journalist] must also do her share in reaccrediting the hitherto discredited ideologues of the imperial project. The comprador [journalist] speaks with the voice of authenticity, nativity, Orientalized oddity. She is from “there,” and she “knows what she is talking about,” and thus their voices carry the authority of a native informer .

[Hamid Dabashi, Native informers and the making of the American empire, Al-Ahram, 1–7 June 2006].

The comprador normalises and re-accredits the abnormal, discredited practices of imperialism. The walls are porous for such voices. They offer the necessary “diversity” credentials that media houses desperately seek while not offering anything new, radical, or questioning their normative worldviews. The comprador is critical in constructing “difference as objectified otherness”. She does so as a “representative of the millions” from the non-Western world [Marnia Larzeg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question, Routledge, 1994:10]. She is influential in venerating and celebrating Western imperialism’s ideologies, mythologies, and prejudices.

She, however, does not appear out of the ether but is anointed by the powerful. Through disciplinary “professionalism,” “coloniser and colonised…come to speak the same language…for we have all learned our lessons well, and victims not infrequently become fervent abettors of their executioners, living in communion with the latter in a closed, self-accredited universe of lies” [Trinh T. Minh-ha, Trinh, T. M-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Post-coloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1989:71].

The West decides who is “free” and “intelligent” enough to represent the Other. The few are handpicked and given a stage to speak about their societies. Those at the power centres decide who is liberal, civilised, and anti-colonial enough to be heard. “Natives must be taught to be anti-colonialist and de-westernized; they are, indeed, in this world of inequity, the handicapped who cannot represent themselves and have to either be represented or learn how to represent themselves” [ Trinh T. Minh-ha, Trinh, T. M-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Post-coloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1989:71]. When Steven Salaita argued that “being an asshole to Palestinians is an excellent way to launch a media career in the United States,” he highlighted the fact that regurgitating the discourse of Western imperial power opens many doors. Especially if the speaker is a “native” journalist who “has always been part of the US media landscape” [Steven Salaita, “The Muslim Zionists,” Steven Salaita, October 18, 2020 (last accessed April 2024) ].

The comprador journalist is also equally self-denigrating and erasing. Entirely enamoured with the mythical discourses and fabrications of Western liberalism, she mirrors the same myths the West tells about itself. In the process, she turns a caustic and disgust-ridden eye back on what she perceives and judges as her “home” community, adopting the same frames of thought and taxonomies of analysis given to her by the West. It limits her field of view and range of opinion. A tiny, manufactured set of interests dominates, and repetition becomes the norm, so much so that entire communities come to stand in for an issue: Afghanistan for violence against women, Africa for famine, India for poverty, Pakistan for religious fundamentalism, etc. 

The comprador is not a shyster or a hustler. She is a performer who understands the only role she is allowed to play. Sharareh Frouzesh has argued that the (post)colonial Other is “always already appropriated [by the West] as the (im)possible perspective of the already imagined Other” [Sharareh Frouzesh, “The Politics of Appropriation: Writing, Responsibility, and the Spectre of the Native Informant,” The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, Volume 57, 2011:252-268]. That is, no matter the intentions, goals, or arguments of a (post)colonial Other, she is always only read as representative. She is “continually interpellated as that voice—hence is read (even when not writing) as the native informant…as a sufficient (referent for the) representation of a presumed homogenous and transparent cultural, political, and historical Other” [Sharareh Frouzesh, “The Politics of Appropriation: Writing, Responsibility, and the Spectre of the Native Informant,” The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, Volume 57, 2011:252-268].

The “native” journalist adds nothing to the already determined and fixed idea and image of the Other held by the West, but their “native” voice adds authority to the already known.

When those on the outside dare to point out these apparent economic, ethnic and employment inequalities, the reaction can be immediate and patronising. Hell hath no fury as a white man accused. It was nothing short of fury with which David Burnett, a much-respected elder statesman of the American photojournalism scene, reacted when a document titled “Photo Bill of Rights” appeared in the National Press Photographer’s Pages Association (NPPA). The document wasn’t a legal proclamation or a call to a riot. As its authors described, it was “a call to action…a guide…an ethical code.” It highlighted systemic inequalities “surrounding health, safety, access, bias, ethics, and finance throughout the visual journalism and editorial media industries” [“Photo Bill of Rights,” National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) (last accessed January 2021)]. It was a worker’s bill of rights, asking for fair access to health benefits, hazard pay, reasonable fees, and an end to sexual harassment, among other demands. The authors traced these inequalities to historical injustices and how gender and race have determined the structure, history, and development of the media industry. They argued:

The white, Western, cisgender male gaze has been used to colonise, disenfranchise, and dehumanise. The burden of recognizing, accounting for, and living with these inequities has been placed on those with the least access to power, resources, and recourse within the industry

[“Photo Bill of Rights,” National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) (last accessed January 2021)]

Burnett was having none of it. “I would vehemently take issue,” he wrote in a response, “that I, and the photojournalists of my generation, both women and men, set out to ‘colonise, disenfranchise, and dehumanise’ either our photographic subjects or other photographers, especially newcomers” [David Burnett, “Letter to the NPPA on Ethics,” Photoshelter, July 6, 2020]. Burnett had nothing to say about the intent of the “Bill of Rights,” which centred on worker rights, welfare benefits, and employment precarity. Instead, he fixated on the questions the framers of the Bill raised about systemic ethnic and gender discrimination. He patronisingly scolds the framers of the Bill and reminds them that things have changed and that many women and photographers of colour are working in the industry. 

It may be somewhat true, but what isn’t true is Burnett’s assumption that this was because of the industry’s efforts. He usurps the struggle of the women photographers and editors who, over the years, fought tooth and nail against entrenched sexism and racism in the industry and managed to build careers for themselves, and claims that their success was a consequence of the industry’s generosity, commitment to equality and open-mindedness! The systemic inequalities that inspired the “Photo Bill of Rights” are dismissed. Get over it; those inequalities do not exist and never did, he seems to suggest, while patronisingly insulting the framers of the Bill as ignorant and poorly educated (“It would help to have an MA in Sociology”) [David Burnett, “Letter to the NPPA on Ethics,” Photoshelter, July 6, 2020]. Burnett wanted them to erase and forget decades of gender, race, and class discrimination, structural inequalities foundational to his privilege and professional success. “The spoils and cultural treasures of the victors,” Saidiya Hartman reminds us, cannot “be separated from the lives of the vanquished” [Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008].

Burnett’s dismissal of a complaint is how walls are kept intact. By denying history and how one has benefitted from that very history, one can deny injustice and a need for restitution and change. The US media refuses to look inward and acknowledge that it emerges from and defends the white male social order [Callison, Candis & Young, Mary Lynn, Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilitiesı, Oxford University Press, 2020:46-47]. And yet, when compelled by society, changing social mores, and the protests of the marginalised, some changes are permitted and later claimed as voluntary acts of generosity and moral tolerance. It is an old colonial habit that emerges from its practices of stealing lands, labour, ideas, and resources and extends to robbing the achievements of people’s struggle. 

Partha Chatterjee critiqued the conceit of Western political theory, where all significant political developments in the modern world were anticipated, indeed foretold, at the birth of contemporary political theory in late 17th-century England:

How is it possible that all the bitter and bloody struggles over colonial exploitation, racial discrimination, class conflict, the suppression of women, the marginalisation of minority cultures, etc that have dominated the real history of the modern world in the last hundred years or so, have managed not to displace in even the slightest way the stable location of modern political theory within the abstract discursive space of normative reasoning?

[Partha Chatterjee, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy, Columbia University Press, 2011:3–4].

Burnett performs a similar act of creating an “abstract discursive space” where all the achievements of women and minorities to find a place in an otherwise male, white industry are claimed as the result of the liberalism of the members of the industry itself, and not a result of a concentrated and determined struggle to overcome barrier and refusals. He wants them to get over it because it no longer matters. Sara Ahmed has called this habit “overing”–when we are told that we “are over certain kinds of critique” and that by being over it, “we are over what is being critiqued” [Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Duke University Press, 2012:179].

One can see this insistence on “overing” when David Burnett, from his position of privilege, tells us to “get over it” by notifying us that all is well while dismissing those who have lived the consequences of his privilege. We see it in “diversity” initiatives that recruit a few diverse faces to ward off critique. They deny teleologies because they need to deny their complicity. 

Audre Lorde alerted us to how racism operates by creating the impression that racism no longer exists. She reminds us that those who raise a protest against racism–which is the concern about a lack of diversity and whiteness of Western media–are often then deemed to be creating the problem they are protesting. They are considered to be the problem [Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” In Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 2007(1984):124–133]. We are told that colonialism is over and that the social, political, economic, and military power differentials and privileges exacted by European powers no longer matter. We are told that US wars are over and that occupations have ended. We are told in many different ways to “get over it.” Those who can demonstrate this ability to “get over it” are offered lucrative careers and possibilities within the media industry.

When I have raised these issues with colleagues, I have met silence. Many don’t consider these walls to be a severe issue. I remember one white, Swiss male photographer at a European photo collective I was briefly a part of declaring that this diversity stuff “wasn’t even that important.” I appreciated his honesty because the claimed intentions of creating a more diverse and varied culture at the collective had already proven hollow. After several debates and repeatedly raising this issue as the collective kept signing on more white male photographers, I realised that most of my colleagues did not consider diversity to be anything but a public relations exercise. They had to do it because it was the moment’s need, but none could see its point or the “value” it offered to the collective. In the comfortable world of European white photographers, racial and gender equality issues were not urgent because they were not their problem. When it is not your problem, you don’t have to solve it or be too concerned about it. And even if you do, it doesn’t mean anything needs to change. 

Even the CIA, perhaps the most overtly depraved and criminal arm of the US State and famous for its long history of torture, rape, drug running, assassinations, murder, renditions, coups, and psychological terror, among other things, has turned to “diversity” to deflect from its actual activities as a force of instability and violence around the globe. It recently released a recruitment advertisement featuring a Zora Neale Hurston-quoting Latina CIA officer. “I am a woman of colour,” She croons. “I am a mom; I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise. I am a walking declaration. A woman whose inflection does not rise at the end of her sentences suggesting that a question has been asked.” Such liberal bromides to cultural diversity and gender equality have become a tactic of deflection. The CIA also celebrates Women’s Day, supports something called The Agency Network of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Officers (ANGLE), and holds events for Pride Month and even Black History Month. Progressive values are increasingly celebrated in the service of highly ill-liberal and anti-democratic intentions [Glenn Greenwald, “Big Corporations Now Deploying Woke Ideology the Way Intelligence Agencies Do: As a Disguise,”, April 13, 2021].

Colour coding the newsroom will not be enough.