"I have a dream that one day Dodge will commodify me to sell trucks"
February 11, 2019 10:30 AM   Subscribe

How capitalism reduced diversity to a brand: A law professor explains how corporations commodify people of color.
Sean Illing: What is “racial capitalism”?

Nancy Leong: Racial capitalism is the process of getting some sort of social or economic benefit from someone else’s racial identity. In the United States, this usually, though not always, involves white people benefiting from nonwhite racial identity. This is because white people in the US are more likely to have the power and resources to use another person’s identity to benefit themselves.

SI: Can you give me some specific examples of racial capitalism in practice, things that would be familiar to most readers?

NL: A common example of racial capitalism is a school or a company intentionally putting photos of people of color on its website to inflate its appearance of diversity. This happens all the time. Sometimes schools have even been known to photoshop people of color into their brochures.

Racial capitalism could also be something as simple as claiming that you can’t be racist because you have a black friend, or including a token minority character in a movie. Or it could be something like quoting Martin Luther King Jr. on Twitter when you’ve recently been accused of white supremacist views, like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) just did this past MLK Day.

Racial capitalism is very common, and it’s often done by well-intentioned people who are completely unaware they’re doing it.
Further reading on racial capitalism: This commoditization of identity goes far beyond race. For example, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month has some of the most memorable and haunting examples of this phenomenon. Never forget the feminist fracking drill bit or the feminist imperialist fighter jet.

And a special bonus from just this month:
“What stage of capitalism is this?” That’s the now-viral question Twitter user “@Taste this Sass” asked this weekend about a Danish clothing brand that recently launched a new line of silk clothing made in a “highly secured prison” in Chiang Mai.
posted by Ouverture (4 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Racial capitalism is the process of getting some sort of social or economic benefit from someone else’s racial identity.

What a great, succinct definition. Making a note of that one.

I've been the person featured on the website for color, once. My old employer (a publishing company) did a blog post about our book club where a bunch of book club members each talked about their favorite book we read that year, and I was all excited when they chose my photo for the thumbnail, until I realized that I was the only vaguely ethnic person in the post. (It's a special kind of fail when the only "diversity" you can tout is a half-white Asian American whose last name is, literally, Smith.) The publishing industry as a whole and my old company in particular are working very hard to incorporate a vision of diversity that tracks what's being talked about here. It's not nothing; stories about kids of color are way up, and it really matters to young readers when books like To All the Boys I've Loved Before or The Sun Is Also a Star are seen as an asset instead of a liability. While I was still there, I did my best to push them to step it up and work toward real inclusion. Results inconclusive, but I think I did my part. (Tempted to share these articles with some of my more inclusion-minded former colleagues, but this is exactly the kind of thing I feared as rocking the boat back in the day. Hmm.)
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:46 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]

I know for a fact that US colleges are serving up different content based on IP address, and other factors. Hitting the admissions site from an Asian IP address? You will get a site with lots of happy Asian kids in the pictures.
posted by COD at 4:53 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

Sometimes schools have even been known to photoshop people of color into their brochures.
I worked at an HBCU during the early 2000s. Some people from marketing were taking photos for a brochure one day and asked me, a youngish looking 30 year old white man, to pose in a variety of group shots with real students. I thought it was fun and also kinda weird.
posted by PHINC at 8:38 AM on February 12

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