← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Rainbow Myopia: The Left-Wing Case Against “Woke Capitalism”

photograph of colorful orchid tunnel

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: “Woke Capitalism.”

This year, NYC Pride is supported by (take a breath) T-Mobile, MasterCard, Hyatt, TD Bank, Macy’s, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, Target, HSBC, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, AXA, Chase, American Airlines, Netflix, Airbnb, Nissan, IBM, Pepsico, Wells Fargo, United Airlines, TD Ameritrade, Microsoft, Deloitte, Starbucks, Johnson and Johnson, and Uber. Never before has a left-wing political movement enjoyed such overwhelming corporate support.

Companies have long acknowledged the value of “pink money.” Known to corporate demographers as “DINKY” (dual income, no kids), most gay couples have higher average levels of disposable income. As such, they are highly desirable customers and are often specially targeted. American Airlines, for example, formed a team devoted to gay and lesbian marketing and saw its earnings from this demographic rise from $20 million to $194 million in just five years. Pink money is approaching the buying power of all Black Americans, of Hispanic Americans, and exceeds that of Asian Americans.

Corporations have nothing to fear, and perhaps some good customers to gain, by supporting the LGBTQ+ movement.

The current outpouring of corporate support for the LGBTQ+ movement is an obvious example of so-called “Woke Capitalism.” Defining this term is difficult, as Ken Boyd explains here; its critics and defenders often seem to have different ideas of what it means. Boyd claims the criticisms of Woke Capitalism tend to fall into two broad camps. Capitalist critiques claim that the “woke” part of Woke Capitalism is bad for business, while conservative critiques reject the progressive values that Woke Capitalism promotes. I want to offer a third kind of critique — one from the political left.

If Woke Capitalism is meant to be supportive of progressive values, shouldn’t those on the political left be in favor of it?

Not necessarily. For example, many gay rights activists reject their newfound corporate support as “Rainbow Capitalism,” mere virtue signaling or “pinkwashing.” This is the most common left-wing critique of Woke Capitalism — that it’s cynical, insincere, and perhaps even hypocritical.

The critics are right in that there is something insincere about Woke Capitalism. For Pride Month, the major software company Bethesda changed its Twitter avatars to rainbow versions. Well, they did so in the USA, France, Brasil, New Zealand, Italy, Netherlands, and Germany. But Bethesda decided to leave its icon solid black in the Middle East, Turkey, and Russia. The same weakness of conviction is clear from the history of the gay rights movement. No major corporation supported the movement while it was still struggling for social and political recognition decades ago.

Arguably, these corporations are chasing popular opinion on these issues, rather than attempting to change it.

But the pinkwashing critique only goes so far. For one thing, being cynical, insincere, or even hypocritical does not necessarily mean your actions are wrong. It’s still good to give to charity, even if the reason you’re doing it is simply to get a tax credit or to impress a colleague. Even if the Woke Capitalists are doing what they’re doing cynically, they could still be doing good.

It’s also implausible that Woke Capitalism is entirely cynical. The people working in executive corporate roles are, demographically speaking, more likely to be politically liberal. Many of these people are surely genuine in their political convictions and are sincerely trying to do some good, as they see it. So we can’t dismiss Woke Capitalism as entirely hypocritical virtue signaling. Whether or not you agree with the progressive values Woke Capitalists push, we can surely acknowledge there is sincere goodwill behind at least some of these efforts.

What should most concern us about Woke Capitalism, however, is not merely the sincerity of its corporate practitioners. Instead, we should consider its actual political effects.

Imagine you are Mr. Corporate McCapitalist (if it helps, picture a hybrid of Mr. Peanut and Gordon Gekko). Things are very simple. You want a high return on your capital and you don’t want disruptive left-wing political movements getting in the way with policy interventions that empower workers or raise taxes on your profits. Uh-oh! The working class looks like it might come together and vote for meaningful political change! Workers are talking about unionization and politicians are advocating laws that would make you “pay your fair share” to support a decent welfare and education system! What can you do to stop this madness?

Sure, you could fund corporate propaganda campaigns or pro-corporate opposition candidates. These are both solid, well-established moves. But, if you’re feeling just a bit more ambitious, you might be able to pull a political Indiana Jones — replacing the golden idol with a bag of sand (or, in your case, replacing dangerous traditional left-wing economic causes with harmless left-wing “woke” causes).

This is, in cartoon form, the alternative left-wing critique I have in mind;

Woke Capitalism operates as a misdirection, sapping political movements of the focus and energy needed to make tangible gains.

Woke Capitalism has been incredibly effective at directing public and media attention. It has played a decisive role in pushing the most divisive social issues, so-called “wedge issues,” into the political limelight. Take Nike’s controversial Colin Kaepernick advertising campaign. It boosted Nike sales by 31%, creating $6 billion in brand value in the process. It was also perfect fuel for the culture war fire. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” explained Phil Knight, Nike founder. The political controversy saturated political discussion for months.

These divisive political fights over “woke” issues such as race and gender inevitably divert precious media attention and grassroots political effort from likely more impactful economic struggles — struggles that threaten corporate financial interests. Our society uses more attention and energy debating something as insignificant as who should be allowed to use what bathroom than it does debating the merits of a carbon or wealth tax. CEOs must be pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming.

The more controversial, engaging, and fierce the fight over these “woke” issues becomes the safer corporate profits.

According to this critique, Woke Capitalism is objectionable because it (very effectively) distracts the political left from taking effective action on the most impactful political struggles. By going woke, the corporate world has managed to neuter its traditional political opposition. Left-wing politics is no longer a significant threat to corporate economic interests. Instead, the political left sees corporations as allies in the culture war.

Politics is the art of the possible. It demands we do what we can with the time and resources we happen to have at hand. Therefore, some of the most important political questions are (and ought to be): What should we prioritize? On what should we focus our limited attention? Toward what goal should we put our limited resources? These are difficult questions to answer, but we can’t afford to let corporations answer for us.

Undoing White Privilege

photograph of BLM protester with sign explaining white privilege

By now we have all seen the video of African-American man George Floyd ‘s murder under the knee of a white police officer several weeks ago on an ordinary evening in a Minneapolis street that caused huge protests across the US and worldwide. Even in a culture that normalizes violence against Black bodies, this footage is particularly shocking.

Derek Chauvin has George Floyd pinned to the ground and is kneeling on his neck. Three other officers are standing, mostly off camera, hovering in mute complicity, unwilling or unable to stop what is slowly taking place before them.

The slowness is shocking. For eight excruciating minutes Chauvin kneels on George Floyd’s neck as he struggles. George Floyd calls out for his mother, begs for his life, fights for breath, gasps “I can’t breathe.” A stream of urine flows from under the car. Chauvin slowly and unflinchingly crushes the life from the man beneath his knee.

That Chauvin does not flinch is shocking. The violence is not reactive. Chauvin isn’t in a hurry, he isn’t in a frenzy, and his facial expression suggests he knows what he is about. As he slowly crushes George Floyd’s neck, he looks into the camera.

That Chauvin looks so long into the camera is shocking. The person holding the cell phone is very close to where Chauvin has Floyd’s face pressed into the road, and Chauvin looks defiantly into the camera with no hint of shame or self-consciousness. He does not care that he is being recorded. His expression seems to dare the onlooker to film him as other bystanders can be heard in the background shouting.

What can we read from the expression on Chauvin’s face? That image has been stilled and reproduced in countless media articles. It isn’t necessarily clarified in captions that this picture is taken at the moment he is murdering George Floyd – which is something that, looking at the picture, you can’t possibly tell. As he kneels on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes Derek Chauvin looks banally into the camera. He has his hand in his pocket.

That Chauvin has his hand in his pocket is shocking. The body language of casual dismissal becomes a most vicious form of contempt – Chauvin’s face shows no rage. His expression and his gesture, as he kneels for eight minutes on George Floyd’s neck looking into the camera with his hand in his pocket, look like boredom.

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” The phrase refers to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and describes his part in, and muted response to, the bureaucratic systems that required him to process Jews for transportation to the death camps during WWII and enabled him to do so without troubling his conscience.

The phrase seems nevertheless apt, because of the expression and gesture of banality Chauvin personifies; his conscience is not troubled, and his expression betrays his expectation of impunity.

In a recent PBS News special, filmmaker and activist Ava DuVernay, for whom viewing videos of police violence is routinely part of her research, reflects upon what it is about this video in particular that was, as she said, ‘bringing her to her knees’: “… I could see that white officer’s face, I could see his disdain, I could see his intention (in my view), I could see the callous disregard for human life.”

The video of Floyd’s death sparked worldwide protests and support for Black Lives Matter because it was yet another instance, another instance too many for communities at breaking point, in the long litany of racist police brutality. But also because the film itself is so powerful – so close up, so intimate, and so emblematic of the system of white supremacy that routinely and indifferently crushes Black lives.

The video of Floyd’s death exposes a truth that it is impossible to look away from, a truth already known by many and which others are coming to, finally, for the first time: that white supremacy still reigns. And in this video, it looks directly at us all.

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, told PBS that: “White America was deeply wounded and shocked by the visual of [George Floyd’s] murder over eight and a half minutes; and for White America deniability of racism in our policing, and in our nation, is no longer an option.”

Whether you already knew, or whether you are coming for the first time to this knowledge, you are witness to the sickening legacy of colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation still playing out in a world which has not reckoned with the sins and the atrocities of its past.

We may be justified in our hope that the time has arrived for that reckoning, and that it will lead to real action on racial justice. But what will real action look like?

As many have been saying, reform is not enough. In the view of author and activist Roxanne Gay it is unlikely that reform could come from inside the system – the police force cannot reform itself because the institution is corrupt: “we’re going to have to really expand our imaginations to reimagine what law enforcement might look like if racism did not underpin it.”

As Gay implies the system in which racism is inbuilt and white privilege is invisible cannot be reformed. Real, meaningful change will require the dismantling of white supremacy and white privilege.

The Black community, in the US and elsewhere, has a long and proud history of activism in the fight against racism for civil rights and justice, but it should not be up to Black activists, protestors, and communities to do this work. Allies in the white community are crucial for Black Lives Matter in the US, Australia, and elsewhere; but for such allies, walking with and in support of the Black community is not enough. White people need to dismantle the system of white supremacy and privilege, and find a way to decolonize our thinking and our institutions.

White support for Black resistance to racial injustice is often transient – because it can be, because white supporters can choose to be active or not on race issues, and the luxury of that choice is one expression of privilege. White support can also, in the experience of generations of Black activists, manifest as a burden. This is something white allies need to be aware of. When well-intentioned would-be allies go to Black communities and ask, “what can I do?” they are inadvertently placing the burden on Black communities to educate them. This has been a persistent problem for Black activists.

Ava DuVernay said to PBS, of people asking what to do, “my answer is educate yourself – there have been white allies throughout the history of America who have gotten together and come up with muscular strategies for change…’what do I do?’ is really asking for Black labor in this moment to help you think through what to do: trust me, there is something to do where you are.”

Being or becoming an ally in the struggle for racial justice is not about just walking into this space and asking “what can I do?” because this shifts the onus back onto the Black community. DuVernay says: “I invite Caucasian people to devise tactics and strategies – things only white people can do… strategies to dismantle these things [manifestations of institutional racism] actively.” That, she says, “would be a game-changer.”

It is incumbent on white people to know history, to understand the nature of racism and to find ways, big and small, to dismantle the system of white supremacy. We must educate ourselves, and we must undertake the work of learning to identify privilege and learning ways to refuse, counter, deflect, and subvert it.

What Does It Mean to Be an Ally?

Photograph of protesters holding "Stop Police Brutality" banner

Despite the social progress the United States has made, it still has many shortcomings. Amidst its many flaws, race is always one that persists–specifically regarding the treatment of black people. As long as black people are judged and disenfranchised because of the color of their skin, race will remained unresolved in the United States–a mass of prejudice, discrimination, and injustice that dates back centuries. But there is some progress that has been made and some racial tension in the country has been assuaged. After all, white Americans have showed their support for black people as they struggled with police brutality, the killings of black men, and the Black Lives Matter movement. But is the support shown enough? The term ally has often been used when referring to an individual who supports a marginalized group of people. Regarding the injustices done to African Americans, many white people have declared themselves avid supporters in their struggle. What form does this support come in and to what extent? What does it really mean to be an ally?

A year ago, DePauw University invited actress Jenna Fischer to speak as an Ubben Lecturer, serving as part of the Ubben Lecture series where notable public figures are invited to campus to interact with students and give a public address. Only about a week or two prior to Fischer’s arrival, a series of racially charged incidents occurred on DePauw’s campus. Racial slurs had been written on campus bathrooms and some large stones in DePauw’s nature park had been rearranged to spell out the n-word. Students of color on campus were infuriated and felt as if the campus administration was not doing enough to ensure the safety of students of color. The campus was filled with racial tension, and it finally erupted during Fischer’s lecture. In the middle of her address, one by one, students of color began standing up and declaring “we are not safe.” Eventually, the whole auditorium was filled with “we are not safe” chants. The protest left campus on high alert as tension between students rose. The protest also brought media coverage, with black students standing at the forefront.

Not too long after the Ubben Lecture protest, white students on DePauw’s campus began to show their support for students of color by taking to social media. All across Instagram and Facebook, white students declared that they stood in solidarity with students of color. On a tree in the middle of campus, white students also made a sign declaring that they stood with students of color. But even as white students expressed their support, was it enough? Did their actions embody allyship? Heather Cronk, co-director of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a network of activists that organizes white people to fight racial injustice, stresses that allyship, in terms of supporting black people, needs to consist of trusting black leadership to direct white allies in ways that are helpful to the movement. Cronk goes on to explain that allyship also means building deep relationships with black people and other people of color. The willingness to discuss controversial topics such as police brutality and educate oneself are other integral components to allyship as well. Simply being a physical presence also represents allyship. In photos of Black Lives Matter protests, white people can be seen marching with their black counterparts holding up the Black Lives Matter banner.

With allyship in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement in mind, did white students on DePauw’s campus really demonstrate allyship? Taking to social media and posting something on one’s Instagram story and hanging a banner in the middle of campus can have meaning and influence, but the extent of that meaning and influence is questionable. When people post to their Instagram and Facebook stories, they last for 24 hours and then disappear. It is likely that both the people who viewed the story and even the person who posted the content eventually forgets about it. Did the same situation happen when white students at DePauw posted about standing in solidarity with students of color? The social media posts are a form of support, but it could be argued that the white students who made them were simply trying to deflect any criticism from themselves. Perhaps the question of allyship comes down to the old saying “actions speak louder than words.” It’s so easy to declare one’s support, but how does one demonstrate it? What if the same white students on DePauw’s campus who declared their allyship passively watch as their friends use racial slurs and disregard the struggle of students of color? What if the same white students who showed support to students of color don’t understand the importance of recognizing the difference between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter? Is that still allyship?

If more white students on DePauw’s campus stood in black spaces and were willing to have tough conversations with students of color, would that be enough? Possibly. But the support that white students demonstrated through social media and the use of the banner cannot be ignored. Regardless of what the true definition of allyship is, perhaps it can be agreed that in order for racial issues to be resolved in the United States, black and white bodies must come together.

The Empty Chair: White Male Privilege at DePauw

To understand some of the problems with DePauw’s campus climate, one need look no further than who is participating in the discussion. I learned this lesson firsthand as a sophomore, when I attended a film screening on white privilege at the Prindle Institute. As a white man, I thought it would be important to learn about my own privilege. I hoped that others like me would do the same.

Continue reading “The Empty Chair: White Male Privilege at DePauw”