A Twitter-branded #StayWoke T-shirt: a truly powerful message from Jack Dorsey, the CEO of a company with a 3 percent black/Latino workforce, one that just appointed a white man as its head of diversity to boot.
On Wednesday, Dorsey got together with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson (and unofficial product tester for Twitter, as Dorsey said; compensation to be disclosed in future, #StayWoke) onstage with Recode’s Peter Kafka at the Code Conference, a conference that’s all about code. During the 30-minute talk—as I grew increasingly embarrassed on behalf of Jack Dorsey, as well as myself, as well as anyone who might find themselves averse to the comfy, self-serving, and distracting political stagnation of performative allyship—the two woke friends, in their woke shirt and woke vest respectively, talked about woke topics like Square, Instagram, stars vs. hearts on the Twitter interface, and the fact that it’s one of Dorsey’s “top 5 priorities” to “provide better controls.”
That was Dorsey’s response when McKesson lightly challenged him by asking him what he’s doing to make the platform safer. Kafka then elicits the fact that McKesson has 19,000 people blocked, and that he regularly receives death threats; McKesson later talks about how what he would specifically like from Twitter is for the platform to be a better facilitator, which is that we should be able to find people in our local communities easier, maybe through geotagging.
At the very beginning of their talk, Dorsey talks about how he went to Ferguson during the initial protests after the death of Michael Brown. “It’s my home, it felt important.” (He’s from St. Louis.) “I wanted to witness what was happening, and I wanted to understand,” he says. Though this appearance (and past actions at Twitter) could be seen to function as something of an unofficial endorsement of DeRay and the Black Lives Matter movement, Dorsey is careful to describe his actions in Ferguson as “picking up trash,” “witnessing,” “having a conversation,” etc. And though McKesson notes rightfully that Twitter was the major factor that allowed the protestors in Ferguson to challenge the narrative of cable media, they both steer quite clear of political language: Dorsey refers to “what was happening,” “what was going on,” repeatedly, rather than mentioning racism or police brutality by name.
Kafka notes that Silicon Valley often wants to avoid any type of political alignment, and asks Dorsey if there was pushback from either of his companies when he went to Ferguson. Dorsey dodges, saying that there was conflict at Square, but only because he was spending time out of the office. Again, within this discussion, he refrains from calling any of the underlying issues by name.
Dorsey has previously and repeatedly insisted on Twitter’s neutrality. From D.T. Max’s 2013 New Yorker piece, discussing the Twitter momentum that built up around Wendy Davis’s historic filibuster for abortion rights:
The tweets about Davis’s speech were overwhelmingly supportive—the service’s users often champion liberal causes. Dorsey added a dollop of self-congratulation to the coverage: “I am so proud of all the people using Twitter and Vine.” Nevertheless, he insists that Twitter is neither liberal nor conservative; it’s a public utility, like water or electricity. “I like technology that is unbiased,” he says.
And to Bloomberg a few months ago, Dorsey expressed an equally self-congratulatory sentiment about the Twitter reach of Donald Trump:
We’re in the middle of this crazy election. Give me your review. Trump on Twitter. Hall of Fame?
I think he’s always kind of been Hall of Fame on Twitter. Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing that people use us as a microphone for the world and to connect with their constituency. I think we provide a very significant role in empowering dialogue around something that is truly important, for not just this country, but for the world.
People could make the argument that Trump is using it to propagate misinformation and hate. Does that bother you on some level?
Well, there’s a counter of all the people who are correcting and critiquing and commenting on what he’s saying, as well, so I think all of this is about balance. We have the world talking on this thing about the world. So we see every spectrum of idea and conversation. I find that for anything that’s said, there’s always a counterpoint, and there’s always something in the middle. And it’s always available to people.
“There’s always something in the middle that’s available to people.” That’s the kind of searing structural analysis we need from a white man who is trying to brand #StayWoke for his own company, for sure.
Dorsey has acknowledged the diversity issues at Twitter, recently saying, “That’s been consistent in a lot of startups... whenever you start something, that’s a natural bias.” The faux-neutrality here is constricting. Last December, Twitter’s former news manager Mark S. Luckie wrote for the Verge that the appointment of Jeffrey Siminoff (who is white, male and gay) to the diversity officer position at Twitter was a step backwards in a company that’s already sitting pretty far back.
While at Twitter I received far more questions related to my blackness than I did my conspicuous homosexuality. Black people were called into meetings or secretly asked their opinion to speak on black culture. [...] Empathy is not the same thing as understanding when it comes to racial diversity. Siminoff’s credentials do not supersede this.
At what point does Twitter’s studied neutrality and adherence to a white male status quo become at odds with Jack Dorsey’s ostensibly progressive goals? He seems quite proud of what non-white, non-male people whose (unspecified) interests he agrees with have accomplished with the significant aid of Twitter, but he also avoids naming those interests, or calling out the hate speech that progressive figures draw immediately. And—with the possible exception of ISIS—he seems proud of pretty much anyone who is using Twitter at all.
Now, like a lot of people who think that being able to name something is the same as doing something about it, Dorsey is celebrating himself with the self-appellation “woke.” From the New York Times Magazine in April:
These days, it has become almost fashionable for people to telegraph just how aware they have become. And this uneasy performance has increasingly been advertised with one word: “woke.” Think of “woke” as the inverse of “politically correct.” If “P.C.” is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then “woke” is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.
Dorsey is almost a worse example, because he’s so relentlessly vague and heat-seeking about the use of the word. Here’s his explanation of #StayWoke [Twitter logo], which comes at the end of the chat.
To me, my interpretation of what it means, and it has evolved a little bit over time, is really being aware, and staying aware, and keep questioning. Being awake, and eyes wide open around what’s happening in the world.
We saw that in Ferguson, and what I didn’t really consider before I got there, that I saw on the ground, is what you see on the television screen versus what’s actually happening behind the camera. It was just amazing for me to see, especially at night, the press running around West Florissant, and how they were telling the stories, and how protesters were having conversations with them about what stories they were telling, and where the focus was, and the focus inappropriately on the wrong things. And to me, that’s when I really first saw this phrase in action—was making sure that we’re telling our story, and we’re telling what’s on the ground, and we saw it live through Twitter.
“And everyone’s got one of these in their bag?” asks Kafka.
“Everyone’s got one of these in their bag,” says Dorsey, solemnly.
How embarrassing! #StayWoke as Jack Dorsey’s Twitter giveaway. This takes the word past self-congratulation into studied corporate doublethink, making me wonder if it’s ever occurred to Dorsey what the stance of “neutrality” caves to, and really means. You cannot have it both ways. You can’t #StayWoke and then call yourself neutral. You can’t further degrade an already degraded social justice slogan for your corporation’s T-shirt and also enjoy the kind of high-minded profiteering blandness that requires you to never call racism by its name.
Images via screenshot