November 16, 2017

A new editor-in-chief, elation, and representation

Earlier this week, Vanity Fair announced that Radhika Jones would become the next editor-in-chief of the magazine after Graydon Carter—someone who I have looked to in awe for years—steps down from the role later this year.

I was elated to hear the news, and have been quite exuberant in my elation to everyone I meet this week, even if they know nothing about the magazine industry.

Growing up, telling my parents I wanted to be a writer was scandalous enough: to even aspire to become the editor of a prestigious publication wasn’t in the realm of possibility. In our community—brown-skinned, Muslim, immigrant, lower-middle-class—success was demonstrated in the realms of engineering, medicine, accounting, and more recently, computers. I was surrounded by people every day who excelled in these spaces; it was expected that I would do the same.

In first grade, when my teacher asked the class what we’d all like to be when we grew up, I loudly proclaimed that I would be a stay-at-home father who would write for The New Yorker and Esquire. This elicited a good chuckle from my teacher, but also from the other adults in my life: it was ridiculous enough that I didn’t want to enter the sciences or engineering, but it was shocking that I wanted to pursue the arts.

When it came to being a writer, I didn’t have many people to look up to. Most of the people who wrote for magazines (I knew quickly that I didn’t want to be a novelist) looked nothing like me. Occasionally, I would hear of a successful brown writer, but this was not common, and never did I hear of them in leadership: the role of the editor-in-chief was, at least it seemed to me then, designated for a certain kind of person, and that certain kind of person was not me.

Luckily, I had supportive parents and great teachers who helped me realize that my strengths and interests lied in the social sciences; my parents in particular were extremely supportive of my decision to study cultural anthropology, despite not quite knowing what it really was, and never meeting anyone who had ever studied that before. I found what I was good at, what I enjoyed, and what made me curious, despite not having any role models that looked like me in the field.

The decision to replace Graydon Carter with Radhika Jones at Vanity Fair is a momentous for many reasons—not the least of which that Ms. Jones has proven to be an incredible and transcendent talent and is the perfect person to take the illustrious mantle left by Mr. Carter—but the one that I am most grateful for is this: brown children growing up today can not only tell their teachers that they want to be writers, that they want to write in prestigious publications like Vanity Fair, but that they want to be editor-in-chief as well.

Our definition of success is defined by what we can see. By seeing Ms. Jones as editor-in-chief, a whole generation of brown children will believe that hers is a valid, strivable, and attainable path. That’s long overdue.

I would like to quote the entirety of Hadiya Roderique’s Black on Bay Street here because every single sentence is resonant and relatable and heart-wrenching, but it’s better if you just go read it yourself. And then read it again and again. It is one of the most powerful pieces on race, class, privilege, and the workplace I’ve ever read. A few select passages:

People gravitate toward people who are like them. Social scientists call this homophily. We consciously and unconsciously surround ourselves with others like us, who in turn validate our own choices and values. You are trying to pick candidates from a very, very qualified group of people,” a management consultant named Amit explains in Pedigree, a book by sociologist Dr. Lauren Rivera that explores professional hiring. And what separates them ends up being some of your preferences and if you have shared experiences.” We end up defining fit, and thus merit, in our own image. […]

Despite not having much money, my father took the concerted-cultivation approach. He was savvy enough to know that being able to speak the language of the upper class would be useful one day. My mother focused on making sure we were fed well and chauffeured around. My father’s domain was school and activities. He was the classic example of the parent who, when I got 95 per cent on a test, asked what happened to the other 5 per cent. He made sure I took all the right advanced courses and applied to well-regarded programs at excellent universities. From a young age, I participated in after-school clubs and extracurriculars: swimming, dance, gymnastics and guitar, among others. My dad didn’t buy a new winter coat for five years, but we had a piano and listened to Coltrane (now, the name of the family dog). My dad knew what to do. Many parents don’t.

My father and these experiences taught me how to fit in, not just with kids, but everywhere. I learned how to make people feel like I was just like them, or could be one of them. I absorbed the importance of upper-middle-class interests and pursuits, such as ultimate Frisbee, yoga and a cappella. I knew to talk of Glenfiddich and cottages, not roti and park barbeques; to mention my father’s engineering degree, not his occupation. I knew what to talk about to get the job. […]

Nowadays in Canada, overt acts of racism are rare. Instead, the subtle ones tire you out and wear your sense of belonging. They happen more often, more insidiously. These acts of discrimination can be more detrimental than blatant racism or sexism. It’s easier to point out prejudice when someone is overtly racist. Organizations have policies and procedures for reporting explicit racism and sexism. Others, hearing your story, are suitably outraged. But the underground cracks, passive-aggressive dismissals, the ghostly put downs, are harder to mark.

Yet, each drop in the bucket adds up. How do you report the frosty reaction or the startled pause you got when you were introduced as the associate on file? The confusing silence when you walk over to the corporate defence team, and turn out not to be the black woman bringing the human-rights claim? The assumption that you’d have no interest in a ski trip, when someone jokingly” says, I thought black people don’t ski?” How do you not internalize these quiet messages that you don’t really belong?

Go read the entirety of Hadiya Roderique’s piece now. Once you’ve done that, then feel free to check out some of the other great things I’ve read over the past fortnight, below.

A few things to read and explore:

Colin Kaepernick Will Not Be Silenced, GQ:

Ava DuVernay: I see what he’s done as art. I believe that art is seeing the world that doesn’t exist. A lot of people excel at creativity—making TV, movies, painting, writing books—but you can be an artist in your own life. Civil rights activists are artists. Athletes are artists. People who imagine something that is not there. I think some folks see his protests, his resistance, as not his work. Not intentional. Not strategic. Not as progressive action. As if this was just a moment that he got caught up in. This was work. This is work that he’s doing.

Christopher Petrella: In my view, the most pernicious element of white backlash against Colin’s protest has been the way in which the narrative has been co-opted and re-framed so that taking a knee is now somehow synonymous with disrespecting the flag, with a lack of patriotism. The American flag is not a neutral ideology—it represents something very, very specific to most folk. When someone comes along and tries to point out the history, for instance, of the national anthem, or the emergence of the American flag and its various iterations over time, and asks very difficult questions of an adolescent country”—that’s a James Baldwin phrase—it becomes uncomfortable. You may recall Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments last year, when Colin started his protest. Someone who’s known as a fairly liberal, left-leaning, or moderate, or whatever terms you wanna use, Supreme Court justice called his protest dumb and disrespectful.” Which is fascinating, because many folks have pointed out that politicians on the right, obviously those in the White House, have been very critical of these protests. But often it’s bipartisan.

The First Time Someone Loved Me for Who I Really Am, Maria Bamford:

I did gather some surprising information that I wasn’t particularly interested in at the time: Many patients had partners and wives and husbands.

There was the wife and mother of grown children receiving ECT treatments that caused short term memory loss. A young woman who, after a psychotic episode involving the K.G.B. and aliens, spoke of her longtime boyfriend and all the support he provided when she was fired from her sales job. There was the man who came into the ward after a manic, knife-wielding episode in which he might have stabbed someone (I was very out of it and couldn’t get the whole story). He chatted amiably with his wife during visiting hours.

Over and over again, I encountered people with debilitating mental illness who were also part of a couple. They weren’t working, they needed care. They were a burden. And yet they were loved.

I Hate Men’, Heather Havrilesky:

I tell her, Dioramas, like all arbitrary, tedious, pointless educational exercises, require a higher level of Zen. You must expect pain and ruin, toil and suffering, and you must let go. Surrender to the excruciating nothingness of the task at hand, and try to enjoy it, knowing it was designed to crush your will and render you enraged and jaded and all alone in your pain. The real point of this bullshit, at least the point as far as WE are concerned, is to find some way to enjoy it, in spite of how stupid it is. So take your time, and focus on savoring every hideous moment of this.”

I really did say all of that shit to her. And I’ll say the same thing to you: Dating, like all arbitrary, tedious, pointless social exercises, requires a higher level of Zen. Surrender to the excruciating nothingness of the task at hand, and try to enjoy it. Yes, most men are shit. But you are not taking an exhaustive survey of most men. You are looking for one good, kind, exceptional man. They exist.

The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future, Leslie Jamison:

if Second Life promised a future in which people would spend hours each day inhabiting their online identity, haven’t we found ourselves inside it? Only it’s come to pass on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter instead. As I learned more about Second Life, and spent more time exploring it, it started to seem less like an obsolete relic and more like a distorted mirror reflecting the world many of us live in.

Perhaps Second Life inspires an urge to ridicule not because it’s unrecognizable, but because it takes a recognizable impulse and carries it past the bounds of comfort, into a kind of uncanny valley: not just the promise of an online voice, but an online body; not just checking Twitter on your phone, but forgetting to eat because you’re dancing at an online club; not just a curated version of your real life, but a separate existence entirely. It crystallizes the simultaneous siren call and shame of wanting an alternate life. It raises questions about where unfettered fantasy leads, as well as about how we navigate the boundary between the virtual and the real. […]

So much of lived experience is composed of what lies beyond our agency and prediction, beyond our grasp, beyond our imagining. In the perfected landscapes of Second Life, I kept remembering what a friend had once told me about his experience of incarceration: Having his freedom taken from him meant not only losing access to the full range of the world’s possible pleasure, but also losing access to the full range of his own possible mistakes. Maybe the price of a perfected world, or a world where you can ostensibly control everything, is that much of what strikes us as experience” comes from what we cannot forge ourselves, and what we cannot ultimately abandon.

How to Hire Fake Friends and Family, Roc Morin:

I believe the term real” is misguided. Take Facebook, for example. Is that real? Even if the people in the pictures haven’t been paid, everything is curated to such an extent that it hardly matters. […]

I believe that the world is always unfair, and my business exists because of that unfairness.

Thank You God, for Black Thanksgiving, Rembert Browne:

In this era of Black Twitter (or the internet as a whole), a once-guarded secret has come to the surface: the reality that black people talk a certain way when only around other black people. One of the unearthed facts about this is black people love making fun of white people, love griping about white people, love plotting an overthrow of America from white people as a form of reparations.

That’s all in the open now—nothing to see here. While this may have been start­ling for many white people, secretly y’all liked it because the focal point was still white people. It’s like getting called out in a diss track—it may suck, but it’s better than the alternative: not being named at all. Beef is greater than irrelevance.

But Black Thanksgiving differs from every other day on the calendar. Why? It’s the one day to forget white people exist. We only talk about black people: the good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s nothing like it—no one is safe.

Finding hope in the humanities in these tumultuous times, Jessica Riddell:

The tipping point between despair and hope lies in the ability to acknowledge, and even celebrate, that knowledge is messy. If we can teach our students to be comfortable with the difficulty of knowing — and become comfortable with it ourselves as scholars and teachers — then we can move forward with hope and a renewed commitment to close reading, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.

How walking became a radical act of defiance, Dawn Foster:

Yes, you can argue you are participating in a grand intellectual project, a tradition following on from the flaneur, mimicking Patrick Keiller and Ian Sinclair. But most women I know are yes, literally going for a walk. Getting outside and away from the computer, pounding the streets because it takes them away from their workplace and the pressures of email and work expectations. Because physical exertion is its own reward, and the muscle aches, occasional blisters and exhaustion after you’ve put one foot in front of another for hours are their own reward too.

It’s mostly women I know doing precisely this for a few reasons. Taking up physical space as a woman is still fraught in society. We’re socialised to cross our legs, fill the minimum space on public transport while men spread themselves across seats. Were taught to apologise for our physical existence as an impertinence. But also, to be selfless and endlessly working for others, both emotionally and in every day working life and friendships. Deciding to go out in public and do something technically aimless feels like a wilful reclamation of your time.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Parking Space, Chris Bruntlett:

In the end, the true cost of cheap parking is reflected in the abject quality of our shared public spaces. In the face of gradually declining car use, we continue to hand over sizeable chunks of our civic realm to the storage of inefficient and cumbersome vehicles. This denial of peak car” has become the most significant barrier to creating vibrant, community-minded streets. It’s time we accept this new post-motordom era, and start reflecting it in our policies, attitudes, and priorities. We have to stop planning our cities around machines, and start designing them for people. Then, and only then, will we reap the rewards in our collective health, happiness, well-being, and wealth. We must dare to dream; and ask ourselves whether we truly want to live, work and play in a parking lot?

Why Etsy, Stitch Fix and Pinterest Get Zero Credit for Pioneering Tech, Lisa Schmeiser:

Who cares? People who want to make money do. The track record of venture capitalists funding businesses founded by women or aimed at women is really, amazingly, overtly bad. It probably doesn’t help that 94 percent of investors at these firms are male, and tend not to understand the market demand.

What they end up missing is the fact that Stitch Fix is effectively a data science company; the retail service offered to customers is an excellent way to gather a rich pool of data which can then be streamed into everything from logistics management to trend forecasting to demographic profiling. Pinterest is effectively a visual search company, and the tools to accurately search, label, sort and analyze sets of visual data don’t just work for selling cute coasters. They can be used in everything from medical imaging to surveillance work to genetic analysis to inventory management. Etsy developed a sustainable model for small-scale, geographically independent e-commerce where there is little to no physical overhead required for inventory, and scant logistical considerations compared to a multichannel retailer. Forget the ex-Googlers who wanted to reinvent bodegas in your living room; Etsy did the exact opposite by giving local artisans a means to build a global customer base.

Mindhunter Is a Surprisingly Good Commentary on Toxic Masculinity, Angelica Jade Bastién:

One of the more remarkable decisions by the filmmakers is the bloodless rendering of the violence committed by the serial killers who are studied over the course of the ten episodes. No women screaming in agony. No excruciating flashbacks. No crime scenes marked by spilled intestines, cut jugulars, and the glassy eyes of lifeless victims. The crimes are seen in perfunctory photos the characters mill over when they help local law enforcement or seek to discern the inner workings of a particular killer being interviewed. The camera never stays on them long enough for its gaze to feel exploitative or cruel. If anything, the series is pointedly clinical, using its crime drama trappings to instead uncover the horror of misogyny in conversations between the agents and the imprisoned killers they study. This allows the audience’s imagination to conjure how much or how little violence we need to reckon with the macabre actions these men eagerly extol. It blessedly means the series bypasses the lurid tradition of bloodied women being used to communicate just how twisted the serial killer in question is. The writers don’t veer in that direction, smartly understanding that the men can do that on their own in their revealing, stark conversations.

Think Hard Before Handing Tech Firms The Rights To Our Cities’ Data, Bianca Wylie:

In the excitement over this innovative economic development project, all levels of government are forgetting or ignoring that we haven’t had a national discussion about our data, related public infrastructure, and the degree to which we want big tech influencing our governance and public services. Multiple fundamental pieces of legislation that will govern this project sit at all levels of government. And they’re out of date.

The discussion that Sidewalk Labs wants us to have is about local urban planning. They want us to talk about affordable housing, safe streets, data privacy, environmental sustainability and community benefits. They want this to be the framing of the project, because who would oppose any of that?

What they don’t want anyone to be asking is whether this project should be happening at all.

Do bureaucrats care? A take on talent in the public sector, Martin Stewart-Weeks:

The policy profession” as the UK like to describe it can seem incredibly impervious, hostile even, to the notion that delivery people might be possessed of insight, expertise and knowledge of sufficient weight and measure that it should not just be taken as an input” for their lofty and impervious deliberations, but that it might actually be the essential starting point for, and provide the real measure of, their work and its value and impact.

In fact, it strikes me that the whole idea of creating a distinct profession”, however well intentioned, runs the risk of reinforcing the very instincts of exclusion and elitism that are inimical to the best use of talent and skill wherever it might be lurking.

Hilary Dugan studies inland bodies of water and recently took a photo of the 12-ft sheet of black ice covering Lake Vanda. It’s mesmerizing:

Black ice covering Lake Vanda

I spent many years of my life living in Georgetown, and across the Key Bridge from Georgetown, so this old map of the neighbourhood with the old street names was fascinating:

1874 map of Georgetown with the old street names

And a few more:

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