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Beacon Pressed: White Fragility and Performativity at Publishing’s Latest Woke Darling

Beacon Pressed: ‘White Fragility’ and Performativity at Publishing’s Latest Woke Darling

Beacon thrives on liberal antiracism, which is shallow and is exemplified perfectly in the self-help, individualist tripe ‘White Fragility’ serves up.

By Jude Casimir

If you ask most white people to quote Martin Luther King Jr., you’re likely to receive one of two responses. Liberals and conservatives will probably misquote “I Have a Dream,” mentioning the table of brotherhood or how Black and white kids get to dance in a fountain or some other bullshit. Their more left-leaning counterparts, on the other hand, will likely reference Dr. King’s indictment of the white liberal from Letter from Birmingham Jail, smiling smugly as they do so.

In either case, the white people you ask care little about Dr. King or the trauma he sought to describe. They simply see Black pain as a stepping stone in their own path, something to be pushed underwater as they hopscotch towards their ideal white liberatory future.

I’ve been plagued with the feeling—after months and months, years and years—that many of our so-called white allies are less interested in the messy work of justice and liberation than they are in the credentials, the symbols, the bullet points on their resumes. For too many, the fight is an aesthetic, a slight shift in posture, a new book on their GoodReads profile. They see the struggle as something they can don and doff whenever it suits them, something that they can put on their shelf.

Which makes great business for Beacon Press, and their current darling White Fragility.

White Fragility—Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book discussing the ways in which white people can address their subtle and explicit racist tendencies—is, in many ways, a perfect (if ironic) encapsulation of the organization which published it. DiAngelo lays out a comically calculated and cold methodology for addressing Black people and people of color in general. Claiming that she coined the term “white fragility” in 2011, DiAngelo has held seminars (for which she makes roughly $40,000 each) for a range of businesses, and the vacuous corporate language likely required for those presentations pervades her text. 

During my time at Beacon, the facile nature of their investment in progressivism became cruelly clear. I was hired in the editorial position for their Internship for People of Color, and it was a trip from the beginning.

Among my first responsibilities was reading a proposal that was in the acquisition process. In Beacon’s mind, this would prepare me for not only the upcoming editorial meeting, but the editorial process as a whole. The book, which positioned itself as a memoir, told the story of a mother trying to make sense of her child’s autism while also trying to understand why other relatives were exiled from the family, erased from their history due to disabilities the family saw as shameful.

I’d seen so many texts before that refused to center the perspective of disabled individuals, shifting focus to those who supposedly had to weather the pain of living or existing beside the disabled. I decided to voice my complaints about the proposal. It was an editorial meeting, after all.

Near the end, after the staff shared author information and the book’s projected impact, I finally, tentatively volunteered my input.

It eventually dawned on me that she’d phrased it so politely that I hadn’t even gotten the core of the message correctly: that I’d been told to shut the fuck up.

The next day, I was told that the director wanted to speak to me. She essentially said that, while everyone welcomed my input, the editor who was working on this book had come to her a bit frustrated, and that from now on, I had to consider more carefully whether or not I should share everything. If I had any concerns about a proposal that was due for an editorial meeting, I now had to tell her or my supervisor beforehand, so that they could relay it to the editor in question. 

Technically, I wasn’t in trouble. At least, I didn’t think I was right after leaving her office. But the more I thought about it that day, the more it didn’t sit right with me—it shouldn’t have required taking me aside at all. It eventually dawned on me that she’d phrased it so politely that I hadn’t even gotten the core of the message correctly: that I’d been told to shut the fuck up. As much as my internship had invited my voice, that invitation was starkly, clearly conditional.

Because the editor working on the book was invested in disability rights, at least ostensibly, I felt uncomfortable making what I feared would be a fuss. Later, my supervisor assured me that my critiques were valid. Unfortunately, she added,  because others within the organization were less informed around disability, among other things, they might have felt I was undermining them.

Aside from these meetings and some research here and there, the biggest part of my job was to read proposals and then give my thoughts on them and their potentiality in the Beacon catalog in concise, one-page reader’s reports (unlike the aforementioned title which was already slotted into their publication pipeline). 

I was given proposals from every editor on topics that ranged from a forgotten civil rights protest to a woman coming to terms with what it meant to be a Mormon feminist. Many of these were interesting to read, but while there were a few assignments that I genuinely enjoyed working on, none stick in my memory more than a book called Going Away, which told the story of the author, Melinda Smith, learning about and growing uncomfortable with United States imperialism and thus deciding to expatriate during the fraught era of the Vietnam War. She also recounted how she spent time in destabilized countries such as Algeria, Nepal, and Kenya, and told of the experiences of people she met throughout her travels in her career with the United Nations. 

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I was incredibly conflicted about this proposal, to say the least, but I had a job to do—I couldn’t just say I hated it and everything it stood for and be done with it. In a response as measured as I could muster, I detailed the problem with these stories: how filtering them through the voice of a white woman who’d had the means to travel the world felt blinkered; how a woman who described her choice of expatriation as an “exile” might not understand the trauma of displacement that the subjects of her writing lived with every day; how someone who worked at the behest of the UN—an entity that participates heavily in the destabilization of those countries—might not be the person to speak on the reality of living in those same nations; how it seemed as though all of this was haphazardly lampshaded but never truly addressed by the text. 

Still, I also gave credit to the writing, and admitted that, because of who was writing it, it was likely to be a widely appealing book. Maybe one of the most appealing books on the subject in general. Admitting this turned my stomach, but it was a reality that became more and more concrete with each second I spent at Beacon.

My supervisor, who had assigned me the proposal on behalf of Beacon’s director, stopped by my workstation to tell me she was proud of me and how I’d taken a stance, despite my discomfort. A couple weeks later, during another one of our check-ins, I asked her for an update on the book’s acquisition. She said the director conceded that even though it might be a little whitewashed, the Beacon readership would still respond to it. My supervisor assured me that she was doing what she could to block the purchase—not even discussing the manuscript in hopes that management would simply forget it existed. While this was comforting, I couldn’t help but bristle at the fact that every insight relayed to me was one that I’d explicitly stated in my own report.

Later, in passing, my supervisor told me that it wasn’t getting acquired by Beacon after all. When I asked how she’d managed, considering how emphatic the director had been about the manuscript, she simply responded: “I told her it was basically a white privilege memoir that served no real purpose.”

My job was to tell them my informed opinions, but I was told to be quiet, and when I was allowed to voice something, I wasn’t being listened to unless filtered. I was nothing more than a prop, a symbol.

“That’s exactly what I said in my reader’s report!”

“I know!” she said.  “And you said it so much better!”

That was all the credit I received: genuine, but private.

I didn’t know what I was doing there. My job was to tell them my informed opinions, but I was told to be quiet, and when I was allowed to voice something, I wasn’t being listened to unless filtered. I was nothing more than a prop, a symbol. Perhaps it would’ve done me some good to ask the two other non-Black interns if they felt a similar way, but I had a feeling it wasn’t that way at all, so I kept it to myself.

Out of a team of thirty-one people, only three of them are Black, and only one of them is an editor. She is an assistant editor. Some publishers are more marketing-driven, but at Beacon, the editors have most of the pull when it comes to acquisition. The only other Black editor, a senior editor, left the day I started my internship. There was a revolving door of Black staff members at Beacon Press, with most lasting far shorter a time compared to their non-Black counterparts.

The assistant editor, during a coffee meeting, told me that I wouldn’t want to work in a social-justice-minded place as a Black woman because of how hard it is and how gross these environments tend to be. When I asked her how she’d survived at Beacon so long, she said she honestly had no clue, but it included a lot of gritting her teeth and learning the hard way to bite her tongue and remove herself from certain situations. Honestly, I thought about quitting more often than I’d like to admit in the four short months I was there.

I remember someone once telling me, a bit sheepishly, that what’s bad for the world and for social justice is good for Beacon. They did not have to volunteer that observation, but I’m ultimately glad that they did. Because it was the final piece of the puzzle. I’d always known that it was a business, that even though it was marked as a progressive nonprofit organization, it still needed money to run, but to hear it so explicitly said was strange. 

And while the organization boasts a huge library of radical Black works, from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, to U.S. printing rights for Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, to Cornel West’s Race Matters, White Fragility is their fastest-selling book of all time. This is emblematic of both readership at Beacon and the racism of publishing broadly.

Neither Beacon nor DiAngelo really want readers to look too closely past the thin veneer of progressivism because it’ll always start to fall apart.

Beacon thrives on liberal antiracism, which is shallow and is exemplified perfectly in the self-help, individualist tripe White Fragility serves up. Centering racism as a personal flaw to be massaged out with the help of the latest self-help book, the text not only misses the forest for the trees, but goes further to assure white people that they can be absolved of their position in the racist architecture of history with these few quick steps. 

Neither Beacon nor DiAngelo really want readers to look too closely past the thin veneer of progressivism because it’ll always start to fall apart. Terms like white fragility and white privilege, born of the obsession with the individual and the systemic failures of liberalism, are meant to obscure and deflect attention away from the real issue: white supremacy and the power that it holds. Inherent to this approach is ignoring the root causes and only ever expending enough energy or allowing for enough change to give the appearance of controlled progress, reform dictated entirely by the system. Buying into liberal antiracism means that you don’t have to think about dismantling capitalism. You don’t even have to recognize that race and class are deeply tied together on a fundamental level. To perpetuate revenue, even as an independent nonprofit publisher, the work you do must purposefully not go far enough. 

On my last day,  at my last all-staff meeting, I was asked to share some final words about my experience working there. I took my time, breathed, and answered with clarity. “I’m very grateful I got the chance to work here. It was very… enlightening, and I’ll be sure to take everything I learned here with me wherever I go next.”  

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Before I left for home that night, my supervisor, who’d caught the shade, told me that she hoped whatever less-than-great experiences I’d had there didn’t stamp out my dream of going into the publishing industry. I assured her it hadn’t. It still hasn’t, but I know that if I’m to continue to chase my dreams of writing, it’s worth finding a place where my voice isn’t in service of just a viral hit.

Jude Casimir sometimes writes things, and her passions include movies, books, history, and communism. She is a revolutionary optimist even when she’s feeling a little pessimistic, and is constantly engaging in work that addresses topics such as race, disability, class, sexuality and their frequent intersections. She graduated from Worcester State University and lives in Massachusetts. 

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Comments
  • I love it when I read something that articulates what I feel but can’t formulate words for. I want to send this to the nonprofits for whom I worked. My experience feels very much the same as what you describe. Thank you.

    I wonder if you’d consider the role of sexism/patriarchy in your conclusion? When you say, “white supremacy and the power that it holds…You don’t even have to recognize that race and class are deeply tied together on a fundamental level,” I want to see male supremacy indicted too. Thoughts?

    Jul 7, 2020
  • Debra Boyd

    I am sorry that this was your experience & appreciate your clear telling. I’m wondering when your internship was. The Press and the Association have both been undergoing substantial change (uneven and not enough) over the last few years. The need for wide-scale, systematic change is great. And, I do wonder if individual change is also both needed and may even advance the speed of the systemic work. I’m not sure I see an either/or, but a both/and. Beacon and the UUA have long falsely prioritized the individual. I appreciate your critique & wish you much success. I’m sorry that it won’t be at Beacon.

    Jul 17, 2020
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