Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Wokeness As Weakness

Amelie Wen Zhao and the case of the blackface coal miners

New York magazine reports on the controversy, and talks about how Young Adult author Amelie Wen Zhao — whose professional self-immolation amid a savage struggle session with Social Justice Warriors I wrote about yesterday — was heretofore an enthusiastic participant in woke YA social media culture. Excerpt:

Blood Heir, the first in a planned three-book series, began as the ultimate social media–meets–publishing success story. Zhao matched with her agent, Park Literary’s Peter Knapp, during a Twitter pitching event for marginalized creators (Zhao immigrated from China to the U.S. at the age of 18). Her fantasy series, a loose retelling of Anastasia with a diverse cast of characters and a hefty dose of blood magic, sold at auction in a high six-figure deal with Delacorte. And over the course of the past year, Zhao emerged as an active and outspoken participant in the YA community — not just the author of a buzzworthy debut but an enthusiastic, effective communicator who was deeply engaged with issues of diversity and knew how to make herself heard.

“Set out with good intentions,” Zhao wrote in March 2018, in a post advising other writers on how to navigate social media. “Be enthusiastic, be positive, be supportive, cheer people on — all those things you’d want to find in a real-life friend, be those things online and in the writing community, too.”

A scroll through her Twitter history shows that Zhao generally followed her own advice in the year after she sold her book, boosting fellow authors and writing about the issues she faced as part of YA’s nonwhite minority. (In one tweet, she mused: “I’ve been asked several times why I didn’t write a Chinese #ownvoices novel. I don’t want to be boxed into the permanent ‘Other;’ I want diverse books written by PoC to become part of the mainstream.”)

I totally get why some people react to her self-immolation under SJW pressure by saying, in effect, “Serves her right.” But that’s not what we should do. We should be appealing to this young woman and all writers to take a good hard look at how terrible and destructive woke culture is, and to convince them to resoundingly and openly reject it, for the sake of their own art. If Social Justice Warriors can cause Amelie Wen Zhao to commit professional suicide, then it ought to be extremely obvious that that community is insane and malicious and must be ignored. 

Here’s the thing: their ideology-driven malice is not a bug; it is at the heart of their way of seeing the world! If you are going to refuse its power as an artist, then you have to refuse all of it. All that garbage about identity politics and artistic creation — refuse it, deny it, fight it. It is the enemy of art, the enemy of creative freedom, the enemy of truth, and the enemy of joy. These SJWs are the secular political version of screaming-meemie fundamentalist Christians who scan the world looking for error, and call down the wrath from the heavens upon the poor frail humans. These Twitter Taliban must not just be ignored, but refuted and defeated — not just on social media, but everywhere they show up.

I mean, look at this moronic op-ed from the Arizona Republic.  Writer Rashaad Thomas is a black man, and a certifiable idiot. He walked into a Phoenix restaurant, saw an old framed photo on the wall of Welsh coal miners with their faces covered in coal dust, and took racial offense. He accused them of — wait for it — blackface. Excerpt:

Viewers cannot determine the intention of an artist’s work. Art also exposes society’s blind spots. Blackface is only a glimpse of a larger issue. The larger issue is the lack of representation of marginalized people and their voices in Phoenix.

Frequently, I enter art galleries and I am not represented in the art, which leads to uneducated curation for exhibitions. While shopping I am ignored because it is assumed I unable to purchase anything, or I am followed by a security guard because it is assumed that I am a threat to the store.

Each assumption is based on a stereotype. Blackface caricatures stereotypes of black people.

At the downtown Phoenix restaurant, my concern that the photograph of men in blackface was a threat to me and my face and voice were ignored.

A business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me, “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.

You can’t do anything about people like Rashaad Thomas, who are determined to be offended. But if you are the editorial page editor at the Arizona Republic, you can decide not to publish garbage like this, because it’s manifestly stupid, and will do nothing but poison public debate. Mark Hemingway writes:

This wasn’t some random article on the internet. AZcentral.com is the website of The Arizona Republic, which is affiliated with Gannett, the largest newspaper in the country. Professional news operations are supposed to have editors and gatekeepers who decide what does and does not get published. Some mysterious thing called “judgement” is supposed to be involved.

I can all but guarantee that this article did not end up on AZCentral without multiple people going over it. At no point did anyone ask themselves or their editorial colleagues, “Isn’t this article just cataloging an unjustified and petty grievance against a harmless restaurant owner who could be harassed as a result of publishing this?” And “How will this inform our readers and otherwise encourage them to have healthy and productive conversations about race?”


At this point, the molten “hot takes” designed to exploit cultural and political divisions clogging up the websites of ostensibly serious news outlets have thoroughly undermined any belief readers might have had that the front-page news stories were somehow handled much more judiciously. The journalism industry as we know it may have bleak prospects, but if it seems like late-stage journalism is yelling into the abyss, we should probably listen when the abyss yells “Fake news!” back.

The Arizona Republic is owned by the newspaper chain Gannett, which just laid off 400 people across the chain.  Its publishing hot-take garbage like Thomas’s that makes lots of folks feel that the demise of newspapers is no bad thing for a community. That’s a short-sighted view, but I completely understand why folks feel that way. Think about the poor owner of that restaurant, who now stands accused in the daily newspaper by a racial hothead of being unwelcoming to black people because he displays a photograph of dirty Welsh coal miners. Why did the Arizona Republic do that to him? What possible good could have come out of allowing a black person to accuse him publicly of racism because he displays an antique photo of Welsh coal miners, for pity’s sake?!

If I were that restaurant owner, I would find out who the editorial page editors of the Arizona Republic are, and I would refuse to serve them. I note that of the six members of the editorial board, four are white, one Latina, and one Asian. Not a black person on it. Which, okay, fine, I worked in that specific area of the newspaper business for years, and I know well how hard it is to find African-Americans for those jobs (big newspapers with big budgets snap them up), and besides, only three percent of Arizonans are black. If Rashaad Thomas visited the offices of the Republic, he would see no black faces among the editorial page staff. Would he therefore conclude that people like him are “not welcome”?

It would be transparent bullshit, and a slur on the editorial integrity of the newspaper. But they would deserve that slur, because they gave Thomas space on the op-ed page to issue that same calumny against an innocent restaurant owner. They ought to have thought about this before rushing Thomas’s race-baiting op-ed into print.

We have to do more than just complain about political correctness and SJW bullies. We have to start pushing back, hard. The best place to start is to fight the idea that someone’s feelings are self-justifying, and that just because someone feels offended — for reasons of race, religion, politics, whatever — that their feelings are valid and should be taken seriously. Many times they should — I don’t dispute that. We should always be open to hearing what others, especially those we don’t know well, have to say.

But we should also be open to the possibility that they, like Rashaad Thomas, are full of it, and don’t deserve to have their crackpot accusations dignified or magnified, simply because they are members of an official liberal victim caste.

About Amelie Wen Zhao, I hope you mothers and fathers are watching closely, and observing how allowing your child to absorb all this wokeness can lead him or her to betray their talent and destroy their careers. You are making them weak and unfit for purpose if you don’t teach them to spit on that malignant ideology.

UPDATE: Reading the comments made me recognize that I shied away from addressing  the black church experience when I was writing The Benedict Option. I thought about the things that all contemporary Christians can learn about resilience from the black church, but immediately I began thinking about all the ways critics would come at me. Mostly things like, “How dare you, a white person, appropriate the experience of the black church for your purposes? That’s not your story to tell!” 

Of course the experience of black Christians under American apartheid is not the same thing as what I talk about in The Benedict Option. They were oppressed not because of their religion, but because of their race, but still, they found strength in their religion. By the time I worked out all the necessary caveats in my mind — that is, all the things I would have to say to anticipate the SJW criticism — I was much less interested in exploring the connection. I knew that just about anything I would say would be tagged as insensitive, even racist. Because the black church’s story wasn’t central to my point, and because I had limited space in the book (I had to keep the manuscript to 75,000 words), I just got sick and tired of agonizing over it, and dropped it.

After publication, I was criticized by woke Evangelicals as racially insensitive for not writing about the black church. I was ready for that. The criticism was bound to come anyway. Still, I can’t be too high-and-mighty in my criticism of other writers for yielding to SJW criticism. Progressives just love to be offended, and never, ever give anybody the benefit of the doubt. If there’s an important principle at stake, then it’s worth fighting for, but sometimes, it’s just not worth the hassle.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now