Originally posted on Facebook on January 14, 2021; edited to embed links (links originally posted in comments due to FB algorithms).
So Shaun King seems to be making the rounds for his “Hey Enough Time Has Passed For Everyone to Forget That Time I Used Chadwick Boseman’s Death to Shill My Book, Right?” Redemption Tour.
So let’s revisit this guy. If you haven’t read any of the (numerous) articles discussing his rich history of taking other people’s money and disappearing it, I recommend listening to the Shaun King episode of the Scam Goddess podcast; it is phenomenal. The extent of his fuckery is incredible, and the podcast host and guest (both Black women, a demographic that has r e p e a t e d l y called this dude out) are thorough, hilarious, and forthright about the challenges involved in calling out one of the most prominent individuals in Black movement work. (Also, for fellow Observatorians, there is the most AMAZING joke about the Observatory. Which is just icing on an already-gorgeous cake, because this podcast ep is already worth all of your time.)
Anyway. Shaun King first showed up again in my social media last week, when a Black woman abolitionist shredded him for a post-coup post, wherein he claimed that he was about to say something “controversial in [his] circles:” that when the Capitol Police shot and killed a woman during the coup attempt, it was a “bad shot.”
So here’s the thing about that post: like pretty much everything Shaun King ever does, it contains a surface level on which it’s fine (yes, being against police violence includes being against police violence when that violence is deployed against folks we disagree with!). But there’s a bigger level at which he’s only showing his own ass, because *what* fucking circles is this guy running in that are saying otherwise? His attempts to make himself a Courageous Hero only reveal that his paper-thin commitment to abolition is nothing more than a branding ploy since the word gained currency last June. He’s never been on that tip. He’s still not. If he were, he wouldn’t need to invent straw men for his own elevation. If he were, he wouldn’t have a history — discussed in the podcast episode — of working *with* police. If he were, he wouldn’t have appeared again (reposted) in my social media a couple days later, talking about how This One Cop Did Everything Right And Deserves All The Medals And Is A True Model Of Policing.
The actual abolitionists and abolitionist orgs that I follow have spent the last week cautioning about the use of words like “terrorist” and “insurrection,” because those terms allow the state to expand its power and inevitably that expanded power will be deployed against Black and other marginalized folks, rather than against white supremacists; actual abolitionists have been urging us to consider that the most important feature of last week’s white supremacist violence is not its object (the state), but the fact that it was and is white supremacist violence; that we name it as such, honestly, to place it where it belongs — not as an exceptional event by which the state might expand its own militarization and surveillance but as an outgrowth of the very same white supremacist violence that the state itself perpetuates.
And that is precisely why abolitionists, though not advocating for or celebrating the death of a white supremacist at the hands of the Capitol Police, are also not centering her death: not because it’s not an inevitable consequence of policing (it is), and not because it’s not a tragedy for her family (it is), but because when a group of arsonists decides to play with matches in the woods, those arsonists are responsible for the forest fire that results, whether they make it out alive or not. Pretending that there is any equivalency between this woman losing her life in an attempted coup by the Blue Lives Matter crowd and the Black people who are routinely murdered by those same “blue lives” is serving the same obscurantist both-sides-ism that so many Republicans have been scrambling to deploy over the last few days, as if uprisings over ongoing, centuries-long anti-Black state violence are remotely similar to a group of violent white supremacists attempting to violently seize the levers of power altogether because they lost an election and their white supremacy might have to become slightly less violent.
Shaun King probably doesn’t think they’re the same, either. He’s probably argued against that very idea! But he’s also too preoccupied with the need to make himself the Lone Hero Of Every Argument to recognize when he *is* perpetuating that same equivocation, even if that’s not his intention.
But that’s the problem with Shaun King — he won’t just take your money and run (although he definitely will do that; never give this guy any, any money), he will also dodge any and every call for accountability, whether it’s about finances, his racial identity, or actual words that he actually said (“How dare anyone accuse me of using Chadwick Boseman’s death to shill my book!,” said the guy who literally sent out an email saying that buying his book would be a great way to honor Chadwick Boseman’s legacy, like, YOU PUT THAT SHIT IN WRITING BRO, how are you gonna pretend you didn’t say what everyone can see that you actually said?!?!). When Black women and trans people have called him out, he has a history of reaching for litigation quickly — a history which he does not evince when white supremacists go after him — and when called out for his treatment of Black women, he uses his (unambiguously Black) wife as a shield. There’s no accountability anywhere in sight! There’s just a new, *urgent* project, something ambitious and legitimized by collaboration with non-scammers, who often choose to work with him because his platform is so massive that the possible rewards seem to outweigh the very real risks. At this point, he’s too big to fail, which is as bad for racial justice as it is for our economy.
He’s a grifter, and the cause doesn’t justify the grift; not just because grifting is inherently bad but because this specific cause, racial justice and Black liberation, requires the dismantling of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, and white supremacist patriarchal capitalism is indelibly tied to a culture of grift — so whatever short-term gains Shaun King achieves in his defensiveness ultimately only serve to strengthen and normalize the same mechanisms by which white supremacist patriarchal capitalism further entrenches itself. The antidote is not avoidance, nor is it the action! which Shaun King is constantly urging. The only antidote is accountability, the very same accountability which Shaun King — like so many other activists — calls for from police, and other agents of white supremacy; the same accountability which people poured on the streets to protest for from institutions. But why do we imagine that our institutions can ever be better than we are? How the fuck can we possibly demand accountability from others if we refuse it ourselves?
We must create a culture of accountability, rather than a culture of grift. This is the work, wherever you are — and when we seek to dodge accountability we distort that truth, and get lost in performance and hierarchy; we valorize visibility, instead of doing the patient, quiet labor of liberation; we run away from our own vulnerability and instead fetishize the trauma of the marginalized, and when someone — like, say, so many of the Black women and trans people who have called out Shaun King — turns their attention from this One True Suffering to ask pesky questions like “where did all that money go?”, well, that trauma then gets weaponized as the only thing that matters, as justifying any means necessary.
But trauma is not inherently ennobling, and people who are suffering are especially vulnerable to our culture of grift. Engaging with marginalized and traumatized people is not an excuse to avoid accountability but rather a profound responsibility to practice it relentlessly, to reject the temptations of grift culture at every turn, because to do anything less is taking advantage. The dynamic of white saviorism, and our grifting culture’s willingness to excuse harm based on “good intentions,” is not limited only to white people — I am not here to gatekeep Shaun King’s racial identity but the extent to which his refusal of accountability is excused or forgotten in the name of his commitment to the cause (which is another way of saying “good intentions”) is absolutely saviorism, and absolutely enables harm.
Does all of this mean that his scheduled conversation today (Thursday) with BLM-LA serves to discredit that organization? Absolutely not, although it’s incredibly disappointing that they disabled comments on their Instagram post about it after a couple hundred people responded with the likes of “Really? That guy?” (It’s especially disappointing because the Scam Goddess episode was recommended by multiple folks in those same comments, and in the show notes for the Shaun King episode, the host of the Scam Goddess recommended multiple Black women and trans activists and organizers to follow in lieu of Shaun King. The first name she included is Melina Abdullah, a leader within BLM-LA and the person who will be talking to him later today. So.) Conversely: does this conversation mean that Shaun King has something original or insightful to add to the conversation in this moment? Again, no — which doesn’t mean he won’t offer things that are useful enough or true enough, just that he probably won’t be offering ideas which are genuinely expansive, and he almost certainly won’t be crediting the Black women, femmes, and trans people who originate and develop the expansive ideas that he repackages in reduced, lukewarm, and co-opted form, which he then sells as unique and URGENT!.
And if you still like Shaun King, or you still find yourself drawn to trauma porn narratives, or you still get seduced by the pressure to SHOW your URGENT ACTION! (I have trouble with the last one, personally) — know that I’m not writing this to police anyone’s politics here. “You’re Doing It Wrong” is not the point of accountability; that’s a punitive answer, and an exhausting one. Everyone’s fave is problematic, but to borrow from some of the most-deployed social media cliches of 2020, what’s the point of all this listening and learning if we’re not actually going to know better and do better? What the hell are we actually trying to do if we’re not centering accountability, not just once but constantly and consistently?
The truth is: we cannot build in the world what we refuse to practice in ourselves. We cannot.
Shaun King avoids accountability at every turn. What is he trying to build? Is it something any of us need to participate in?
And — where else does the culture of grift live in our lives? Because while the grifter-in-chief in the White House might be the most egregious example of the form, it’s as omnipresent as white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, which is to say, that shit is *everywhere.* It’s in activism and nonprofits, for sure, and not just in the sense that many people imagine, not in the sense that the likes of GuideStar and Charity Navigator seek to correct — indeed, GuideStar and Charity Navigator are both in on the white supremacist patriarchal grift, the lie of “effective altruism” that seeks only to entrench the hierarchies of philanthrocapitalism and which will never create a just world, because it never can; and when this argument is made to the intellectual father of effective altruism, Peter Singer, he ignores and denies it, and gets away with it. Most of Singer’s fiercest critics, just like Shaun King’s, are Black women. Singer and King are two grifters pulling from the same supremacy playbook, using their privilege to shrug off any accountability as they simultaneously claim to be leveraging that same privilege in the name of justice — but it’s a narrow vision of justice from each of them, one which requires their own elevation and self-aggrandizement, and admits no critique from Black women. What justice is that, then?
There is a pernicious grift at work even in anti-racism, when we understand hierarchy and oppression only as “white supremacy” and not as, foundationally, anti-Blackness — as the radical Black liberationist Keisha Delva posted recently, the end of white supremacy is not the end of racial hierarchy, but the beginning of brown supremacy, or Latinx supremacy, or East Asian supremacy, or, or, or… And indeed, we can see this at work in our progressive politics and narratives already; that the standard-bearer of leftist electoral politics in the US is an old white guy has been much critiqued but that his heir apparent is a young brown woman has been salvific. Yet it is not accidental that the Squad, though technically equal on the floor of the House, has received celebrity unequally, that we do not speak of Rashida and Ilhan and Ayanna with the same fondness and familiarity we offer AOC: they are not, in the popular imagination, a team of equals so much as one strikingly good-looking light-skinned brown woman and her Black backup dancers. (The inimitable Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about this.) The “Saved by the Bell” reboot offered a similar dynamic, and while that show is legitimately brilliant in much of its critique of white privilege, and while it takes risks that few television shows are willing to take (positioning Zack Morris as someone who has only ever failed upwards in its first twenty seconds), it too protagonizes a light-skinned Latina as representative of a unified “Black and brown” experience. The two main-cast Black characters are given their own storylines but they are sideplots, and their relationship to the main narrative arc is always mediated by their friendship to the non-Black protagonist.
Thin, conventionally attractive, light-skinned brown women with Black sidekicks will not lead us to liberation. Their visibility might be a threat to the kind of strict white supremacist nationalism envisioned by the far right, but it’s in perfect keeping with the liberal white supremacy of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” which aims not to dismantle white supremacy or racial hierarchy but simply to invite more folks to participate in it. As I wrote in 2013, when George Zimmerman — a light-skinned brown guy — was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, the genius of white supremacy is in its elasticity, the way it can welcome just as easily as it can otherize and eject. That this balancing act is enabled by a fulcrum of anti-Blackness can be a hard truth for other marginalized and racialized folks; the last five centuries have given us an elaborate and sometimes indecipherable caste system and to understand that system most of us turn our gaze only towards its peak, rarely daring to look underfoot at who supports our own position.
And you may think I have drifted far afield from Shaun King, but we have now arrived at the question which underlies all of his other grifts, which seems to be the defining question of his very existence: that of his racial identity. And I am, emphatically, not here to gatekeep or define his or anyone’s Blackness; but it is not gatekeeping to recognize that colorism exists, and that his light skin carries a lot of privilege. It is not gatekeeping to say that I have also struggled to negotiate my racial identity, because within the parameters of our North American, Anglo-descended version of white supremacy, whiteness and Latinidad are placed in opposition to one another; how could I reconcile the facts of my heritage with the facts of my appearance? I lived that question as a paradox for most of my life until, in 2020, I read enough Afro-Latine critique of Latinidad for it to finally and fully sink in that Latinidad is itself a construct of white supremacy, as something explicitly designed to create paradox and otherization — and to simultaneously elide the violence of white supremacy, colonialism, and anti-Blackness within Latin America. “White Latinx” is only a paradox if one accepts the lie of Latinidad.
It is not always a straightforward thing to assert all the complications of a racial identity that does not fit easily into the proscribed categories which white supremacy has defined as legitimate. In a discussion on an anti-racist Facebook group I identified as white Latinx and a non-Latinx white woman, in response, described me as “white-passing;” I don’t believe she meant it as a gesture of erasure or as an assertion of the white supremacist right to define the racial parameters of others’ experience, but it was both of those things, a microaggression that, like all microaggressions, offers a window into the operation of much more oppressive structural violence.
And so discussion of Shaun King’s racial identity must hold that truth — but we also cannot fail to recognize that the very fact of “discussion” is an artifact of ambiguity, which is its own privilege. To deny or ignore colorism in order to validate Shaun King is to deny and ignore the experiences of people much more marginalized than him; it is to look in only one direction in our racial caste system, and to erase the voices of those for whom Blackness has never been a question. And the consequences of this erasure extend well beyond Shaun King and his feelings and reputation, because it is precisely this mechanism which allows the likes of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug and their ilk to perpetuate their overt racial fraud — as discussed in an excellent episode of The Grapevine (link in comments) about Jessica Krug and blackfishing more broadly, nobody pretends to be Black to get a job at the DMV; it is not an accident that Dolezal and Krug and Satchuel Page claimed Blackness to achieve prominence in Black activism and Black studies. There remain few arenas in civic life where Blackness — not Black aesthetics or Black adjacency but actual lived, embodied Blackness — is a currency, and whether or not Shaun King is a true counterfeiter, he has certainly sought to cash in.