Why Violence Goes Viral: A Thread in Six Parts

Even when we create “for the people,” we can end up speaking past our own — even when no one is out there at all. In addition, anti-racist reporting has proven what many already knew. Here’s my Woke Asian response. I can’t help but think that all this posting is not about raising awareness. This again:

I make the mistake of scrolling through the comments. Which fundraising expert taught you about SMART goals, and what are you getting for meeting them? But soon.”
I would like to think I’m joking. This tweet is also going around:

Viral content often lacks context. Non-Black people talk about Black death like it’s nothing. This self-boosting function appears in the design itself. I hope that people read and share this essay. We East Asians long to surpass the role of white supremacy’s side piece. This, despite the posts some are making to shame people breaking quarantine. We do it for the sake of legibility to the white gaze. The racial imaginary, h/t Rankine and Loffreda, makes clear the invisible frame for the creative act: the power and policies of a settler-colonial racial state. Yet people who run seriously would never say we “jog.” What does the difference reveal? But the topic is not innocuous. Please bracket your pain, however shocking and unfamiliar, so that you can learn about other communities’ ongoing suffering. Only now do I notice the ways in which it’s almost scrubbed clean of historical specificity, written to outlast the moment perhaps. In other words, the economy commodifies Black pain, and non-Black people profit.  
I take a Pomodoro writing break and go on social media. To concretize: If another Asian person is walking toward me on the sidewalk, and I move onto the street to avoid infection. Novel to whom? It’s Malcolm holding a rifle by the front window. Is this a different murder? It’s the worst of both worlds: IYKYK and IKYKNYKIK. At the same time, I notice my anxiety with disdain. My partner reads it. I want to get out. The whole premise of writing something new is a norm that steers people away from writing for their own communities. So, John Cho, stop telling Asians to feel bad because of COVID. I would like to think it’s because of everything I’m writing. MARCH 13, 2021

THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE HIGH/LOW ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.29.  
We even name our pain to assuage our oppressor. A corollary of that proposition — a generalization, I admit: Black people are positioned and poised to identify the fallacies and foul play of the modern world. But also this switcheroo logic is characteristic of naïve understandings of white supremacy, patriarchy, and the rest of the gang. It’s the same man. Only a white man would step so comfortably into the position of historical authority. Chalk it up to my Virgo MO. The Woke Hapa posts a lot. Calm down. I mean, we are yearning for self-determination and agency. Not a few of them are white.  
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison examines what she calls American Africanism: how white US writers imagine Black people in the pages of literary fiction. Ours is a country that acknowledges Black people most upon their murder. People comment congrats. I also know that most of it’s not mine. We make a killing. But my sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book.  
I think about ending this essay with action steps. Not on brand! Another piece of Black knowledge that I learn during the pandemic: the adage “when white folks catch a cold, Black people get pneumonia.”
Black excellence and anti-Black racism are both conditions of possibility for modernity. She calls this scheme the literary imagination. Probably the last thing many Black people feel safe to do right now is run in public. In this essay, I turn the gaze onto non-Black people who make a show of looking at Black death. The diction strikes me: a term for earthquakes used to describe a disease whose spread exceeds any center. Meanwhile, Kochiyama looks spot-on and bad-ass. Social media delights in exposing the cluelessness that results from segregation, as this trio of posts shows:

With that said, social media lacks the capacity to integrate realities. What’s the difference between the gaze and the imagination? I give up. I love it — it’s very me. Now, in 2020, I pass on the new look. At first I’m confused. I want people to know what side I’m on. But it’s worth taking seriously. This outdoor action, like the online petition, does not seem to serve Black people. Her pithy example regards Invisible Man. Whereas this narrative presents Arbery as a trope, stripped of dignity, the two killers get backstory and social context. I think about posting something on social media about what a mournful week it’s been for Black people. A friend comments, “OH MY GOD HOW CAN YOU NOT SHOW IT TO YOUR FANS?”
“LOLOL It’s literally a bloody mess right now. It may simply be that the Yuri drawing reproduces a well-known photograph. It’s less the anti-Asian sound bites than the characterization of “my Black friends” as ignorant and hateful to imply the saintliness of certain Asian Americans. One can imagine the Other entirely alone. When we stay in the lanes they painted in the dark, it’s they who weave and wile out, boundless, lawless. Another post is going around. Every decision a text makes implies the gaze that it centers, which is to say, the experiences, values, and worldviews that it validates. People who might otherwise meme the Audre Lorde quote about single-issue lives are, in this staggering moment, treating two US institutions — forever foreignness and anti-Blackness — as if they weren’t ordered by a third: racial segregation. “Invisible to whom?” she says. In other words, non-Black people leveraged the grief around a Black catastrophe to seek relief from the global one. The cost, I think, is Black people’s dignity. Notice, for instance, how the text stretches out the act of violence into so many extraneous steps. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is about how white writers imagined Black people during de jure segregation. I don’t know whether I’ll post a photo once it’s good to go. In turn, it’s also epistemological: don’t think that/cite that/write that because it doesn’t apply to you. Most of the people posting about it are not Black. If the shirt serves anything, it’s the image of the person wearing it. Two white men going viral for tweeting about a Black man’s murder — this is the clearest evidence I’ve come across that social media operationalizes the white gaze. I examine social media virality itself and surface the contradictions that organize discourse about racial justice. What does this amount to? I can imagine him calling people “fam” and greeting people with “what’s good?”
I go to his Facebook and scroll through his feed. What’s going on? I’m on day two of my tattoo’s healing. Our ignorance is often a burden and a harm to Black people. Every time I’m in a space with two or more people of the same race and gender, I worry I’ll mix up their names — that classic racial microaggression. Consequently, obedience and fear govern social justice culture online and off. That is to say, like much social justice discourse nowadays, it’s for the white gaze that wires us all. It is the slightest status symbol, rewarding those who already know. The white gaze is a social medium. It is un-empathetic, infectious over-identification. I even bought the one that DeRay made viral. Amid all this, I get an ad for a Times virtual event. Our desperation is very human and very deep. I wear our histories as horizon line. In form we find safety even when it comes to harm. I fear getting cancelled. If there are Black people scapegoating Asians for a global pandemic, if there are Asians victim-blaming Black people for state-sanctioned violence, their respective ignorance certainly has to do with the endless impersonal forces that make us strangers to each other. This has the effect of partitioning realities: anti-Blackness content here, pandemic content there. It is short, witty, and positive, of course. White liberals would call such decency love, but no. Always remember. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are shaping so many people’s sense of racial justice. I decide against it. Scarcity has spiritual consequences. The problem is, social media is a technology of the white gaze. Projecting and rendering, constructing and collapsing, white perception has the power to make and break people. He has participated in the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and is a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars fellow and a 2021 Ragdale resident. By the time you find out about something, your followers probably have as well. It’s the most likes I’ve ever gotten. Asian Americans in particular need strategies for demanding recognition beyond the schema of racial violence — especially so our visibility does not form at the expense of Black people. If a Black person walks past me in the parking lot, and I lock my car again “in case.” If a brown person walks into the elevator, and I gesture at the buttons instead of speaking English. She speaks, amplified, while the former Mr. By revisiting Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other canonized authors, Morrison makes the case that white writers have used Black figures to make sense of what it means to be American. I met him years ago, at a conference for ethnic studies teachers. The media, always ready to return innocent Black victims as the always-guilty Black criminal, preemptively decided that Arbery died jogging. The hypothetical scenario is so unimaginable as to scuttle the point. It’s probably fine to leave out the screenshots because the post sounds a lot like me. The “always remember,” an admonition made in anticipation. One emergency as heuristic for another. He tracks the fraught transaction between two coordinate subjects. It is ontological: don’t say that/wear that/be that because it doesn’t belong to you.  
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested the two white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery on May 7, 74 days after his murder. I drafted the bulk of this essay last week. ¤
1/
THE MOVEMENT FOR BLACK LIVES has grown during the pandemic. These days, social media traffics in virtue signaling. Killed on February 23. The metaphor of the more familiar disaster gives shape to an otherwise uncontainable pandemic. If I ever let it out, here would be my cry:
All that we want is to be called brothers and sisters for once! Here’s the start and end of it. The social media acronym “IYKYK” upends the value placed on the unknown. It’s about a case of “jogging while Black.” It lists action steps for holding the killers accountable. It would be a shortcoming of the imagination to characterize a Black man as athletic, valued for physical labor. Segregation is not only spatial. Microaggressions are only micro to a people and a system that fail to understand the telescoping nature of their harm. All these Arbery posts today are the equivalent of IKYKNYKIK: I know you know, now you know I know. Surprise! I’m no longer novice or saint, but I remember the confusions and wounds of both. The post fulfills expectations to get some thumb-ups and bubble hearts. As someone who’s edited my résumé to make my achievements measurable and myself hirable — consumable — I’m embarrassed by all these numbers in your tweet. But in the case of #AhmaudArbery, we would lose something not to examine the coincidence. Morrison’s work is groundbreaking, yet the white gaze is something else. Yesterday, Little Richard, and on May 7, Andre Harrell.  
George Yancy makes clear what the white gaze does. The specification of East Asian to signal awareness of the inequities within Asian America, the listing of systemic oppressions to demonstrate ethnic studies fluency, even the affirming parenthetical at the very end — “I see you!” — I recognize these rhetorical moves so keenly because I use them all the time. “I know you know, now you know I know” comes at a cost to the people who have to know, who’ve been knowing, whose overdetermined knowability to the white gaze is the very problem. It’s viral now. I am constructed as evil and darkness. We exceed the gaze by measures beyond imagination.  

If a legion of social justice warriors runs in the streets, and no one takes a selfie, does the activism even occur? People put up gates to protect the resources presumed most scarce. Flowers float near panther’s claws, tail taut.  
A second Rorschach test:

Every aspect of this activates me. I close read the viral discourse compiled by #AhmaudArbery. 3/
Overnight, an infrastructure has cropped up to organize around the injustice. The next day, May 8. Back in late April, because of scarcity, my Facebook feed looked like this:

For some Asians, it was novel to note we’re not actually white. I don’t buy the implied ratio of xenophobic Black people to activist Asians. This unfortunate illustration might as well be captioned “NOT YOUR MODEL MINORITY.” It paints Asian Americans in a powerful light, Yuri literally ahead of Malcolm X, in order to prove the white gaze wrong. What communities does it serve? The “I Run With Maud” action calls for masses of people to go outside when science advises against it and many governments forbid it. Yancy, philosopher, is describing a phenomenological process: what changes within a person as power acts on two people. He says I’m pandering to the white gaze. The turn from white adjacency circulates as hashtag: #NotYourModelMinority. 5/
Today is May 10. It reifies, normalizes, and incentivizes ways of self-fashioning and community building that accord with white norms. Even as we minimize our pain for the sake of white comfort, we often truncate our worlds to a history of white violence. IYKYK. This choice runs counter to traditional publication, where the norm is novelty. While focusing on the imagination limits a relational analysis, Yancy complicates both formulations. White consumption powers our timelines. Every time I follow a thirst-trap account, click on the latest iteration of the latest unparsable meme, or write a reflective, raw, but ultimately uplifting caption to accompany my increasingly professional selfies, I reinforce a worldview in which I and everyone I love are lesser. That’s to say the least. His work can be found at Hyphen Magazine, Lambda Literary, and The Margins. I feel it too. The language of earthquakes. 2/
May 7. One of my former high school students posts an IG story. That’s it. I write that ending. (Doesn’t “followers” make more sense now?)
To illustrate, the white gaze:

classifies/mixes up
idealizes/demonizes
exceptionalizes/essentializes
coddles/objectifies
de-sexualizes/hyper-sexualizes
over-identifies/others
overestimates/belittles
demands care/evades criticism. According to Morrison, the white literary imagination is how white writers make use of Black characters while excluding Black people. The imagination requires no object. The effectiveness is not exactly surprising. I look and I look for that first post. These delayed posts are like aftershocks. Hooked to our phones, we circulate and cycle through Black death. It is American Dirt. There’s a lag time between an incident going viral on social media and that same incident scaling up into digital news media. It has to do with the social distance.   In contrast, writing for the white gaze is upholding this nation’s founding principle: that white lives matter at everyone’s expense. I do post once on Facebook. While that might be the case, there’s another well-known photo. Was it the same man? That’s how Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda define the concept in their anthology of the same title.  
“One way to know you’re in the presence of — in possession of, possessed by — a racial imaginary is to see if the boundaries of one’s imaginative sympathy line up, again and again, with the lines drawn by power.” Put plainly, the racial imaginary makes up stories about the Other that match the plots underwriting white power. When we internalize the myth that there isn’t enough to go around, we risk falling for the premise that we are not enough. I could step in now, and I didn’t have to be consumed by or be concerned by the white gaze. I was one of two Asian American male teachers on campus. How do we reduce or even eliminate it? To the racial imaginary, the sentence “a Black man runs” raises questions like “What did he do wrong?” and “From what?” I don’t think these are the questions most Black people would ask if faced with this post:

But to the white gaze, “a Black jogger” is safe. The hosts, who live in New York, refer to the city as the epicenter of the coronavirus. I can guess who posted about that killing: the Woke Hapa. Because of scarcity, people have posted about the more episodic violence of anti-Asian racism and the more structural violence of anti-Black racism as if we can’t acknowledge both at the same time. Anything can happen in art. It actually proves the point. Then there are the Asians who can’t stand them: their vestiges of whiteness, their complicity. It repeats the scene and bolds it for emphasis. And when we believe that our lives are worth less, we treat the suffering of others as worthless. Did another Black man get killed while out on a run? The impetus, some claim, is the organizing that social media has facilitated, the very reposts I have bemoaned. Consider “microaggression,” once ethnic studies jargon, now social justice cliché. Scroll on. It tends to acknowledge crises one at a time. It’s a revealing choice to characterize Arbery so minimally: “a fit athlete,” “unarmed,” “only 25 years old when he died.” If I were writing a Black male character, my first move would not be to describe his physicality. Eventually, the Times catches up, posting their reporting on social media. I find the writing insufferable, and my repulsion has to do with my identification. It’s Ahmaud again. So who are its people? I heal, and I do. I came across similar news two months ago, at the start of shelter-in-place, but that case wasn’t viral then. In turn, the expectation is to cater to the unknowing. This story plays out like an action flick, its protagonist not Ahmaud. Yet the bad Asians it’s explicitly addressing wouldn’t pick up on all its cues. 4/
A tentative definition: The white gaze is a set of dialectical perceptual practices — filters, if you will — that inscribe a relation within the dynamics of white supremacy. Maybe this incredulity is particular to me, an East Asian man who has made more Black friends than Asian ones precisely with the premise that Black people get it and East Asians don’t. We need more life. Take, for instance, the most obvious tell of the white gaze: the explanatory comma. So let us put two and two together. It disciplines people into writing for the white gaze.  
During the pandemic, I have looked for other ways to describe the phenomenon of “going viral.” The metaphor seems insensitive now. She brings it up in conversation with Junot Díaz. Recruiting non-Black people to do for visibility what a Black person was killed doing — it would be an understatement to call it rubbing salt in the wound. Oh Shaun, you social media lightning rod. He writes in Black Bodies, White Gazes:
As I endure those clicking sounds [i.e., of someone locking a car], I catch a glimpse of myself through the white person’s gaze. The use of the anonymous “they” and “we.” Is it Twitter’s character limit, or is it the power and presumption of whiteness to move freely across space and time? The fear: paying attention to everyone will somehow bankrupt the sources of recognition, maybe even nullify the currency already paid out. Instead of “Who is the audience for this?”, we can ask “Who are its people?”, even “What communities does it serve?”
When people of color decenter the white gaze, we are, as Morrison says, claiming our sovereignty. 18 Million Rising is selling a T-shirt to fundraise for Black- and Asian-led grassroots organizing. We actually have a term already that synthesizes what Morrison, Rankine, and Yancy are each theorizing. The synecdochic mix-up scales up to a metonymic operation. That’s what the white gaze is all about: consuming people of color. If this sounds exploitative, it often is. Our social media feeds are echo chambers. Recall the “Black people are tired” meme. The timeline makes sense. What are ways of doing Asian American that would make “for Black lives” redundant? The paradox of social media virality is this: people spread content that’s already repeating on their feed. I fear judgment, call-out, and condemnation for what I’ve made a part of my body. IYKYK. Jogging implies leisure, which overrides the danger that the white gaze inscribes onto the Black body. Not Asian Americans. From posts by Black writers and journalists, I glean that these artists have shaped the world in ways that many non-Black people will never recognize, myself included. This, even though I “curate” what I follow to only consume people of color. I go back to IG. Perhaps that informs the matter-of-factness with which she pronounces these permissions. The literary imagination centers an isolated white subjectivity, one that stages the racial Other to tell a story about the self. That social media can enable mass mobilization and political change suggests both the extent to which the white gaze governs American institutions and the power that’s harnessed when you move white people to outrage. It insists on knowing where things stand to maintain order and control. The racial imaginary takes power into account. The illustration:

Five or six years ago, I would have bought this in a heartbeat. However, defining “people of color” as “victims of occasional racial violence” is a lose-lose proposition for our personhood. So, if any cause is really at stake today, it’s people’s status as anti-racist. Dude looks more like Chidi Anagonye than the actual Black radical. As of 6:00 p.m. It’s a well-known problem. Likewise, the post is a perfect recitation of every social justice script. This week, as I revise, I use social media much less. Awareness of Arbery’s murder has grown exponentially again. On May 8, this is the centerpiece of runwithmaud.com:

I don’t sign the site’s petition. “Not me, so that’s already a wonderful book that still has that other gaze.”
People post her Charlie Rose interview more, the excerpt with this couched and encoded question: “Bill Moyers, I think, once asked you the question: can you imagine writing a novel that’s not centered about race?”
“Yes, I can write about white people,” she says. It’s about running. Anti-Blackness is the most enduring US currency. I remember my discomfort at hearing a visibly Asian man speak with the cadence of spoken word, which to my ears at least takes on the sounds of Blackness. To my mind, it explains why some of us perform what we take to be Black culture, publicize our proximity to Black people, and tally our pro-Black acts. […] As I move along urban streets, the white imaginary projects upon my Black body all of its fears, rendering my Black body the instantiation of evil. It feeds off of racial violence; killings go viral. What I’m saying is: cancel culture, generally blamed on the POC left, might be more deeply understood as an extension of the white gaze. Social-justice-oriented Asian Americans make strawmen out of everyone else because of resentment. That’s the whole argument. When we fight for the scraps they set aside, it’s white people who stay fed. Pacific, the landing page of The New York Times has no mention of Arbery’s killing even though Patrisse Cullors’s tweet is every fourth post in my social media feeds. Nonetheless, just because the imagination is private does not make it any less deadly, a point Claudia Rankine made viral. It is the discursive violence done when narratives about people of color center the white gaze. If the topic were anything with lower stakes (e.g., exchanging a glance with the other person of color during a particularly white writing workshop), such rhetorical games might be fun, even useful. In an anti-Black nation still defined by the Black-white binary, the most legible way to defy the racist order is to align with Black people. It’s addressed to “my Asian (esp East Asian) family.” In case the post is not quite public, I’ll paraphrase. It says “I LOVE MY BLACKNESS AND YOURS.” Thankfully, I never wore it.  
Morrison did talk about the white gaze.  
Today is May 5. ¤
Brian Lin is a PhD student in the creative writing and literature program at USC.  
I’ll speak to us instead. Every time I come across this tweet, I assume it’s about the arrest of Arbery’s killers. The white gaze is a relational concept. Thus, IYKYK exposes novelty as a matter of the gaze. Because of the violence of the white literary imagination, we are often called upon to enforce the lanes. Brian is fiction editor of Apogee Journal and is working on his first books of prose. I’m stretching before a run, listening to a podcast. Lest they’re confused for the wrong kind of Asian, they brand themselves as the diametric opposite: the Angry Asian Man. Little is off to the side. Case in point: Much of the reporting widely shared about Arbery’s killing describes him as a jogger.  
As far as I can tell, the tension between Run With Maud and shelter-in-place has gone unnamed. Because of preexisting systems, this pandemic disproportionately harms and kills Black people. That is to say, it puts into play white ways of making sense.  
Last test. Anti-racism isn’t for us — we’re the racists! Morning. And it’s because of all those white-aspiring Asians that we’re always left out. Even a non-Black person posts this, editing all the “we” pronouns to “they.”
This — two white men killing a young Black man while he was doing something harmless and recreational — running — this is violence that’s legible and indisputable. The knowledge that liberals like me go out of my way to buy the Ta-Nehisi Coates–edited issue of Vanity Fair with a Breonna Taylor portrait on the cover while the state consistently values real estate over Black life — that people invest more to mourn Black people than to protect Black people — that a Black person murdered moves this country more than a Black person creating excelling coping struggling defying — the knowledge of what this nation values and whom it denies life — it must eat at Black people’s dignity. Desperate not to be mistaken as the wrong type of Asian, an honorary white, I amassed an array of social justice-y T-shirts. People are also circulating the rhetorical opposite, the highly specific:

Yeah, okay. The confusion of two people of color of the same race and gender sets the stage for the replacement of Asian people with virality, of Latinx people with virility, of indigenous people with savagery, of brown people with treachery, of Black people with criminality. 6/     
Today is May 15. Morrison credits African writers such as Chinua Achebe and diasporic writers like Aimé Césaire, “who could assume the centrality of their race.” In their work,
[T]here were the parameters. He shared a Facebook post that illustrates this fear. I mean, siblings! The distinction between signifier and signified have collapsed. As Morrison argues, literary scholars have failed to pay attention to the mechanisms of race in canonical US fiction even (or especially) when race is operative. A campaign named after a Black man that by no means seems to be for Black people — made possible, of course, by social media. It leaves us either sufferer or fraud, but we are so much more than how they harm us or whether they believe us. She’s won the Pulitzer and the Nobel. There are no boundaries there.”
This is 1998. It assumes a subject and an object. It’s a black panther embraced by a banner, which reads: “SERVE THE PEOPLE BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.” The artist is Japanese American and pulls from his traditions. In all of these cases, I am perceiving the person of color within a narrow grid, something like a cage. I Google the name of the man in my student’s post: Ahmaud Arbery. Guess. I can’t find it. It is a sickness when Black death is clickbait. I click on it to check whether anyone has commented on the terrible timing. This sociopolitical arrangement might be news to some non-Black people. […] It has nothing to do with who reads the books. Another Black icon has died: Betty Wright. The delay throws me for a loop. I would like to think they’re celebrating all three of my successes and not just the model minority one. So what is the gaze if “it has nothing to do with who reads the books”? Social media enforces a legibility — a cleanness, a purity — that secures the arrangements of white supremacy. The subject looks, the object is looked upon. (Leave it to a white man to appeal to white male authority to hide white supremacy.) “White people can write about Black people. As Morrison did in 1992 and writers of color today continue to point out, white writers fail at imagining characters of color when they lack substantive relationships with actual people of color. The text not only slows down the violence. For one, the man in the drawing looks nothing like Malcolm X. If these paragraphs showed up in a writing workshop, I would think the story was about the two white men. This essay makes space to ask: What are just and genuine ways of being Asian American beyond white adjacency and Black alignment? It is the vulnerability of Black people to state-sanctioned violence and premature death. At the time, I was teaching English and ethnic studies at a majority-Latinx high school. This is no longer the party line for writers of color in 2020. Everyone of any race, any gender, any country. Legibility, after all, is prerequisite to marketability. What Black audience would want this nightmare played on loop? Remember the Woke Hapa?