Spotlighting is the practice of focusing attention on an individual, event, or action. Every organization will have a means to concentrate attention in this manner. Anti-racists must learn to develop their own means of spotlighting.
Attention is influence. Influence is power. As a concentrator of attention, the spotlight can convey the currency of favor, privilege and power or the destructive power of ridicule or scandal.
Spotlighting can raise consciousness. It can make visible the unknown, marginal, and invisible. It can serve the purpose of equality and equity by giving presence and voice to those whose sacrifice and struggle. It can illumination situations that would otherwise be unknown, expanding our history. For generations, Interpreter Magazine served as the programmatic spotlight of the United Methodist Church, moving throughout the connection and featuring creative local ministries serving the community in new ways.
Social media and the proliferation of networked multi-media communication devices have widened and flattened access to the spotlight. Orwell’s “Big Brother” is still watching, but little brother also has a cell phone. Aspiring models, actors, commentators, and musicians capitalize on the voyeuristic tendencies of social media participants, posting selfies, stories, timelines and Tweets, crafting and curating their public personae. On commercialized social media sites, the success of individuals in this regard has created a new class of wealthy celebrities with large followings and monetized channels.
I actually subscribe to one of these channels. It is called “De Mi Rancho a Tu Cocina” and features a Mexican grandmother who uses ingredients grown on her farm to produce classic Mexican cuisine. Doña Angela, the founder of the channel, recently received the YouTube Gold Creator award after passing 100 million subscribers.
The spotlight makes the local universal. It makes one context connectional. It takes the one subject and places it before the whole. It moves the peculiar into the plenary. It gives one person, one situation, one action, the ability to represent the entire organization.
In a theatrical production, the individual managing the spotlight will often wear black, blending into the background and giving the impression that the spotlight moves on its own by stroke of providence. Someone recently asked me why I do not appear in many posted photographs of the ministry of my church. I explained, “I am the photographer.”
The spotlight itself is a structural component, as are the rules that control where it is placed. Structures exist between the top and bottom, between privilege and poverty, the executive and the local, like the computer code governing the behavior of the giant YouTube servers processing exabytes of streaming video data, carefully placing ads, and ranking programs by views, clicks, and influence. We see the subject, not the system, the lighted area, not the spotlight, the Wizard of Oz, not the feeble old man behind it pulling the levers. The spotlight itself is a structure and is rarely its own subject.
Control of the spotlight is a privilege jealously guarded by those in power.
In the popular book, The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene lists several principles for political advancement that relate to spotlighting.
#1 Never outshine the master.
#6 Court attention at all costs.
#7 Get others to do work for you, but always take the credit.
#27 Create a cult-like following
#37 Create compelling spectacles
A structurally racist organization will use the spotlight just as inequitably as it deploys other resources. The spotlight will selectively favor those in power and those being groomed into privilege. The spotlight will usurp the voice of advocates. It will keep the privileged in control of the narrative and agenda. The spotlight will let the organization take credit where none is due. It will favor the White savior, use the poor as props, and amplify racial stereotypes. The spotlight will consistently illuminate the superficial, the philanthropic, the mediocre, the attractive, the easy, the prosperous, the successful. It will create a sense of leadership, empathy, engagement, where none exists. It will sanctify the status quo. It will lower the anxiety of personal racists.
Virtue signaling is a pejorative term describing the hypocrisy of individuals using the spotlight for self-aggrandizement, taking selfies at protests, with the poor, with advocates, making public pronouncements or posts supporting causes they have no actual investment in supporting, Structurally racist organizations regularly engage in virtue signaling.
At the recent Republican convention, President Trump, one of the most xenophobic U.S. Presidents in history, conducted a naturalization ceremony for a small group of non-white immigrants. The immigrants reportedly had no idea they were to be used this way. President Trump used these immigrants the same way he had previously used the Bible in front of a shuttered church, as a prop in the spotlight. Both uses were grotesque examples of virtue signaling.
Occasionally, the spotlight will be “stolen” from the system, evoking a rapid response to recover it.
The passing of the Resolution to End Family Separations at the Rio Texas Conference in June of 2018 was no easy task. Standing Rules and other procedural, structural issues blocked delegates from bringing the motion from the floor. Conference executives compelled advocates to conduct a survey instead of holding a vote, and only allowed a vote upon the resolution once a survey showed overwhelming support and the language was proposed by a standing committee meeting in emergency session. Even still, the vote required a suspension of the standing rules.
Within days of the media coverage of its passage and subsequent support in other conferences, the institution went into action to recover control of the spotlight.
The same conference officials who worked to block the resolution held conferences with the local media, interviews that excluded the authors and advocates responsible. A new Immigration Response website headlined with a photo of the racist border wall networked together curated news and links to philanthropic relief efforts, official addresses of public officials, and articles celebrating efforts to address the suffering of immigrants and the personal testimony of an executive visit to a government field prison for immigrant children. With help of national UMC media, the conference’s only Hispanic District Superintendent was extensively photographed accompanying Hispanic Border Patrol agents in their work saving migrants from drowning, dehydration and exploitation.
One item was omitted from the website: the resolution that prompted its creation.
Behind the executive news conferences, the spotlighting of the charity efforts, the official collaboration in Border Patrol propaganda, the convening immigration forums, and other aspects of spotlighting, the levers of the structure were still at work.
The Resolution to End Family Separations, approved by overwhelming majority at the annual conference, was never mailed to the justice department.
The spotlight is a component of the structure. As a tactic of structural racism, it will direct our attention away from the structures that maintain the hierarchies of power that control where the spotlight is placed.