“Centering” race is not the same thing as undoing racism

Full-text audio version of this essay.

After George Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin and video of the murder was shared widely, a wave of protests began in Minneapolis, where the incident occurred, as well as in most other metropolitan areas in the U.S. and many smaller cities and towns. The violent police response to these events has generated footage of their tear gassing, pepper spraying, brutalizing, and beating American civilians with batons, much of which has circulated online and reinforced the protests’ urgency.

On June 8, U.S. House and Senate Democrats responded to this popular uprising. Wearing kente cloth draped around their necks and flanked by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer walked to Emancipation Hall in the Capitol and kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd, mimicking a common protest action. Images and videos of this event, which was staged to coordinate with the introduction of a police-reform bill, also proliferated across social media and news sites, but to a very different effect.

Saturation describes how institutions foreground race as a substitute for more substantive change, and how individuals can have their racialization foregrounded by those institutions

When protesters kneel, it evokes solidarity, making the visual point that all these people, together, are collectively doing something. They are united in action and idea. They are a bloc. But the kneeling elected officials did not evoke feelings of collectivity but instead, as Doreen St. Félix wrote, “embarrassment.” They are not part of a bloc or a mass. They are not in the same structural position as the protesters rising against injustice; they are emanations of the state apparatus that perpetuates it. Much like the police who have sought to kneel with protesters, the politicians’ gesture is a show not of solidarity but of power — that they can appropriate protests for publicity stunts without refusing, let alone altering, their structural relation to racist oppression. A sitting member of Congress kneeling is closer to replicating Derek Chauvin than Colin Kaepernick.

Why would the Democrats choose such a strange stunt to pair with their bill proposal? Why didn’t they recognize how out of step this was with the original use and intent of the imagery that they were replicating? An explanation can be found in the concept of “saturation,” explored in a new collection of essays, Saturation: Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value, edited by C. Riley Snorton and Hentyle Yapp. The concept helps explain how institutions of power can become more accommodating to racial critique and racialized peoples without fundamentally transforming into anti-racist bodies.

Images like the politicians’ publicity stunt are schematics of institutional power; they make “saturation” visible. Saturation describes both how institutions can foreground race as a substitute for more substantive change and how individuals can have their racialization foregrounded by those institutions. It speaks to both what systems of racialization do to people and how institutions sustain those systems. Saturation points to the psychic load racialized people have to take on to make a place for themselves within saturated institutions built through legacies of discrimination.

In Snorton and Yapp’s introductory essay, they define saturation by way of Isaac Newton’s optics theory, “in terms of the intensity of a color, expressed as the degree to which it differs from white.” For Snorton and Yapp, this definition parallels “an understanding of race as peripheral to whiteness in Western thought.” This means that saturation can be understood as a measure of intensity and as a way of thinking about proximity to whiteness and the social conditions that it creates. Rather than diagnose racism in binary terms — with something simply being racist or not — it can be thought in terms of saturation levels. For example, artist Candice Lin’s “The Land of Milk and Blood,” an essay included in the collection, does not simply identify the production of colonial and imperialist goods like sugar, opium, and silver as part of a racist assemblage but instead identifies them with the history of dyes and porcelain, showing how those artists’ materials are saturated with the culture of extraction that surrounds them. In this sense, we are talking about an entire system of racialization that extends into the very materials of life, and not simply individual actions or even an implicit ideology.

The capacity for saturation exists at every instance when a racialized person interacts with an institution, and it happens on both sides of that encounter. “Racialized subjects,” Snorton and Yapp argue, are often saturated with the demands from institutions to “represent their minority position” and thereby “become oversaturated by navigating and existing within the institutions [they] invest in and then critique.” To be oversaturated as a person, in their terms, is to be both bogged down and pulled apart by the demands of institutions that want individuals to be emblematic of their racial identity. At the same time, an institution can also become more saturated in the sense that increases in nonwhite representation within them may still leave structural problems fundamentally untouched.

To be oversaturated as a person is to be bogged down and pulled apart by the demand to be emblematic of their racial identity

Thinking in terms of saturation rather than overfamiliar heuristics of a whiteness-centering fragility or a sociological analysis removes us slightly from the now familiar (and institutionally embraced) language of diversity that rarely thinks about the mental health of so-called diverse people, whether they are actually included in significant decisions, and whether an institution can retain those perspectives without psychically draining them. It allows us to think both about what happens to people when they interact with larger structures, and it gives us language for how institutions fail to shift in longitudinal ways. Put slightly comically by the editors, in the context of art museums: “Is the answer more Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospectives to remedy the history of exclusion?”

In other words, saturation offers an analysis beyond simply saying “race impacts everything” or “everything is political.” It gives us more precise language for talking about the flexibility of the systems we live within and how they can become more accommodating without changing. A person who becomes wholly saturated by demands on their person can keep going until they collapse; an institution might do the same. The problem is that it takes a whole lot more weight to collapse an institution, and that’s why they can hold onto unchanging power in a way individuals cannot.

Structurally, the American political system has no saturation limit. It can become infinitely accommodating of diversity and yet never remove the power of institutional whiteness to demand racialized peoples prove their humanity. As the kneeling-in-kente-cloth example suggests, the Democratic party can become wholly saturated with racial consciousness and gesture toward racial equity in images and actions yet fundamentally reproduce many of the same problems they’re protesting.

To take another example, from a few days before the members of Congress kneeled, Senator Rand Paul proposed an amendment that stalled the passage of a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime. All three current Black senators spoke against the amendment, including Cory Booker, who noted that the bill had overwhelming bipartisan support and served to repair Congress’s lack of action in the past. But he concluded his speech with remarks that suggested he was saturated — overburdened with the racialized demand that he convince the overwhelmingly white Senate of not only the necessity of anti-lynching legislation but of recognizing his own humanity: “I’ve had to explain to grown men this week that there is still hope in America, that we can make change in America, that we can grow and heal in America, that we can make this a more perfect union,” he said, and then later, “I object to this amendment. I object. I object. I object. I object on substance. I object on the law. For my heart, spirit, and every fiber of my being. I object for my ancestors.”

Booker, as a Black politician, is obliged to perform hope for America’s future even as its legacy of racialization and oppression is being brought to bear on him. He has to recognize that he’s being fundamentally devalued by the institution he has invested in (which, indeed, has a long legacy of such devaluing as part of its role in maintaining racial hierarchy). His rhetorical negotiation of the tension between his power as a Senator and his power as a Black man marks his saturation point. He has to stand up and defend a racial justice bill with the entire force of his history as a Black man against the bureaucratic “neutrality” of a procedural argument. It clearly pains him to do so, and the institution eats that pain without any regard for him as a person or his well-being. And the next time it comes up for a vote, he’ll have to do it again.

While the essays in Yapp and Snorton’s edited collection mostly focus on institutions like museums and markets, the two polarities of saturation apply just as well to conventional politics (as I have used it above) and online platforms, where we might say that a kind of “media saturation” occurs. I don’t mean this in a media-effects sense, in which a person is overwhelmed by social media or cable news, aimlessly doomscrolling. Rather, media “saturation,” in Snorton and Yapp’s sense, could be useful for understanding how racialized content and perspectives work their way through social media and sometimes determine the shape and content of conversation there.

Social media was saturated by images of the black square — revealing how much race could be foregrounded while still ultimately being sidelined

Consider the example of #BlackoutTuesday: This was a protest staged primarily on Instagram as a way of drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. The action was simple: instead of your normal Instagram content, you post a black square. To many of the mostly well-meaning participants, it may have seemed like a low-stakes way to promote solidarity with what they saw as an important cause. But if this New York Times roundtable can be taken as representative, the reaction among Black Americans was to see the black square as pushing out other useful information about protests or voting while allowing white people with little investment in the movement to post and move on. It also allowed brands to posture their solidarity without backing it up with action. As Jasmine Howard put it in the roundtable: “So much wrong and you all think one black square makes you Malcolm X.”

Instagram can be said to have been saturated by images of the black square — revealing how much race could be foregrounded while still ultimately being sidelined. Like the American political system, it demonstrated a capacity to absorb these gestures seemingly infinitely, with business starting up as usual again the next day. The moment of racial recognition, of representation of a political movement, was taken up by the technological platform and then treated as any other piece of content or meme by the white power-holders on the platform. It is another kind of content, another Basquiat exhibition at the museum. It comes and goes without transforming the racialized structure of the space, allowing the white-aligned institution to pat itself on the back for accomplishing a modicum of diversity.

At the same time, the particular psychic stress that the roundtable discussants work through in the New York Times piece shows how saturation works on people. Much of the critique of the black square emerges from the recognition that it, alone, means very little. As Howard notes in the discussion, the black-square posts were attended by her white friends’ increased demands for attention and approval. As the platform was saturated with black squares, certain people deemed to be “representative” are saturated with racialization, required to bear witness to others’ “good work.”

For Snorton and Yapp, the concept of saturation is a way of wrangling with power and capitalism. It “provides a rubric to ask different questions and to push us to demand more from the ways that institutions function and how race has come to be imagined and understood.” Reading the collection during the current moment, in the context of the examples above, I am struck by how it can function as much like a crowbar as a rubric. After all, the relationship between Congressional stunts and Booker’s feeling compelled to evoke his own humanity is complicated. He is both complicit in a system of power and domination and a Black man in America. Likewise, Instagram is a visual ecology that supports (and is supported by) both empty gestures and footage of protests and advocacy at the same time. “Saturation” gives us a way of talking about when change does or does not happen, and why some people particularly are expected to bear the psychic burdens of that. While it doesn’t provide tactical pathways or specific methods to get out of our current position, the concept of saturation does give us a new way of thinking about systemic pressure points. And, maybe, new ways of applying pressure.

Since I began writing this piece a month ago, we went from a media ecology where protests were everywhere to one in which they are barely shown. They’re still happening, of course. People are in the streets in masses. They’re pulling down statues. They’re making their voices heard in their local communities. And yet news channels and feeds slowed that visual information down to the smallest trickle. We have gone from mass media panic about uprisings in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protests to short, staccato segments presented in the context of governmental response. In the past two weeks, many of those segments have focused on the use of federal agencies to abduct protesters off the streets in Portland and, presumably, other cities.

To continue beyond “saturation” would threaten the white-aligned power core of media institutions’ message and economic position

As social media fervor accelerated around this practice, Trump doubled down and claimed it as a positive federal program for getting unruly cities back under the control of law and order. This explicitly authoritarian act was covered uncritically by established media organizations; pundits debated the moral and legal dimensions of these actions while the President’s comments and speeches were consistently aired.

It seems clear that media outlets felt some kind of pressure to downplay the nationwide protests and their calls for action. Saturation can help us frame this: These media institutions can absorb Black Lives Matter messages, calls for police abolition, and radical movements in the streets only up to a point. They hit their saturation point, the absorption limit for these ideas, and then they stopped. To continue would threaten the white-aligned power core of their message and economic position.

But these institutions were also clearly hungry for a way to both-sides the issue, and they have shown themselves willing to make brute authoritarianism a “side” to be debated, and to profit from the “engagement” that leads to. While there might be a tipping point for media saturation, or for saturation in general, I don’t have a sense of what it might be if institutions can always re-up their structural alignment with whiteness. This choice to turn away from positive coverage of the protests and reorient toward the authoritarian interventions is worrying because it shows the extreme investment that the liberal order has in maintaining the racialized power structures currently in place.

But I want to use the concept of saturation to read hope here. If these media entities could absorb and digest protest infinitely, then they would be continuing to monetize them. It required the weight of the U.S. executive branch to sway them back into a moneymaking-through-debate logic, and that swing of power is more significant than it might seem at first glance. The fact that media organizations have to pretend that the only thing worth covering about protests are their brutal suppression suggests that the ideas represented in those protests truly have revolutionary potential — that our institutions could be threatened or overturned via the media landscape. The past couple months could, in part, be a template for thinking oversaturation as a political strategy.

The cost of saturation for racialized people is high, and that cost is paid during encounters with institutions bound up in whiteness and power. Snorton and Yapp open a door to a political escape hatch, though, by suggesting we might be able to short-circuit those very institutions if we can remove their methods for managing how saturated they are. That obviously requires the dismantling of the parasitic relationship that news, their ratings, and their profits have with our political structures.

I think of the demonstrations at the CNN Center in Atlanta. The things that were happening in the screens, in all the screens, were happening right outside the headquarters of the mechanism that produces the content on those screens. The media apparatus could not ignore the groundswell of Black and brown power that existed right outside its door, and it had no choice but to look on and broadcast that clashing moment. While moments of saturation are happening constantly, moments like that may offer us a path toward a future where they can be deployed strategically.

Cameron Kunzelman is a critic whose work has appeared at Vice, Polygon, Kotaku, and Paste. He holds a PhD in Moving Image Studies. He’s writing a book on speculation and video games.