If you’re on Facebook, chances are you know Humans Of New York. It’s an endless stream of feel-good, life-affirming photos, with subjects raining from the cute little Upper East Side dogs wearing sweaters, to the Inner City Children (TM) who give funny soundbites about playing basketball. There’s a lot of really “deep” quotes taken from people about their life and experiences, and yes, I’m sure these are all important for them. I don’t doubt that the subjects are sincere. I think the photographer probably at least has some self-promotional interest (he sells books, after all), but the corniness of his posts don’t really bother me.
What bothers me is the problem HONY clearly has with race. When it comes to his subjects in New York City, he is clearly interested in presenting a sanitized, “United Colors of Benetton” version of the city where color doesn’t exist, and multiculturalism is a fully realized dream. Sometimes, this means he interviews the classic white Inner City Teacher (TM) who mentions all of his students who don’t have a “culture of expectation” at home. Translation: This teacher is the martyr figure who has to take care of these young children of color where their lazy parents won’t, and we should all be praising him and disparaging the parents (and not, say, the structural racism that is actually these children’s biggest obstacles).
Of course, when a woman of color actually raised this issue in the comments, she was quickly silenced and accused of “pulling the race card.” Pretty open-minded audience, right?
But this silencing of people who are brave enough to address these issues is not new in any way. In 2012, HONY was witness to a clear incident of sexual harassment, where an Orthodox Jewish man vulgarly propositioned a Sudanese woman while their picture was being taken. Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind HONY, witnessed this and quoted it. But when the backlash came for his refusal to choose a side, when he clearly saw the harassment (because he didn’t want to offend anyone, so better to throw the Sudanese woman under the bus, amirite??), he deleted the post and tried to have it entirely erased from Tumblr. He posted commentary from a Jewish community leader about how we should refrain from judgment against this man, while letting the woman’s harassment and total invasion of privacy continue, unabated.
I don’t disagree that HONY does good work sometimes, and some of his subjects are compelling and well-documented. His work around the world will undoubtedly open some eyes, and that’s a good thing. But the overall earnestness of his work, and the “positive” brush with which everything is painted — even if it means whitewashing some nasty truths about structural oppression and privilege — is unacceptable. If you’re going to profile a city as diverse (and frankly troubled, particularly along class and racial lines) as New York, it’s your duty to profile it honestly.
Clicking “like” on an inspiring photo of a homeless person is not the same as engaging with the real story (and societal problems behind it). It makes us feel good for a second, like we’ve done something or made a positive change, and then we go on without thinking of the deeper inequalities behind all of this. That teacher might be doing a good job, but he is totally ignorant about the inherent bigotry in his comments. That Sudanese woman was humiliated in front of the world, and we chose to protect her aggressor. New York can be ugly when you take a close look at it, and so can the rest of the world.
And if we’re going to be seeing this guy on our news feeds every day, no matter how much we try to avoid it, we should at least confront his work honestly. And not just the parts of us that make us feel like we’re progressive people.