Appearances are the crux of existence in today’s world; it becomes more important to create the illusion of what people want rather than being vulnerable and working towards change. The old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” was based on the premise that the appearance or intention of goodwill is more important than the actual fulfillment of that intent. Many problems arise with this premise, the first being that much work is put into short term goals, or cosmetic vanity projects, instead of collaborative strategies that will achieve long-term ends for the well-being of a majority. Take Brazil for example: right now, the Amazon continues to burn while the Indigenous populations, neighboring countries, and animals flee the blazes. Called the“lungs of the world,”the Amazon has an unfathomable biodiversity which can only be maintained if the tree canopy holds. If the fires continue, the Amazon will be irreparably transformed into savannah, and all the lives of its inhabitants—human and otherwise—will be changed or lost forever. However, in the minds of the few, trees are made for lumber and rainforest terrain is a barrier to grazing lands; if those barriers are removed or the trees cut down, a few people will make millions of dollars.
If appearances are all that matter, there is no accountability for certain actions, and no one looks at the broader picture of the consequences of those actions. Single-family zoning in the United States was created to produce high-quality housing for the White populations in segregation from Black and brown populations. One of the most iconic symbols for single-family zoning is the lawn. In theory, lawns are places where children can play and people can host cookouts, but in actuality, grass is a nonnative plant to much of the United States, and consumes an excessive amount of water. Recent data shows that grass is the most irrigated vegetation in the United States. Lawns are monolithic and project conformity, and the pristine image of lawns distracts from explosions used to destroy housing during the urban renewal period, and the brutality that was enacted on the Black and brown communities to keep those lawns intact. Truthfully, lawns are indicative of control and destruction, but they appear as just pretty grass, so beautiful that they should take the place of justice.
Angela Peoples, the Black woman who held the iconic sign declaring that“White women voted for Trump,”recently wrote an article declaring that there are no “opportunity zones,” just spaces of opportunity for the rich to take over poor neighborhoods. The reason that so many opportunity zones have been recently“rediscovered”is because so many Black and brown neighborhoods were designated as“slums”or “blight,”and that impression was embedded in the minds of past residents. What has consistently been left out of that designation is the countless community organizing hours spent pooling resources, begging local governments for minor investments, and pleading with school boards to keep schools open and in good repair. Unfortunately, the calculated divestment from those communities led to their neighborhoods looking unattractive; therefore, developers and corporate entities were able to convince local governments that the neighborhoods needed to be brought“under control.”The manic obsession with appearances has led to a subconscious drive to control, which has never benefited any neighborhoods without resources.
Centralizing appearance as the main theme of modern existence has also led people to believe that those with resources are the only people with true autonomy, i.e., they have the resources to make sure they visually appeal to people. Why are wealthier communities able to prevent fast food corporations and predatory lending from taking over their neighborhoods? Simply because people acquiesce to the authority of resources and the visual power they can buy. Black and brown people have been trained in respectability as a matter of survival, but regardless of their efforts, their autonomy has never been recognized because Black and brown people on average do not control enough resources to project authority in the arc of the dominant narrative. Through those efforts, it has been easy to capture the images of Black and brown people and convey a message of compliance or visible diversity, regardless of the pain and distress behind such images. Only those with resources have complete sovereignty and the authority to demand corroboration before their“stories”are told.
Ironically, the affirmation based on positive appearances has not even been consistently affirmed, especially when practiced within the dominant narrative. For instance, Black and brown people have been constantly told that if they start businesses, they could maintain the appearance of“civilized people.”Businesses are merely registered entities that provide goods or services; their existence alone does not compel customer bases. Frequently, Black and brown people struggle with their businesses because affluent customers neither solicit nor pay for services offered by Black and brown people. In 1921, the Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma had a blossoming business culture that designated it as“Black Wall Street.”The mere existence of something called“Black Wall Street”contradicted the dominant narrative that Black people were uncivilized, lacked business acumen, and cast derision on their White counterparts who insisted on living in segregation. As a result,“Black Wall Street”was destroyed for making the White communities look bad.
Consistent throughout the focus on appearance is the lack of accountability, since the significance is placed on being impressive enough that flaws are overlooked. No one questions why anything is done as long as the actions look good. In the United Kingdom, the world was outraged when it was discovered that homeless people were removed to make a royal wedding look good. However, the news outlets that covered the outrage were the same ones that took beautiful pictures of the new royalty. Clambering among the photographers was also a lack of self awareness, which might have allowed that marginalized people were removed so that those photographers had pristine shots. No substantial efforts were made to house the people who were made vulnerable, and none of the Parliament—including the Labour party—worked to break down the barriers that created homelessness. The pretty pictures were taken, and the homeless population was made to fend for themselves.
How does one commit to removing the stranglehold that the dominance appearance has on society? One way is through interracial activism that makes White activists as vulnerable to consequences as Black and brown activists: unless everyone endures the possibility of being equally ugly in the public eye, then none deserve the opportunity to look good. No leadership or organization, regardless of its purpose, should continue to be appealing to large swaths of the population if no tangible results have occurred, especially in light of the nonprofit industrial complex—which stands as a revolving door for leaders who initially caused the problems and withheld funding to fix them. If looking attractive is more important than the work, then organizations will continue to be ineffective as long as people are more enticed by the image than progress. Demanding accountability breaks the spell of appearances on society, and it is up to the populace to stop expecting“change”to look exactly like what already exists.