So in my last post I mentioned that before deciding that the Netflix walkout was more important, I’d been working on a long post about “That Fucking Kidney Story” (which an earlier draft referred to as the “Bad Art Friend Story” but I think “That Fucking Kidney Story” is probably a more apt name although I’ll henceforth be saving time by referring to it as “TFKS”).
I’d also note that this article is longer than the story about the Netflix walkout, by quite some way. And inevitably this leaves me open to the criticism that I care more about TFKS than I do about trans rights. Which, I hope goes without saying, isn’t the case. It’s just that the (apparent, at least) triviality of TFKS makes it a lot easier to talk about and, indeed, riff on, without being concerned that I’m obfuscating rather than clarifying an important issue.
TFKS, however, was obfuscated from the off. The story was presented in an artful but, many would argue, disingenuous format that actually takes a lot of work to unpick. Thus the long post.
Anyway If you’ve been paying any attention to literary Twitter for the past fortnight-ish you’ll have seen the utter chaos that is “That Fucking Kidney Story”. I don’t often do topical posts (Netflix walkout aside) but I’m making an exception for this one because I haven’t updated this blog in ages (again, Netflix walkout aside) and I did actually want to do some reflecting on my own personal reaction to the story and the conclusions I’ve ultimately drawn from it.
Of course because this is an AJH blog post this is going to get rambling, big-picture and abstract and so before I do that I think it’s important to recognise that this whole story is about two women who are real people both of whom, as far as I can tell from what people who know them have said, are really nice people most of the time. But a dispute between them has been somewhat cynically turned into an infinitely flexible morality play that pundits can turn into whatever soundbite or message piece they like. And I am fully aware that I am totally part of the problem here.
Indeed, there are two reasons I resisted the temptation to call this post “the real lesson of kidneygate”. The first is that I’ve been trying to avoid using the “gate” suffix since I learned that it was actually first pushed into public discourse by Nixon allies trying to make Watergate sound like a trivial scandal instead of an actual crime (and it worked). The second is that you’ve almost certainly seen a million posts telling you what the “real” lesson of kidneygate is, and they’ll all contradict each other. And of course the real real lesson is that reality isn’t in the business of teaching lessons, life is complicated, people sometimes fuck up, and there’s nothing capitalism won’t exploit for profit.
That said, if you want a short, tl;dr version of what will doubtless shape up into a classic AJH 10,000 word essay it’s this.
We need, as a whole, to get better at handling intersectional issues, and the establishment as a whole has got incredibly good at weaponizing marginalised people against each other.
But first some background.
Some very, very deep background.
I’m not going to start this post by linking to the original “bad art friend” article, I’ll do that later in case you haven’t read it. Because, as I kind of spoilered above, my “real lesson” from That Fucking Kidney Story is that it’s a prime example of how established power weaponises marginalised people against one another and I don’t think I can explain that properly if I don’t set it in the context of the innumerable “reckonings” we’ve apparently had in the last ten decade.
Since 2010 we’ve had two nationwide/worldwide reckonings on gender (#YesAllWomen and #MeToo), multiple reckonings on race (Black Lives Matter didn’t appear from nowhere in 2020 and the UK had a series of riots in 2011 that were marked as a watershed at the time), and for those who can remember all the way back to the dim distant days of the first Obama administration, even a reckoning with economic inequality in the shape of the Occupy movement.
Yet somehow, in 2020, we found ourselves in a situation where progressives across America were themselves cheering because a heterosexual, cisgendered, wealthy white man had won a presidential election against a different heterosexual, cisgendered, wealthy white man.
At every stage of the last decade, popular movements that have pushed for increased justice have been cynically set against each other by powerful social institutions that absolutely know what they’re doing.
In a world where virtually all of the wealth and power is still held by white men who are generally heterosexual, cisgender and above all rich we’ve all somehow been convinced that the real problem is (depending on what particular marginalised group is being set against which other marginalised group) “immigrants taking our jobs” or “Karen wanting to see the manager” or “transgender people in sports” (or, for that matter, in general).
I talked in my previous post on this issue about the death of Sarah Everard and the way that I feel the UK government is deliberately using transphobia as a way of making it look like they’re doing something about “women’s safety” when they’re actually just reinforcing harmful misinformation (sidebar, it’s not really my place to make this comparison but I see eery parallels between the way the right frames transphobia as about “women’s safety” and the way it frames abortion restrictions as about “women’s health”). I think now would be a good time to unpack that very slightly.
The first thing I should say is that because the world is awful and everything is awful, the death of Sarah Everard isn’t the only shocking example of the British police badly failing British women. Just today Cressida Dick issued an apology for the mishandling of the missing persons case of two women who were found murdered in Wembley Park. Something that gets glossed over in the apology is that not only was the initial missing person’s report of the murdered women mishandled but police officers also took selfies next to their bodies. I thought it was important to mention this in particular because it felt wrong to be expressing my outrage over the murder of a white woman in my last post and to ignore the arguably conduct around the murder of black women.
But the thing I want to highlight about the very real ways in which British people (especially British women, especially British women of colour) are currently being let down by their political leaders, and the way those political leaders are using scaremongering, especially in the form of transphobia, to shore up their reputations, is that I don’t think the problem is a simple as Priti Patel being “a TERF”.
You might notice here that I’m pointedly not linking to anybody’s social media, or even mentioning any famous British authors who might have made well-publicised comments about the dangers posed by the trans community. Because the point I’m trying to make here is that individual people aren’t the problem, social structures are. The reason Priti Patel and Cressida Dick are getting personally name dropped here is that they’re, respectively, the Home Secretary and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
The Home Secretary responding to the real fears of British women by telling the police to start categorising transfeminine criminals as men is cynical, but it’s not grounded in an ideological commitment to Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, it’s grounded in an ideological commitment to power. It’s exactly of a piece with the government responding to the real concerns of British people of colour and the Black Lives Matter movement by commissioning a report that says institutional racism doesn’t exist. A report that also, incidentally responds to the very real concerns of struggling white-majority communities left behind by our country’s growing wealth gap by telling them that all their problems are caused by people talking about “white privilege”. And in case you think this is hyperbole, no the government literally has told schools that they’re not allowed to teach about white privilege as part of the Government’s strategy to improve outcomes for underperforming working class children.
And I’m not saying there aren’t conversations to be had about this. One of the things I’ll actually come back to in this post is that I am sometimes concerned that the concept of “white privilege”, which was originally intended to be an idea to encourage individual white people to self-reflect, has instead become something that powerful white people weaponise against less powerful white people (hell I think that’s part of what happened with the original framing of That Fucking Kidney Story). But when Boris Johnson talks about a “war on woke” it’s hard to trust that this is him trying to find a way to address systemic inequality and not, say, trying to turn the masses against each other.
And so often we do his job for him. The overwhelming social, cultural and media emphasis on narratives that set cis women against trans people, white women against people of colour, working class people against migrants and, in the bizarre case of the kidney story, women of colour against of all things people dying of kidney failure is a real, systemic and cynically created issue that we are all, all too often, complicit in.
You’ve probably read it already but the original New York Times article is here.
You can also read a huge compilation of information about the story with a strong “the original article is Bad Actually” slant here.
You can read the original author’s follow-up article about how it wasn’t Bad Actually here.
Side note: Like most people I think social media is a mixed blessing at best but I do think we’d do well, as a society, to remember that mainstream media has always been—or at least had elements that were—sensationalist, disingenuous and manipulative. Twitter has massive massive problems that I’m sure we’re all well aware of, but the mainstream media clucking its tongue at people on Twitter for reacting strongly to deliberately sensationalised newspaper reports or, worse, calling them out for being deliberately sensationalised is a very bad look.
If you want to read a good, detailed and neutral breakdown of what actually happened (although full disclosure there seems to be some meta-discussion of this summary’s use of images taken uncredited from the Kidneygate twitter account so even here there’s controversy), take a look at this otherwise read on for my much less adequate summary.
In short, and I’m going to try to keep this neutral: a woman named Dawn Dorland (actual person, not a DC Superhero) donated one of her kidneys to a total stranger. She started a facebook group in order to have a supportive place to talk about this and she shared, in that group, a copy of the letter she sent to the recipient at the end of the organ chain that her kidney donation started. One of the members of this group, Sonya Larson, was inspired by Dawn’s donation to write a short story that used the jumping-off point of a kidney donation to explore ideas of white privilege and white saviourhood. Dorland found this both personally upsetting because she considered Larson a friend, and genuinely harmful because the story mischaracterised organ donation. There was also the question of the inclusion in Larson’s story of direct quotes from Dorland’s letter to the end beneficiary of her organ chain (not, for what it’s worth, the person who got her actual kidney, this is one of the elements of the story that Dorland felt harmfully mischaracterised kidney donation). This was complex because letters and social media posts actually are copyright under US law so this was direct copyright infringement. People sued and counter-sued and it got very bitter and now the internet (and let’s be really fucking clear, that includes professional journalists, we talk about “Twitter” as if the people with the biggest Twitter platforms aren’t almost always people who also have other conventional platforms as well) has gone to arms to decide which of these two women is evil.
I’m not really interested in that question.
I’m interested in exactly two things (okay, possibly three things). How I personally read the story, what the ways in which I and other people have read and talked about the story tell us about intersectionality, and the way divide and rule tactics are alive and well in modern discourse.
My Kidneygate Journey
Yes, I said I wasn’t going to use the “gate” suffix but I hope that by pointing out the sinister origins of the convention I’ve taken its power away (or given it its power back?).
When I first read TFKS I was squarely Team Larson. Honestly I was Team Larson before Larson even showed up on page.
Patented AJH spurious analogy: British Comedian David Mitchell (not to be confused with British Novelist David Mitchell) once said in a newspaper column “I don’t like vegans, but if I’m honest with myself, I think it’s because I’m scared they might be right.”
And I think many of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, feel that way not only about vegans, but about Dawn Dorland. Because if we’re being really sincere and self-reflective, seeing other people doing objectively morally good things (and you have to reach an incredibly long way to come to the conclusion that donating a kidney to a stranger is not an objective moral good, and honestly you have to reach a pretty long way to conclude that giving up animal products isn’t too) that we lack the resolve to do in our own lives makes us feel bad about ourselves. And when things make us feel bad about ourselves we search, often unconsciously, for ways to start feeling good about ourselves, and the fastest and most expedient way to do that is to concoct a reason that The Good Thing Was Bad Actually.
It’s that or admit to ourselves that we value our own comfort more than a stranger’s life, and that feels icky.
So I was barely two paragraphs into TFKS and I was already incredibly primed, with all of my finely honed motivated reasoning skills to latch onto the tiniest shred of evidence that Dawn Dorland was really A Bad.
And I got that evidence pretty early. Because, let’s face it, no matter how you cut it, Dawn Dorland is pretty fucking cringe. Or rather, because the NYT article seems to go out of its way to make Dawn Dorland look as fucking cringe as possible (although also she probably is pretty cringe, nice people usually are). In the first paragraph it tells us that she is the sort of writer who, in one authorial mission statement, declares her faith in the power of fiction to “share truth,” to heal trauma, to build bridges. (“I’m compelled at funerals to shake hands with the dusty men who dig our graves,” she has written.) She is known for signing off her emails not with “All best” or “Sincerely,” but “Kindly.”
So obviously, I hated her instantly. As, I suspect, did basically everybody else who read the article. Perhaps it was unintentional but I was really, really looking forward to seeing her taken down.
Anyway the article continues in this vein, talking about Dorland’s experiences in a way that look superficially like they’re presenting her side of the story but which are actually setting her up for a fall. Then it finally introduces us to the character of Larson, and it does it in a way that doesn’t make her look cringe at all. It describes her like this:
In time, she moved beyond mere political commentary to revel in her characters’ flaws — like a more socially responsible Philip Roth
So by this point in the article it’s already very clear what the setup is. Larson is this genuinely talented artist creating great art about important things and Dorland is this jealous Karen who takes herself too seriously. And just to hammer it home, it says this about Larson’s work:
Nothing interests Larson more than a thing that can be seen differently by two people, and she saw now how no subject demonstrates that better than race. She wanted to write a story that was like a Rorschach test, one that might betray the reader’s own hidden biases.
And now I was feeling smug, because I’d called it. Because you see I Am One Of The Good Whites. So naturally when I read this article I immediately understood that the white woman was A Bad and that the woman of colour was A Good and now the article was even telling me directly that this story (both the story in the article about the dispute and the short story that the dispute that the article was about was about) reveals your hidden biases. It’s as good as telling me, directly, that if I’m on Dorland’s side I’m a racist and if I despise everything she stands for and think she was wrong to do something that saved the lives of three strangers then I’m brilliant and an ally.
So I felt smug.
Then I realised I’d been fucking played.
Aside: This is Not About Sonya Larson
Because the article—despite its framing—is heavily biased in Larson’s favour (notice it describes Dorland’s writing in her own slightly cringey words but praises Larson’s writing in authoritative third person, and that’s just one example) a lot of the backlash against the article has become backlash against Larson herself and I think this was unfair.
Let me be clear, I think she and her writer’s group the “Chunky Monkeys” were pretty mean-spirited about Dorland’s donation, but I was telling the truth when I said that it was a mean spiritedness I understood and shared. If I’d been part of that group I’d have been sending private snarky tweets about Dawn with all the rest of them. I also think that there are serious questions to be raised about the way in which the Chunky Monkeys who were still a powerful group of influential writers, several of whom were Dawn Dorland’s direct superiors at work, closed ranks against her even before Dawn raised her complaints about Larson’s use of her copyrighted material. And it’s important to note that the actual copyright case should stand or fall on its own merits under the law, not on the question of which of the two people involved is the Nicest Lady.
But I also think it’s really important for me to make clear that I absolutely defend Larson’s right, as a woman of colour, to be suspicious of altruistic white women.
She has every right to think that Dawn Dorland is a smug Karen rubbing her white girl virtues in everybody’s faces.
But I do not.
And the more I look at the original New York Times article, the more I reflect on my own initial reaction to it, the more uncomfortable I am with how quick I was, as a white person, to appropriate race as a weapon to wield against a woman I’d never met. Because sure, I can pretend to myself it’s because I’m just that brilliant an ally. That I am so in-tune with the struggles faced by people of colour that, like, their pain is my pain man. But that would be a self-serving lie. I wanted to see Dawn Dorland taken down because her decision to donate a kidney to a stranger made me feel bad about myself. Full stop.
I suspect Robert Kolker didn’t deliberately write the original article with the cynical purpose of allowing other white able-bodied men to weaponise race against women and people waiting for kidney transplants. I think he probably sincerely believed he was presenting the article neutrally (and I think it’s probably the same version of the article I’d have written if I was trying to tell the story and I was being slightly less pathologically self-reflective about it). But implicit bias is a thing, and it creeps into our work all the time, and the biases at work in TFKS are many and complex.
Because this story is profoundly intersectional in a way that the initial article completely ignores and the wider discourse only sometimes touches on.
The Problem With Rorschach Tests
The original NYT article describes Larson’s story as “a Rorschach test” and the follow-up article implies something similar about the original article.
But think about what a Rorschach test is.
It’s a meaningless, random image to which the only possible response is instinctive free-association. There is, by design, no right answer. There is no wider context. There are no deeper meanings. It’s just ink on paper and whatever first pops into your head is your truth, and that’s it. You can speculate about what that truth means to you but you never have to confront the idea that you might be wrong.
That is not what this situation is.
This is a real situation. It is about real issues, with real context. It involves real people. Since it touches on the broader question of kidney donation it is literally life and death.
For all its seeming triviality, “kidneygate” is actually (oh look, I’m 3000 words in and I’m finally getting around to the main thesis of this essay) a fascinating case study on the ways in which mainstream media oversimplifies complex intersectional issues and, very often (either intentionally or unintentionally), uses them to drive a wedge between the marginalised communities on whom those issues touch.
“Kidneygate”, for all its seeming silliness, touches very seriously on issues relating to:
- Race. I really do believe that Sonya Larson was sincere when she read a white saviour complex into Dawn Dorland’s decision to donate a kidney to a stranger.
- Gender. This story, ultimately, is about a white male journalist writing an article that (perhaps unintentionally) held up two women to a spotlight and encouraged the public to pick one to demonise.
- Class. Dawn Dorland, it is mentioned in the article (albeit in a weirdly disparaging way) comes from a profoundly deprived background, and it is because of this, she says, that she feels so strongly compelled to help others in the way she chose to. Both the Chunky Monkeys and the article itself seem to directly mock her for this.
- Disability. The whole discussion in the original article and in at least the early part of the Twitter conversation almost totally ignored and erased the experiences and needs of the actual kidney recipients.
This is complex. It’s certainly too complex to discuss in a Twitter thread. It’s honestly too complex to discuss in a 3000-word-and-counting blog post. It wouldn’t necessarily be too complex to discuss in, say, a New York Times article, but nuanced discussions of complex issues don’t generate clicks. Catchy titles with question marks at the end do.
One of the most interesting responses I’ve seen to this whole debacle is this one by Bryn Donovan. It’s by a kidney donor, and it talks about several things that the original article ignores.
Firstly, it points out that the instinctive, visceral hatred that people feel for Dawn is an extremely common reaction that kidney donors face. And sure it’s one blog post. Maybe the poster is wrong, and the only reason that she, and Dawn and a great many other kidney donors she personally knows about get regularly personally attacked for just being kidney donors really is that they’re all shitty human beings. Maybe we just aren’t hearing about all the non-shitty kidney donors out there whose non-shittiness is rightly recognised by people who perceive their non-shittiness, and the reason that Bryn once got an email from somebody calling her a narcissist and saying they hoped she died of surgery complications is because she actually is a narcissist who deserves to die from surgery complications.
Or maybe people really do have a habit of treating kidney donors badly and maybe that is an actual problem.
The other thing it points out is that the discourse around this issue (or at least the initial discourse) is largely ignoring the needs of transplant recipients. And on one level, this is a non-issue. The Bill Gates Foundation is on the brink of full-on eradicating Malaria and if it succeeds, it will have saved more lives than any other institution in the history of the world (seriously, mosquitoes kill more humans than humans do, eradicating Malaria is by some metrics more valuable than eradicating war). That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to think Bill Gates is a prick. But the difference between Bill Gates and Dawn Dorland (apart from gender and economic status, neither of which are unimportant in and of themselves) is that generally when people shit on Gates it’s for his shady business practices and using his wealth to do things that don’t help people as well as things that do. When people shit on Dawn Dorland it really does seem like they’re doing it because she donated a kidney to a stranger.
Reading Dawn’s story forced me to admit to myself that I’d rather let a stranger die than have unnecessary surgery that, while relatively safe, would at least inconvenience me and have a non-zero risk of complications. That’s a fact about myself I’m actually pretty comfortable with.
But reflecting on my reaction to Dawn’s story made me realise that I would also, at least initially, rather let a stranger die than let another stranger, of her own free will, save that stranger’s life in a way that makes me feel bad about myself. And I was a whole lot less comfortable with that.
This is where the complex intersectionality comes in.
I am happy to say that my initial reaction to That Fucking Kidney Story was grounded in an instinctive, visceral (as Bryn Donovan points out, when you think about it literally visceral) desire to avoid being morally one-upped. I’m even happy to acknowledge that my initial reaction to Dorland’s story was probably informed by a certain element of implicit misogyny. I, like more or less every human being in the world, was raised in a sexist society and gender stereotypes still sometimes affect my thinking if I let them. Certainly I don’t think I’d have had anything like the instinctive negative reaction to the story of Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh. He’s a man, after all, and a military man at that, so donating a kidney to a stranger feels like an extension of his natural manly, military heroism instead of like getting above himself, which is how Dawn’s and Bryn’s donations seem to have read to many, many people.
But I am not, for reasons I hope are perfectly obvious, willing to make the same judgement about Sonya Larson.
I should stress that I think it’s important to recognise that people of colour are every bit as capable of being arseholes as white people. Treating kidney donors like saints is dehumanising. Treating women of colour like saints is dehumanising. And it is totally possible that Larson’s reactions to Dorland’s donation are every bit as venal and petty as my own.
The thing is that isn’t my call to make. I will say that there are several people of colour out there who feel quite strongly that viewing this dispute through the lens of race is actually harmful (for example here and here). But I’ll add that there are also quite a lot of just straight-up racists (who I’m not going to link because I don’t see the sense in giving oxygen to that kind of thing) who are using this as an example of how actually racism isn’t real and in fact it’s white people who are really oppressed these days, so whether you think this started off with a racial dynamic or not it has now acquired one.
But that dynamic sits alongside the class dynamic, the gender dynamic, and the dynamic relating to the USA’s desperate need for kidney donors. And that is … well … it’s fucking complicated.
Because this story does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world where (oh look, I’m looping back to that thing I said was a core theme of the post again, I can sometimes stay on topic, I swear) the machinery of power deliberately turns marginalised people against each other. It’s incredibly hard as a white person with a sense of class consciousness who also tries, as a rule, not to be a racist dickwad, to talk about this story’s class dynamics without feeling like I’m erasing its racial dynamics. Because I know full well that oh but yoooouve got claaaaaaaass privilege is a divide-and-rule tactic that gets used to silence people of colour (and for that matter any other kind of marginalised person who can’t prove themselves to be living in abject crushing poverty at the exact time the conversation takes place).
The theme I keep coming back to in this post, the theme that I want to keep coming back to is that TFKS is a textbook example of the way mainstream discourse around intersectional issues is so often framed in a way that pits those intersectionalities against each other and forces people to erase one or the other of them.
The Problem with “Teams”
In so much of the discussion of this topic the questions of whether this issue has a race dynamic, or a class dynamic, or a dynamic that pertains to the real lives of transplant recipients gets conflated with the question of whether Dorland or Larson are themselves good people. And that is wrong. It’s not just wrong, it’s a common silencing tactic we see all the time: you can’t say this situation contributes to the marginalisation of [group X] because this one member of [group X] did a bad thing this one time.
The discourse around kidneygate has raised literally dozens of questions including but not limited to:
- Do we instinctively demonise kidney donors?
- Is there an urgent need for kidney donors in America?
- Are public discussions of live kidney donation a good way to raise awareness of the need for kidney donors?
- Is having sufficient faith in social and medical institutions to willingly undergo elective surgery a manifestation of white privilege?
- Is the desire to make an altruistic kidney donation more common amongst white people and, if so, is it related to the notion of the white saviour?
- Does Sonya Larson’s story The Kindest mischaracterise kidney donation?
- Did Dawn Dorland really donate a kidney, or did she just pretend to donate a kidney for social media clout (this is a real thing people have really asked on twitter)?
- Did Sonya Larson really sincerely interpret Dawn’s donation through a racial lens, or did she just pretend to for New York writer clout (this is also a real thing people have really asked on twitter)?
- Did Dawn Dorland really grow up poor, or is she just pretending she did for… you get the idea.
- Does Sonya Larson’s story, The Kindest, as a matter of law, violate Dawn Dorland’s copyright?
- Does Sonya Larson’s story, The Kindest, as a matter of professional ethics, draw too heavily on the personal life of a fellow writer?
- Is Sonya Larson’s story, The Kindest, actually a good story?
- Did the behaviour of the Chunky Monkeys towards Dawn Dorland constitute workplace harassment, given that many of them worked at the same nonprofit for which she worked, and were her superiors within the organisation?
- Did Sonya Larson and the Chunky Monkeys’ derisive reaction to Dawn’s social media posts have a classist dimension?
- Did Dawn Dorland’s strong reaction to Sonya Larson’s use of her story have a racist dimension?
- Is Sonya Larson the fucking worst?
- Is Dawn Dorland the fucking worst?
And the answers to all of these questions should be independent, but they often get conflated with each other in a way that shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who has paid any attention to mainstream discussion of … what was it again? Oh yes. Basically anything in the last literally forever.
Before I unpack this, I should say that I’ve rewritten these last two paragraphs about half a dozen times, because I’m trying hard to avoid oversimplifying a complex situation, but when I reread what I’d written I realised that all I’d succeeded in doing was oversimplifying it in a different way.
What I originally wrote was that these were complex independent questions that had been boiled down by “social media” (that ever-useful scapegoat) into “team Larson” and “team Dorland”. But then I realised that by making that generalisation I was actually just aligning myself with the third, equally wrongheaded group “team Both Sides”.
One of the most unpleasant dynamics in this whole situation is that (and warning, this sentence gets long but I want to keep it as once sentence because the whole sequence matters): it was kicked off when a white man with two kidneys and a column in a nationally syndicated newspaper wrote an article about a dispute between a woman who had donated an organ and a woman of colour; this sparked a debate online that seems largely to have been between women, organ donors, and people of colour; and a lot of white men with two kidneys then seem to have responded to that debate by stroking their chins and saying “gosh, isn’t it interesting how seriously people are taking this story, I wonder what this tells us about our broken political discourse.”
And I very much don’t want to be part of that.
Especially because it’s not even true.
I do think that the discourse has often conflated specific questions from my long list above in ways that are both unhelpful and silencing. In particular I think people have often conflated questions about Sonya Larson’s personality (is she the fucking worst) with the quality of her work (is The Kindest a good story) with the legal merits of her case (is her use of Dawn’s letter posted to a private facebook group copyright infringement) with both the sincerity of her perception of a racial dynamic (is she just “playing the race card”) and the validity of it (is live organ donation a manifestation of white privilege / was Dawn Dorland trying to live out a white saviour fantasy). And I think that, as ever, a lot of people have gone down the road of pretending that it’s impossible for something to be about both race and class at once instead of having to “really” be about one or the other.
But it’s also a massive oversimplification to just treat this debate as one in which there are two misguided “sides” who don’t realise—as all true enlightened centrists realise—that the reality is somewhere in the middle.
The reason I think “kidneygate” is important is because it’s a masterclass in how institutional power stirs shit between marginalised people in a way that erases nuance and consolidates influence, validity, and authority in the hands of the people who already have it.
There’s an old XKCD (there’s always an XKCD) in which Stick Figure A says “Personally, I find atheists just as annoying as fundamentalist Christians” and Stick Figure B says “Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.” And I get a strong sense of this from a lot of the meta-commentary around the internet’s reaction to kidneygate.
A lot of the higher-level takes on this dispute have characterised it as a spat between two internet “teams”, like a fandom shipping war. On the one side you have Team Larson, who are people of colour and anti-racist allies who perceive this narrative through a racial lens but oh my God, those silly PoCs and white liberals, haven’t they realised that there’s also a class dynamic and that organ donation is important?! And on the other side you have Team Dorland, who are exclusively white working-class people and organ donors who perceive this through a lens of economic injustice and medical necessity but oh my God, those silly poor people and organ donors, haven’t they realised that they’re being racist?!
This is smug, both-sides bullshit.
In fact, over the past couple of weeks, the discourse seems to have got pretty complex. Indeed a lot of Dorland’s biggest defenders have been people of colour who resent what they see as the original article’s cynical race-baiting and even the “writers vs non-writers” framing that the discussion picked up around day three seems not to hold up to close scrutiny.
But that narrative isn’t in the interests of a media mainstream that wants to keep pushing the same old lines about “sides” and “polarisation” and “social media bubbles” when actually social media has provided some of the most nuanced reflection on this case and mainstream media’s presentation of it has been some of the most one-sided.
So far, exactly one member of the Chunky Monkeys has actually come out and said that, in retrospect, the way they treated Dawn Dorland was not okay.
Her twitter thread is here.
Her characterisation of the whole thing is as “a case of good people who let darker impulses override compassion, clear thinking, and common sense” and I think that’s probably fair. Hell I know it’s fair because even if it doesn’t describe what happened with Sonya Larson and the rest of the Chunky Monkeys, it sure as hell describes what happened with me.
I keep circling back to the instinctive, visceral desire I felt to take down Dawn Dorland the moment I heard that she’d done a good thing that I wouldn’t personally do.
If you still have the tab open, or can be bothered to re-open it, I think this description of a text exchange (between Sonya Larson and a friend named Witney Scharer) from Summer Brennan’s summary of the case is illustrative:
“I guess I feel like it’s hard to think someone is being altruistic when they use hashtags like #domoreforeachother and #livingkidneydonation,” Whitney texted. “I don’t know…a hashtag seems to me like a cry for attention.”
“Right???” Sonya replied, “#domoreforeachother. Like what am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?”
And … I’m always nervous about drawing false equivalences but… well… I do get where Witney is coming from here.
Sidebar: Witney Scharer is also a real person, I’m not ascribing specific motivations to her. When I say “I get where she’s coming from” what I mean is “she said something mean and obviously unsupportable but I can understand why a person might have said it.”
Because the thing is, the line about how it’s “hard to think somebody is being altruistic when they use hashtags” is either untrue, or suggests that Witney (and, by extension, Sonya, who doesn’t challenge her on it) objects to both the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. Using hashtags is absolutely what you do when you are trying to advocate for a movement you care about on twitter. Like, there have been a couple of pretty famous examples of that happening pretty recently.
And sure sometimes the use of hashtags can signal that somebody is being disingenuous. If McDonalds sent out a tweet saying “you can’t fix racial injustice, but you can fix you hunger with a delicious BigMac ™ #BlackLivesMatter #YouDeserveABreakToday #PleaseSpendMoneyOnOurProducts #NoOfCourseWeWontPayOurEmployeesALivingWageWhatIsThisEurope” that would be gross and … the kind of thing corporations do all the time, actually. But that’s not what Dorland was doing. The two hashtags that Witney singled out for criticism were “Live Organ Donation”: literally the thing she was doing, and “Do More For Each Other”: literally what she was encouraging people to do.
Larson’s response “What am I supposed to do? DONATE MY ORGANS?” is revealing too. Because … yes? That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. That’s what Dorland’s promotion of her kidney donation is explicitly designed to encourage people to do and it worked at least once. It’s a strategy with a fairly low success rate but complaining about somebody doing something that saves lives because it doesn’t save more lives is clearly not sensible.
And I should stress that these are private texts. People send mean texts in private, it’s a thing. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have a snarky reaction to another person doing something that makes you feel bad about yourself. But I am saying that this seems to be what happened in this situation.
It’s people giving in to their darker impulses.
One of the things that has (and I appreciate I’m both-sidesing here) been either inappropriately glossed over or inappropriately focused on when discussing this story, especially when discussing this story through a racial lens, is that a lot of the other people involved in Sonya Larson’s side of this story were white (Witney Scharer was, for example).
I say that it has been inappropriately glossed over because a lot of the framing around this story (especially the original NYT article) has implicitly put it in terms of a “women of colour vs the Karen” narrative, which isn’t really true. There were definitely plenty of white people who hated Dawn Dorland for being The Worst and while they seemed more than willing to appropriate race as a way to justify their distaste, well, so was I.
But I also say that it’s been inappropriately focused on because some people have been treating the fact that some of Sonya Larson’s friends were white as if it’s some kind of smoking gun. As if having white friends somehow makes her less Asian or makes her perception of a racial dynamic less sincere.
There’s an exchange which some people find particularly damning where Alison Murphy (a white woman) suggests to Larson that if Dorland objected to the publication of The Kindest she should “post [about the objection] to Grub Writer’s of Color”, adding that “the great thing about that, is that if Dawn came after you, they would draaaaaag her.”
And out of context this does feel a lot like the smoking gun people are framing it as. It’s basically a white woman outright telling Larson to “play the race card” and Larson agreeing that it’s a good idea.
But in context this is a situation that both Alison and Sonya had, fairly or unfairly, interpreted as having a genuine racial dynamic. It was about what they both seem to have genuinely seen as a racist white woman unfairly attacking a woman of colour for writing a story about racial issues. In that context recommending, in private, that your PoC friend should go to other PoC writers for support against the Racist Karen who was trying to stop her publishing an anti-racist story probably felt like very sensible, proportionate advice.
I keep coming back to ask myself what I would have done in this situation and then, perhaps more importantly, what the people in this situation should have done (which is generally a different thing).
What We Owe To Each Other
In theory, social justice is incredibly simple.
Don’t be a bigot. Tax the rich. Job done.
In practice it’s unbelievably complex.
I mean, there are some situations where it’s not, obviously. Looking back at those texts between Witney and Sonya, yeah they’re just being mean and uncharitable. We should all be less mean and more charitable. We don’t all have to donate our organs, but we do have to recognise that people who choose to donate their organs aren’t narcissists who deserve to die of complications in surgery.
But there are also situations where it is, in fact, complex.
I said at the start of this now seven-thousand-word-long post that when I first read the NYT article I viewed the story only through a racial lens, and I patted myself on the back for being one of the Good Whiteswho got the Right Answer on the Rorschach test, and that it was only on later reflection that I realised it wasn’t that simple.
And I do think that’s a Thing We Owe To Each Other. I think when you are looking at a situation like this from the outside the right course of action is pretty straightforward: treat everybody involved as a human being, try not to fall into the trap of only viewing it through a single lens and, perhaps most importantly don’t weaponise somebody else’s identity against the person you most instinctively dislike.
But then I ask myself about the people more closely involved in the situation.
Becky Tuch, in her apology thread, reaffirms her belief in The Kindest, saying: “I want to say on record that I always loved this story. I was proud of Sonya for writing it, thrilled to see it getting the recognition it deserved.”
In a reply to that thread, another poster asks if she still stands by her love of the story, now it’s been pointed out that it mischaracterises kidney donation and that it does so in harmful ways. Ways that reinforce negative stereotypes that kidney donors really face, and that actively discourage people from donating a kidney to people who need one. Because let’s remember that unlike many forms of ethical tourism, which often really are Bad Actually, donating a kidney to a stranger—no matter how cringe you are about it—is almost always Good Actually. So writing a story about how it’s Bad Actually might genuinely do, y’know, the opposite of saving lives.
At time of writing, Becky Tuch hasn’t replied to that question, and that’s fair enough. It’s one hell of a tough question to reply to.
Because honestly if a woman of colour I knew personally showed me a story she’d written that was clearly and explicitly an exploration of racial power dynamics and the white saviour complex, I am really not sure it would be my place to say “actually, do you think you’ve adequately considered the white woman’s perspective?”
Like I think if it was somebody I knew really well and it was in this exact context that I might say something like “okay, I get what you’re going for here, but are you sure that making this about kidney donation is the right call?” But of course if it was in this exact context I would have zero standing to say that because I would also have spent the past six weeks going on about how awful and cringe I found fucking Dawn and her fucking kidney.
A lot of people find Alison Murphy’s contribution in particular, encouraging Sonya to seek support from other writers of colour, and expressing it especially in such flippant terms as “the great thing about that, is … they would draaaaaag her” to be utterly unacceptable. And in some ways it does look like the exact kind of instinctive weaponization of other people’s identity that I’ve been pointing out we should all be trying to avoid. But what should Alison have done? Patiently whitesplained to Sonya that the situation is complex and intersectional?
It’s fine to say “oh you have to look at this through multiple lenses” when you’re writing a smug think-piece (and it’s certainly better than writing a smug think-piece in which you fail to look through multiple lenses) but that’s not how you support an actual friend.
Revisiting the Invisible Knapsack
Warning, this is where I veer off again from addressing TFKS specifically to talk about much broader issues in a mildly infuriating way.
The more I’ve thought about this case, and in particular about my reaction to it, the more I’ve come to re-examine the way I think about the concept of privilege. And actually maybe “re-examine” isn’t the right term to use so much as “course correct”.
There was a story in the UK news recently about St Andrews University making its white students sign a document acknowledging their white privilege (in writing, in a formal test) before they were allowed to matriculate. Of course the first thing to say here is that the fact that there was a news story about something (as this long post about a different misleading news story attests) doesn’t mean it remotely happened. There was something similar about the University of Kent and it turned out that the story was about an optional course that people could take if they wanted.
Something that seems particularly to be trending in UK anti-anti-racist (if only there was a shorter way to write that) discourse at the moment is “is wearing second hand clothes white privilege?!”
Now again, I do not trust the right-wing press to be remotely honest when reporting on anything to do with equality, so I don’t know the context in which this “second hand clothes” quote appears in the actual university diversity courses under discussion. But I think it’s at least likely that any university course that is still talking about wearing second-hand clothes in 2021 is getting the context very very wrong indeed.
Because the thing is, I recognised the “second hand clothes” quote immediately. Its full text is: “I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race” and it comes from the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack first published in Peace and Freedom Magazine by Peggy McIntosh in 1989.
And let’s be clear, old ideas can still be good ideas. It’s not like the basic concept of privilege has changed in the intervening thirty years. But the point of McIntosh’s invisible knapsack is that it was personal to her. I don’t trust tabloid reporters to be remotely honest when reporting on issues relating to diversity, but I also don’t see any way that the exact quote about being able to wear second hand clothes without having people attribute that choice to the bad morals of your race has wound up back in the discourse unless people are using the “list” from the Invisible Knapsack, out of context, as some kind of checklist. Exactly what Peggy McIntosh said you shouldn’t do with it.
(Sidebar: Okay, there is one way, it’s possible that these courses actually do start by saying “the term white privilege was popularised by Peggy McIntosh in her 1989 essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, here are some examples of things she personally identified as aspects of her own life in which being white benefited her, and she took those benefits for granted. These are not supposed to be universal, or to apply to every white person, and indeed some of them may sound dated” but I’ve been to work and school training programs and they’re very seldom that nuanced).
But what does this have to do with That Fucking Kidney Story?
Maybe nothing. As ever this whole massive post is mostly about me and my personal reactions. And one habit I’ve noticed myself slipping into is using “privilege” less and less as something I try to be aware of in myself (which is literally the whole point) and more and more as something I diagnose in other people (which is not the point at all, indeed it arguably runs counter to the whole point). Something I’m very aware of in the way I personally reacted to TFKS was that I was incredibly quick to diagnose Dawn Dorland as having white privilege (and somehow to also convince myself that her donation of a kidney to a stranger was a manifestation of that privilege) and then, once I’d checked myself on that, equally quick to diagnose Sonya Larson as having class privilege. And that’s not what the concept of privilege is for.
I don’t like uncritically reinforcing the idea that discourse has become “debased” or that we’ve somehow “lost” our capacity for nuance or that things have in some real but nonspecific way got “worse” since whatever the good old days were. But I do find it a bit amusing that, in looking back at comments that Peggy McIntosh wrote in 2010 about how to use, in a teaching context, papers she wrote about intersecting systems of discrimination and privilege in 1989 the literal first point she made about how to discuss the concepts she talked about is, in a lot of ways, the perfect summary of what has gone wrong with the discourse around this Fucking Kidney Story.
My work is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person.”
The story of Dorland vs Larson raises a whole bunch of questions about race, gender, class, healthcare, privilege, power in both small and large communities, the role of the press and of social media, and responsible journalism. And a lot of these questions really are worth asking.
The one question that is definitely not worth asking is: “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”