The man of The New Yorker is black.

The February 22nd issue of The New Yorker celebrated the magazine’s 90th anniversary with a cover story that described the different decades of the publication’s life. It had three covers, all of which revolved around the iconic New Yorker man. The outermost cover portrayed a black man taking the same pose as the traditional New Yorker man, albeit in modern attire and without a top hat.

The New Yorker man has always symbolized the wit and intelligence offered by the magazine. Dressed in fashionable attire, with a top hat and a high chin, he holds a monocle through which he observes a hovering butterfly. Dress, chin, and obvious disinterest—these combine to create the iconic New Yorker personality of high fashion and high intellect. The new black New Yorker does not hold the monocle, and he is definitely not dressed in haute couture. Instead, he wears a red coat and, underneath, a green wool sweater. He has a white shirt with a raised collar, although the whiteness does not appear quite so pristine. In the place of the monocle, he holds an iPhone: it sits between him and the butterfly. Is he distracted by the phone, or looking at the butterfly through the phone? Inside the magazine there are two more covers. One of them includes nine different New Yorker men, each representing a decade in the life of the New Yorker itself. All of them are white and free from any technological artifact.

With this cover, The New Yorker acknowledged that the last decade of its life was one marked by questions of race. Inside, the magazine put forward a series of brief commentaries on its different decades; for the most recent they chose six covers, four of which addressed questions of race in one form or another. The images referenced, for example, Obama’s election and the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson. It is hard not to suggest that the magazine’s awareness of America’s convulsing race relations inspired this this recent cover.

But here we should pause to consider another aspect of the magazine’s choice to portray a black New Yorker man on its cover: the iPhone in his hand. This image reminds us of a long history in which technology was intimately tied to colonialism—a history also reflected in the original, white, monocle-holding New Yorker.

 

Woven through colonialism—from the distant to the recent past—is the role of technology in enabling and encouraging the domination of one group of people by another.

 

Technology has often been used to justify colonialism. It was the proof that “Western” civilization was superior to all others, and was thereby critical in legitimating European expansion into other parts of the globe. In some narratives, colonization became simply the inevitable result of technological advance; indeed, many claimed that Europeans had a duty to use technological achievements to civilize the barbarians inhabiting the rest of the world. Technology also played a significant role in how colonial powers modified, reorganized, and dominated subject peoples. For instance, British railroads in India did not only provide new modes of transportation—they also entailed serious changes to the ways people lived and worked, changes that resulted in economic policies such as forced land acquisitions and forced labor. Likewise, new medical technologies came with new modes of thought and administration that reorganized bodies and rearranged individuals’ roles and duties. While these technologies led to the more effective treatment of many diseases (although much fewer than one would imagine), other diseases emerged to correspond to the changing medical environment. In Egypt, schistosomiasis followed new irrigation canals established to increase land productivity, malaria followed changes in water ways, and smallpox invaded previously unexposed populations. Woven through colonialism—from the distant to the recent past—is the role of technology in enabling and encouraging the domination of one group of people by another.

In many ways, race relations in the United States, as well as in Western Europe, is inextricably connected to this colonial past. Race, insofar as it is a social marker of belonging to a specific group of people, is in fact a mark of the colonized. Skin color and biological makeup both acquire part of their social meaning because they link bearers to a past of colonization. They recall stereotypes and perceptions of the colonized other, and connect black and brown people in America to this past of European colonial projects. This process does not confine itself only to the distant past, however: it binds bearers of racial makers to the present state of the “third world” in that they are third-world looking. One should not look further than departments of African and African American studies to notice how blackness at home and abroad are undeniably connected.

 

Technology, which is so central to the colonial relationship, is often viewed as the only route through which brown and black man and woman can access modern society.

 

Technology, so central to the colonial relationship, often becomes the only route through which brown and black men and women can access modern society. Historically, technology meant integration; mastering its use allowed the colonized to rise up through colonial hierarchies and take a modicum of control over their individual and collective fates. But even in these moments of ostensible empowerment, we must remember that technology moves along complicated lines of distribution. Certain stages of production, such as design, remain in the West and others, normally the ones with more labor and environmental costs, are moved to the post-colonial global south. Newly acquired technology is never fully acquired nor is it really new. Instead, it continues to perpetuate systems of distribution of wealth and knowledge that follow, to a great extent, the older colonial patterns.

The black New Yorker—holding his iPhone—recalls many of these questions. He stands alone among all the other New Yorkers on the second cover in using or needing technology to become part of this crowd. While they hold their monocles, guitars, or even scissors, only the black New Yorker needs his iPhone to join this club of high intellect and learning. Even more significantly, his technological device prevents him from fully adopting the characteristically intellectual pose of contemplating the butterfly and thinking great thoughts. The inclusion of the black New Yorker actually becomes a statement that emphasizes his difference and his deficiencies in relation to the white New Yorkers. And this difference stems from an issue that persisted at the heart of colonial discourse: technology. At the end of a decade marked by the election of the first black president, the inclusion of a black New Yorker seems to have done nothing but highlight the colonial, technological narrative behind the politics of inclusion.


Ahmed Ragab is a scholar of science and religion. He is a physician and a historian of medicine and directs the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School.

Image from Flickr via Yasunobu Ikeda.

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