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What Makes a Weed Website Racist?

A new digital publication aims to “civilize” cannabis culture. That’s a problem.

Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka.

When I recently suggested to Derek Riedle, the founder of a new digital publication focused on “highbrow cannabis culture,” that his website may be racist, he was mortified. I had expected that Riedle would be a cynical man looking to turn a trend—wealthy white people smoking weed—into a business. But people rarely are as cynical as we expect. So, what could he have been thinking?

We were speaking on the phone because I had received an email from a publicist for the website, called Civilized. It’s strapline is, “Cannabis Culture Elevated.” The branding shocked me so much that I sent a very rude email back about five seconds later. This word—civilized—has such clearly racist overtones, to me. But this website’s strange brand identity lodged itself under my skin like a splinter. I wanted to speak to the person who thought this word was suitable. I slunk somewhat sheepishly back to the email thread to ask for an interview with the site’s founder, and Riedle graciously agreed.

Civilized’s chief advisor and investor is Mitch Fox, former group president of Condé Nast. The site is a “360 lifestyle publication,” although I don’t know what that means. In its press release, Civilized says that it wants to change “the words and images associated” with cannabis, “especially given the legalization that passed in four of the five states it was on the ballot in” last November.

In recognition of the new normalization of weed across the U.S., Civilized seeks to “defy the stereotypical ‘stoner’ culture.” Civilized’s content mixes lighthearted reporting on weed-related political topics with West Coast-y advocacy for weed-themed weddings and other lifestyle fluff. Cannabis Culture Elevated. Elevated out of where, to where? To the heady heights of “The Future Of The Selfie Stick Is Here, And Of Course It’s A Drone”? It took me days to figure out that “elevated” is a pun on “high.”

What does it mean to be civilized? To civilize, meant, originally, “to bring out of barbarism.” In his 1692 lecture, Matter and Motion Cannot Think, the English classicist Richard Bentley referred to certain early “Savages” who “were not then, what civilized Mankind is now.” Civilized, in this traditional sense, refers to a Eurocentric notion of progress and enlightenment that happens over time.

In our time, the weakened sense of civilized—meaning polite or courteous—predominates. In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947), the character Chris Keller says to his childhood friend George, “Don’t come bulling in here. If you’ve got something to say, be civilized about it.” George gets angry at this condescension, and retorts, “Don’t civilize me!” George cannot help but return to the older and more insulting sense, the one that Richard Bentley was using in the 17th century. George suggests that Chris was actually trying to civilize him when he used that word, which implies that Chris thinks George is acting like a savage.

Miller’s All My Sons shows us that the older and nastier meaning of civilized tends to hum behind the newer sense of courtesy or good taste. Something or someone is only civilized—enlightened, tasteful—in contrast to that which is uncivilized—barbaric, savage.

Introduction to Civilized, September 2015 from Derek Riedle on Vimeo.

Civilized’s promotional video says that it serves “productive adults” who might use cannabis at the “end of a tough day.” Civilized does not dwell at any length on who it does not serve, but then neither do most websites. “We talk about cannabis,” the voiceover says, “but we also talk about business and travel and tech.”

Business, travel, tech. These words suggest that Civilized is a website for rich people. So, the people whom Civilized does not serve must include the poor, rather than only the stoner as we might ordinarily conceive of him or her. The site’s political reporting seems to bear out this notion. Though Civilized celebrates shorter jail terms for those arrested for possession, it shows no interest in the disproportionate harm that has been done to the Americans who have traditionally been targeted and harmed by police enforcing drug laws.

In 2015, Niela Orr published a remarkable essay in The Baffler called “Weed, Whitewashed.” In it, she discusses the popular web series High Maintenance and its “faux-subversive” marketing in her neighborhood. The show follows a white dealer referred to as The Guy who bikes around New York, delivering weed. The show presents sweet little stories in the lives of The Guy’s customers, people connected through this bicycling everyman.

Behind this fun, Orr points out “an important tension between the kind of drug dealing that popular culture productions mine for harmless comic fodder and the kind that our carceral state takes very seriously—a tension of race.” Weed-related mainstream entertainments for white people—High Maintenance, Civilized—are becoming popular as legalization spreads across the U.S. As weed becomes more palatable to the white middle class, liberal appetites for art and media interpreting this new normal grow.

At the very same time and by the very same token, the targeting of black Americans by police over minor cannabis-related crime is blotted out in white imaginations. As Orr records via the Drug Policy Alliance, “Black and Latino drug offenders made up 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the first eight months of [New York City M]ayor Bill de Blasio’s term.” Although that statistic comes from the New York of High Maintenance, it does not feel as though it is part of the same universe, let alone nation, catered to by Civilized. Or, rather, that statistic is from a world that has been excluded by the media powers that wish to celebrate one weed culture while ignoring another.

This doublethink made Civilized’s branding offensive to me. The site’s “about” page reads, “This is our tribe. We are Civilized.” Tribe here is trading on a semantic currency developed by marketing specialists, in which a group of people linked by shared beliefs are targeted as a “tribe.” This kind of consumer does not just buy things; they believe in the brand, and form communities around it. The notion of people joined by tribal relationships (as distinct from “regular” social bonds) relies on old-school anthropology as much as the definition of civilized.

The juxtaposition between the political reality of weed culture and internet lifestyle content—the raw material by which marketers disseminate ideology in 2017—is jarring. As we spoke, Riedle did not want to accept my argument that excluding low-income people from a lifestyle site meant implicitly excluding minorities. He thought that drawing this connection at all might, in fact, be more racist. From his vantage point, he just wanted to “expand” traditional notions of who was using cannabis. In a certain light, this clarification that wealthy liberals use cannabis in great numbers may even have an advocacy angle, by throwing the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic Americans jailed for drugs infractions into greater contrast.

In the end, Riedle and I discovered that we read the demographic pitching of his site differently. Because the site uses clickbaity content about multiple orgasms and selfie sticks, I thought that Civilized pitched young. But Riedle says the site’s readers skew “a little bit heavy on the 35-55” range. He himself is the dad of teenagers. I am not far from Civilized target demographic—I’m in my late twenties—but an age-related ideological gap between Riedle and myself might explain our different responses to the same language.

Riedle’s perspective, I think, is shaped by a different generation’s sense of how we should talk about race in America. This view aspires towards the condition of “race-blindness,” rather than acknowledging complicity. An important characteristic of “race-blind” thinking is not making one’s position explicit. It allows things to remain unspoken.

By contrast, perhaps the chief feature of race discourse among the politicized youth of our time is the belief that subtext is open to analysis. Young race-conscious people are often accused by their elders of perpetuating “call-out” culture, in which a person is harangued for causing offense “by accident,” saying something they may not have meant or thought that they meant. Harm can be done implicitly, regardless of intent, the young race-conscious person asserts. The unspoken can speak.

No word is innocent of history. And nobody can enter into a media enterprise without making themselves subject to the interpretations of others. But Riedle became conscious of that interpretation, and he entered into the conversation I demanded of him. Civilized carries all the meanings of the word it is named for, and, now, maybe another.