Microsoft wants you to check your privilege.
That was just one of the many brand slogans displayed at the Toronto Pride Parade this Sunday. Hundreds of corporations and community organizations led the parade through downtown Toronto, tossing discount coupons and blasting branded rainbow tees into the crowds cheering from the sidelines.
I scrambled to get my hands on one of the Pizza Pizza © coupons showering down upon us for what looked like a free slice of pizza. I finally caught one: “Get a free dipping sauce or soda with the purchase of any slice!” Alas, always read the fine print.
As many spectators have already noted, mainstream Pride celebrations have become less of an opportunity for community members to celebrate and advance the cause of queer liberation and more of a platform for corporations to cash in on some lucrative rainbow PR, extending empty gestures of corporate support for LGBT+ causes without addressing any of the active forces of oppression targeting queer communities and queer communities of color in particular, including state violence, restrictive immigration, precarious labour, and rampant housing and income inequalities.
We saw some of the conventional articulations of an utterly depoliticized rainbow capitalism at Toronto Pride this year. Bud Light reminded us to “show them who you are”, and Winners encourages you to “celebrate your true colors.” This has largely been the extent of rainbow capitalist discourse to date; unremarkable non-statements which are safe enough for brands to adopt precisely because they don’t actually mean anything.
However, we may have also witnessed an alarming new trend in corporate posturing towards LGBT+ issues, exemplified in the Microsoft model. This is a particularly sinister development because this new model dares to co-opt the language of social activism.
The theme of Microsoft’s Pride campaign for 2019 is “What actions will you take?” The promotional campaign video highlights 2019 as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and asks the viewer to consider what actions they can take in the footsteps of the original Stonewall protesters. The video ends by asking “Let’s see what we can do in ensuring that everyone can live as their authentic self.”
The Stonewall Riots of course, were not simply about “ensuring that everyone can live as their authentic self.” The riots, with trans women of color at the forefront, had a much more structural critique to offer, protesting intersecting structures of oppression including state violence, racism, homophobia and capitalism. The Microsoft campaign video tellingly avoids recounting the kinds of actions the Stonewall rioters took that we are supposed to be emulating; probably because those actions include throwing bricks and trash cans at cops.
Microsoft doesn’t actually want us to throw bricks at cops. Name-dropping the Stonewall riots serves a much more limited and instrumental purpose for the corporation. By referencing the Stonewall riots as a source of inspiration for its campaign, Microsoft is attempting to align itself with a particular lineage of activism and social protest.
The Microsoft Pride float echoed this alignment. Buttons pinned onto the float challenged viewers to “check your privilege,” to “be a visible ally” and to “stop policing bodies.” By aligning itself with the legacy of the Stonewall Riots and co-opting the language of contemporary identity politics, Microsoft is attempting to position itself as a progressive force, a social disruptor, as posing a serious challenge to the status quo. The reality of course, is that Microsoft is at once one of the chief benefactors and prominent architects of the status quo.
Last summer, the New York Times reported that Microsoft had secured a $19.4 million contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to deliver data processing and artificial intelligence software. According to a Microsoft blog on the details of the deal, the Microsoft product Azure Government would enable ICE “to process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.”
In other words, Microsoft is actively supporting the operation of a US agency responsible for the daily detention of thousands of immigrant families and children held in deplorable conditions; and yes, that includes the hundreds of Central American LGBT+ asylum seekers held at the border. So much for “stop policing bodies.”
Notice that Microsoft’s Pride buttons are largely directed at “you”, the observer, the individual onlooker. You need to check your privilege. You need to believe minorities. You need to stop policing bodies.This is of course the ultimate goal of neoliberal capitalism, to construct the field of sociopolitical problems and solutions as the responsibility of the individualized social agent, obscuring the role played by structures of power in reproducing and maintaining those very same sociopolitical problems.
Microsoft’s new model of woke posturing then may be even more sinister than previous renditions of rainbow capitalism because it seeks to individualize the field of “actions” we are meant to take, commanding us to focus our analysis of privilege and power internally, thereby obscuring its own complicity and investments in the status quo of LGBT+ oppression.
As community members and allies, we have to reject this cynical corporate cooptation of legitimate activist discourse and analysis. Microsoft is right; we should follow in the footsteps of the Stonewall rioters and take up our bricks against the intersecting structures of oppression plaguing LGBT+ community members today. But I’m not sure they will be as enthusiastic about the windows we end up taking aim at.