White Privilege and Racial Bias: What The Fyre Festival and Theranos Documentaries Failed to Address
Earlier this week, HBO aired “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley”, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of Theranos a once promising and now ignominious and defunct health tech company that was exposed for falsely claiming they could take blood samples with a small concentration of blood, making it cheaper and less cumbersome for people to obtain blood work. Through the support of numerous wealthy white men, Holmes was able to raise nearly a billion dollars in funding for her venture despite being a 19-year old Stanford University drop out with no real world experience in running an organization and no concrete data to back up her claims.
This documentary is the latest in a trend of exposing fraudsters and white collar crime. Similar to Theranos, the infamous Fyre Festival received not one but two documentaries at the top of the year exposing the 2017 festival’s founder Billy McFarland for touting a high end luxury music festival which turned out to be a camp site with FEMA tents and cold cheese sandwiches. In all the efforts being made to depict the crimes of Holmes and McFarland, not once did they address what was for me, a huge elephant in the room: how white privilege works.
In Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” and Netflix’s “Fyre Festival”, we see two vantage points of the calamity of Fyre Festival which was set to take place in the Bahamas despite the island having no infrastructure to support an event of that magnitude, less than a year to plan and a CEO who had no experience in producing live events. In “Fyre Fraud”, the filmmakers dive into McFarland’s upbringing and background in an attempt to understand how someone with seemingly so much potential for success could pull off one of the biggest scams in modern history. We learn about the scams he pulled as child, his previous failed business attempts and his precarious relationship with money and status. In the Netflix documentary “Fyre Festival”, we get a sense of the internal issues with the organization, how it affected the people who shelled out thousands of dollars to attend the festival and the aftermath (it’s worth noting that Netflix’s depiction was produced by fuckjerry which is the company who was hired by McFarland to promote the event) — neither address how his white privilege played a role in his ability to convince investors he could execute the event.
We received much less detail in “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley”, in fact, the film largely reads as an art film disguised as a documentary which does little to fully understand Holmes’ motives and how she was able to manipulate so many people. Holmes is depicted as an otherworldy zealot with a passion for fulfilling her mission to be the next Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs but lacks any depth or humanity beyond the scientific. She is an interesting mix of astute and vapid, there are various mentions of how she doesn’t blink, works obsessively and almost always gives off a first impression of being strange. Though the protagonists are quite different where these documentaries intersect is that they tell a story of a white person who was able to convince people that they were capable of doing the impossible just off the strength of them saying they could.
In reviews of the films, there are attempts to understand the psychology of deception and many critics have simply resigned to the idea that the documentaries provided all of the depth and insight required to assess what actually happened. As a person of color, I couldn’t help but feel the films and reviews of the films did an extreme disservice in how it failed to address how whiteness allows you to be self-made even if what you make is an illusion.
It would be an oversimplification to state that a black or brown person would never be able to convince a slew of wealthy VCs or thousands of rich white kids that they could pull of something of the magnitude Holmes or McFarland falsely promised so let’s bring in a few facts. When in comes to investing in new businesses, there are extreme racial disparities amongst which type of founders receive VC funding — Black people make up less than 1% of venture-capital backed founders. In 2016 and 2017, American venture capitalists consistently raised over $40 billion but less than 3% of those funds went to companies owned or operated by Black or Latinx people. It doesn’t even matter if you have the education or experience Holmes and McFarland were lacking, acquiring VC funding as a person of color is an arduous task — just ask Star Cunningham, a Black woman founder of health tech company 4D Healthware, a virtual healthcare management tool created after being “frustrated with the healthcare system’s inability to appropriately diagnose, treat and coordinate her care” (a common theme for Black women). Despite having vast experience in the industry having worked for IBM and an MBA from Northwestern University, she raised $2.2 million in funding as of 2018 which is nothing to scoff at but pales in comparison to the $900 million Holmes raised for a similar yet much more idealistic concept. She eventually depleted all of the funding after her medical breakthrough was exposed for being a mere pipe dream. All of this serves as a reminder that the narrative of marginalized people acquiring education to absolve them of these kind of inequities is largely a myth.
McFarland and Holmes played the ‘fake it till you make it’ game and were successful at this because of their ability to relate and appeal to the people they duped. For McFarland, it was through living a lavish lifestyle and knowing how to use social media as a tool for influence and for Holmes it was through creating a meticulous persona of a female Steve Jobs, some even have alleged that she faked her deep voice to appear masculine and taken more seriously. When you’re a person of color, you do not have the luxury of having your vision funded without a proven track record, you are more often than not going to be met with skepticism. Just watch an episode of Shark Tank with a Black founder pitching their idea, I’m sure you’ll hear something like “I don’t understand that market”, “who is going to buy this?” or a request to take a large percentage of equity in fear of losing money on the investment. There was not one shred of skepticism from Fyre Festival or Theranos investors — in fact, both ventures were backed without having to provide documentation on their financials.
But where does this obsession with fraud come from? It’s not at all new to American culture, scams and scandals are at the core of nearly every capitalistic society. I couldn’t help but think this recent fixation has been influenced by the biggest fraudster of all — Donald J. Trump. Last Fall, The New York Times published an investigative report on how the Trump family acquired their wealth which exposed Trump as the OG of faking it till you make it. For the five decades, Trump has built an entire brand off of his public persona and perceived wealth which he falsely claimed was earned and not given to him by his father who he collaborated with in stock manipulation, tax evasion and possibly money laundering, to eventually become a real estate giant. He used the same skillset of scamming to win the United States presidency, leaving liberal Americans feeling demoralized and duped which is probably why many of them feel compelled to tell stories like McFarland and Holmes’
The Trump Era has ignited a consciousness amongst white people that there is a very deep issue with the ways in which power is abused but what hasn’t been absorbed is how white privilege affords that power and how it is upheld when we choose not to acknowledge the role it plays in people being able to get away with the unthinkable. It’s not worth telling these stories if we’re not going to assess how racial and socioeconomic identities influence someone’s ability to get away with fraud that is centered around money, privilege and access that many of us will never have. As fascinating as it is to watch, we have to get back down to earth at some point and understand the implications in leaving such an integral part of why these things happen out of the story.