The ad is alluring. We’ve had a rough few years. Who doesn’t want to hope for the future? Who doesn’t want to move to Wells Fargo’s Hope USA?
But this brand isn’t actually creating hopeful futures. Wells Fargo was a huge backer of the Dakota Access pipeline. A couple of years ago, the federal government sued the company for discriminating against Black and Latinx borrowers for home loans. They’ve been accused of not hiring people of color or women and of doing fake “diversity” interviews with candidates. For years they were one of the main financiers of prisons and immigrant detention facilities and helped fund Trump’s family separation policies.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve seen a lot more media that trades specifically on the idea of hope. Andrew Yang’s first TV ad for his 2021 mayoral campaign in New York promised that “hope is on the way.” Instagram is full of beautifully designed graphics about how to be hopeful for you to like and share. Journalists are making YouTube series dedicated to positive takes on tech, because they “want to bring a more optimistic point of view into the conversation.” Science fiction is full of stories branded as “hopepunk” or “solarpunk,” many of which tell delightful, positive stories, often without engaging in the realities of why we need that hope in the first place.
I’ve started calling these kinds of calls for positive thinking “hopewashing.” Like greenwashing and pinkwashing, hopewashing offers a way for corporations and people with power to make it seem like they’re making the world a better, more hopeful place, while in reality they’re doing the opposite. “We’re using hope like this palliative coping mechanism to allow us to avoid confronting difficult truths and to avoid perhaps moving our own ourselves to action,” says Liz Neeley, a science communicator and founder of the firm Liminal.
When entities like Wells Fargo ask you for hope, they are asking for obedience. For trust, and complacency. To sit still and wait for the future to arrive on the backs of their lovely, highly produced advertisements and beautiful websites.
What does Hope USA look like? For Wells Fargo it looks like quiet, orderly banking. Customers who never ask questions about what’s being done with their money. There are no protests in Hope USA. Nobody is demanding better. Nobody is speaking truth to power. “It’s hope is a soporific instead of hope as this bright, galvanizing, hard thing,” says Neeley. Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of the new book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, agrees: “It’s hope as an opiate.”
Chasing this kind of druglike hope is not how we build a better future. You cannot wait to feel hopeful before you begin trying to build something better. “Our work can’t be contingent simply on the feeling,” Benjamin tells me. “Are we just trying to get a high and then we come back down to business as usual? Or are we in this commitment to whatever work we’re doing and then hope may or may not come into the mix at different times?” The prison abolitionist Mariam Kaba says, “Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism … Hope is a discipline; we have to practice it every single day.”
There is a tension at the center of hope—our brains are designed to never settle, to always imagine something better. But while we can envision the better futures in our minds, we can easily look around and recognize that we’re not there yet. This tension is what corporations try to smooth by convincing us that we can simply sit back and imagine, and they’ll do the work. But much like we cannot let the work of building better futures be contingent on feeling hopeful, we can’t let corporations or those in power control the flow and definition of hope either. No company or politician can hand you hope. We have to build it in and among ourselves as a beginning, not as an end. Hope should be a place to start, not a feeling to marinate in. Not a warm bed, but the alarm that gets you out of it. We don’t need a corporation to hand us a happy future or the feeling of hope—we have everything you need to build one in us already. We just have to get to work.