In the hours immediately following any attack or tragedy on a large scale, details can be hard to come by, particularly when it’s an ongoing situation. And so it was no surprise with the assault on the shopping center in Nairobi yesterday that there was immediate confusion over the number of gunmen, their motivation, and the resulting fatalities. Today we learn that at least 59 have been killed,and 175 wounded, that a Somali militant group, al-Shabab, have taken responsibility for the attacks, and that between 10 and 15 attackers may still be inside the building with hostages. In short, it’s an absolute nightmare. But how can we process this sort of information here in America, so far away from Kenya both geographically and idealistically? One fact that has remained undisputed since the initial reports of that attack, and that has appeared in nearly every single mention of it in the media, is that this tragedy took place at an “upscale mall.” Now we’re hooked.
“The New York Times staff photographer Tyler Hicks was nearby when gunmen opened fire at an upscale Nairobi mall,” the paper explained in a slideshow of photos. “Armed gunmen faced off with Kenyan police and soldiers inside an upscale Nairobi shopping mall early Sunday,” CNN reported. “…a Saturday afternoon shooting rampage at a shopping mall in an upscale district of Nairobi,” added USA Today. It’s a telling descriptor that found its way into dozens of headlines as well. “Kenya Red Cross: 22 Dead in Upscale Mall Attack” wrote ABC. “Why Did Terrorists Strike An Upscale Mall In Kenya?” asked Business Insider. “Gunmen kill at least 22 in an attack on an upscale Nairobi mall,” was Time’s headline. The adjective found its way into NPR, the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed News, Slate, The New York Post and literally every other major news outlet you can think of. Typically in a situation like this you might figure these publications were merely sharing the descriptions used by a centralized news service, like the AP (who also found fit to tell us about the quality, scale-wise, of the mall in question), but these were all separate reports filed or commented on by different writers. It makes the leapfrogging of the term from outlet to outlet even more bizarre, particularly since its so fraught with meaning.
The subtext of the word choice is hard to miss here. Dozens were killed in a bombing attack in Baghdad the same day, but you’ll have noticed much less traction in the American media. (Although when a bomb went off in an “upscale” region of Baghdad last year, it was similarly reported.) Why? The coded language embedded within the word upscale is a form of salesmanship, meant to appeal to us as brand-conscious shoppers. A shooting attack in Africa? Yawn. Doesn’t that happen every day? We’ve got our own shootings to worry about. But when you frame it in the context of consumerism and wealth, then it starts to resonate. Think about how quickly we’ve moved on from the mass shooting in Washington D.C., in our own country’s capital, from last week. A Navy Yard? Who even knows what that is? But an upscale mall? Now that’s high quality carnage.
An attack at an upscale shopping center in our country would be coded language to read as “non-black.” We don’t tend to hear about the dozens of gun deaths in Chicago on a monthly basis, because it’s ingrained in us that that is the type of neighborhood where gun deaths are “supposed to” happen. Coming as it did in Africa, where it’s safe to assume most of the malls are the black malls, the upwardly mobile adjective here announces that these weren’t just run of the mill black people being slaughtered, people whose lot in life it is to suffer, but also, as we’re being told, British, and Canadians, and Americans, and people of status, members of the Kenyan president’s family, for example. Now that’s something to pay attention to.
Quibbling over a word choice may sound minor when compared to such unthinkable tragedy, but one feels powerless when confronted by it. The way we think and talk about violence, however, is something that we can do something about.
Search for the word “upscale” on Twitter and you’ll see a telling juxtaposition. Stitched in between the headlines about the shooting are ads for BMWs, hotels, and discussions about the best brunch spots in a particular city. The persistence of the word in all of these reports is reminder of another sort of more subtle violence, the pressures of consumerism. We’re all constantly under attack in that regard, because upscale is something we all aspire to. Even in death, the status of our spending power is weighted in the balance.