Sunday, June 27, 2010

fail to see how struggles are connected to one another

This is a guest post by Jessie Daniels, who blogs at Racism Review, where this post also appears. Dr. Daniels is a Sociology professor at Hunter College and the author of the books White Lies and Cyber Racism.

Judith Butler

Last week, noted social critic and philosophy Professor Judith Butler refused the Berlin Civil Courage Award saying, “I must distance myself from this racist complicity” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter). Butler was referring to anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color. The group SUSPECT condemned white gay politics and applauded Butler’s refusal saying:

It is this tendency of white gay politics, to replace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement, which Butler scandalizes, also in response to the critiques and writings of queers of colour. Unlike most white queers, she has stuck out her own neck for this. For us, this was a very courageous decision indeed.

SUSPECT is a new group of queer and trans migrants, Black people, people of color and allies whose aim is to monitor the effects of hate crimes debates and to build communities which are free from violence in all its interpersonal and institutional forms.

Angela Davis, noted scholar, activist and UC-Santa Cruz professor, has also voiced support for Butler’s refusal of the prize, saying “I hope Judith Butler’s refusal of the award will act as a catalyst for more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups which are considered progressive” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).

There’s certainly room for such a discussion about race and racism in the white LGBT community here in the U.S., and surprisingly little analysis of it to date. As I noted back in November 2008, the racism among white gay marriage supporters is a problem. Prominent white gay men such as Dan Savage make a good living off of saying ignorant, racist crap while claiming the “oppression” card. This is not to say that people who identify as LGBT are not oppressed in the U.S. and around the world; in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence to support this claim, including the murder and torture of people because they are same-gender-loving. This is a human rights issue, and a global one.

What Dan Savage and other privileged white gay men fail to understand is the way one struggle is connected to another. In part, I think this is because they fail to see the ways that sexuality and race are intertwined. When you begin to see this, it shifts our understanding of oppression. Rather than seeing “blacks” and “gays” as somehow distinct, disparate groups, such an analysis allows you to recognize the reality of black and brown LGBT lives (such as the recently out entertainer Ricky Martin, who is both gay and Puerto Rican). And, such an analysis makes visible the white privilege that still adheres to the lives of LGBT folks like Savage. The challenge then, for white LGBT folks, is whether they are going to continue to wage a campaign for the rights of some or whether we will join the struggle for LGBT human rights with other human rights struggles.

What’s maddening about the ignorance around race among white LGBT people, is that it represents such a lost opportunity for -- as SUSPECT points out in their statement -- a “politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation” and replaces it with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement. What might this look like? As just one example, the organization Immigration Equality is coming out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law:

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows all too well how easily people who “look different” can be singled out for harassment and prosecution. In addition, LGBT immigrant families are too familiar with the double burden of immigration discrimination. Now Arizona’s LGBT families have yet another reason to be alarmed. The state’s new law threatens to tear apart families, separate children from their parents and rip apart loving couples who are building their lives together. Forty percent of LGBT binational couples in the United States include a Latino family member. For them, and their loved ones, Arizona is now the most dangerous place in America.

As people in New York City and around the U.S. celebrate Pride today, my hope is that we will all embrace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and transformation.


  1. THANK YOU for this post, Macon. And I didnt know about SUSPECT so this guest post is music to my ears/eyes.

    I've been hoping for more discussion of intersectionality on this blog, particulartly discussion that won't degenerate into accusations of derailing. It's a challenge for me to discuss my experiences as a POC without discussing my experiences as queer-identified and how racism has informed my experiences with misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. I do not experience these oppressions separately so its difficult to discuss them separately, to say the least. I'm sure I'm not the only former-lurker who agrees.

  2. Fantastic post, Macon. I just posted a similar question on my facebook, whether or not in American same-sex culture, social identifiers (race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, religion etc) were more salient than elsewhere.

    I was hoping that folks who are, for instance, active in the local human rights campaign would jump all over it, but they did not open their mouths.

    The American LGBT culture seems to be enriching the superficial divisions amongst Americans instead of fighting to dissolve them. Are you black, white, mixed, latin; gay, straight or bi; transgender or transsexual; thin, thick, obese, athletic or muscular; top or bottom. The list goes on and on, and so does the discrimination from within.

    I have noticed that as a resident of NYC, many of these discriminations present in South Louisiana are not as visible, if even existent in all communities of LGBT.

    The whole issue is really about deracializing America. If we could do that, then half of our battle (across the U.S. and across all of these divisions) is won.

  3. First, great post! <3 Judy B.

    Renee over at Womanist Musings recently wrote a related post which came to mind when reading this:

  4. [SoHo Gayboy, this is swpd, not sbpd. ~macon]

  5. As a heterosexual POC, it seems to me from the outside looking in that white gay people are really quick to align the struggles of racial/ethnic minorities when it behooves them.

    The situation with Prop 8 in CA comes to mind very quickly. My understanding is that there was little activism/educating done in minority communities, but when Prop 8 passed, suddenly it was all the fault of the homophobic minority communities. O_O...

    So you don't bother to go into the communities and state your case, but then expect them to show up (and out...) for you? I don't really understand. I mean this statement really broadly, too.

    'Tis not the job of the LGBT community to necessarily educate minority communities, but this whole "we'll use you when we need you, ignore/insult you when we don't" thing is no bueno and personally I feel like there are too many racist white folks getting passes because they're gay.

  6. Some really great points here. It frustrates me when one minority group unashamedly participates in the oppression of another. Like when (as mentioned in this blog) white feminists are racist, or.. when male POC are sexist.

    This post about the gay community actually parallels the Muslim community, of which I am a part... Muslims come from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and is supposed to be color-blind, but those of African descent (especially African Americans as opposed to those born in Africa, for some reason) are clearly treated as second-class citizens. And don't even get me started about those who (rightly) stand up against anti-Muslim prejudice, but then turn around and declare that women are beneath men and must obey them.

    When a member of one minority group oppresses another, it makes me think that were that person not a part of a minority group at all, they would be among the worst types of chauvinists.

  7. Great post! This is something that's been bothering me of late as well. It's amazing to me how readily some people can point out homophobia yet fail to see an incident as racist or sexist.

  8. The most shockingly racist statement I've ever heard came from a fellow white lesbian I met on my first day of freshman orientation. I confronted her and chose never to associate with her again. It was a rude awakening to me at a time when I assumed that all LGBT people I met would certainly also be anti-racists. At a college whose students were more than 80% white, I had a lot of these awakenings.

    Just four years ago I didn't understand how someone could be queer and racist, because I didn't understand that being queer does not negate whiteness. I used to talk with other white queer people about the struggles we faced, ignorant to what we were really complaining about: an obstacle that might, but probably would not, keep us from enjoying every benefit of our white privilege.

    I eventually transferred to a Hawaii university where the student population was entirely different. I always thought of myself as an anti-racist, but I doubt I would have learned as much as I have these past years without moving away from that blindingly white environment.

  9. Purvis, you made such good sense. Thank you.

  10. There were a lot of great points made in this post, but I must admit that I don't understand why Dan Savage saying that homophobia in the POC community is a problem is racist. I'm not defending what he said either - I'm honestly confused and I'm asking for clarification because I don't understand.

  11. @ yam

    i am a bisexual woman of color and longtime savage love reader, and i agree with you. i haven't read the original granderson piece, but the savage post OP links seems perfectly logical to me.

  12. I tend to embrace the concept of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." There is often much to be gained in the solidarity of oppressed peoples. However, as an African-American I sometimes feel like my people's history of oppression is exploited by other oppressed/discriminated against groups. I'm no historian, but what happened to relations between black and Jewish American communities after the civil rights struggles of the 20th century?

    I truly don't desire to offend anyone here; I'm being honest about my feelings. I cringe every time I hear the struggle of the LGBT community compared to the struggle of African-Americans in this country. The LGBT experience may give you a sensibility that allows you to sympathize with African-Americans, but you cannot empathize. Generally speaking, no one knows you're LGBT when you enter a room unless you do or say something to make it known. That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't support each other's struggles, but I find not making that important distinction demeans the historic experience of my people.

    1. Late to the party here, but this comment really made me think, and I thought it warranted a reply.

      I agree that struggles are never exactly the same, and I myself feel like there's a really fine line between someone of a different minority group appropriately telling me they can empathize and said person acting like they know exactly what it's like to be part of a group that they're not part of.

      That being said, I do think your comment points out one of the primary struggles of the LGBT community. Indeed, many times "no one knows" we're queer when we enter a room, and that's a big part of what the problem is -- people who assume that everyone is straight, or don't even consider sexual orientation when thinking about people. When I walk into certain spaces that are largely queer (or not even necessarily so, but are filled with people who do notice and think about such things), people do read me as queer, or at least they ask open-ended questions rather than assuming. But when I'm in a lot of other settings, people just assume I have an opposite-sex spouse and make other comments that assume everyone is straight.

      Yes, we have more access to straight privilege than you do to white privilege, but for the most part, I don't WANT straight privilege.

      I want people to consider whether I'm queer the second I walk into a room. I don't ever want someone to assume I'm straight again.

      It offends me, because it says a whole lot about the person's outlook that they'd do that. No one who assumes someone is straight can be truly an ally, because it means they're not thinking about people's identity the way that queer people have to think about our identity and its interplay with society 24/7.

      The idea that we can or should blend in and act straight (not at all saying you're advocating this) is something that is usually brought up by people who haven't lived our experiences. Straight people constantly do things to let people know they're straight, but most don't realize it. When people say "well, just don't do anything that lets people know you're gay," I then ask them if they ever mention their spouse at work, if they have pictures of their family on their desk, if they talk about social organizations they belong to, if they talk about cultural events they attend, if they choose clothing and grooming that reflect their gender identity, etc. And they all say that of course they do, but many of them think it's OK for them to mention their straight spouse, but not for us.

      Those of us who are used to looking for and thinking about sexual orientation 24/7 notice right away that someone is straight, because we're used to looking for allies, more than anything. If I hear someone using inclusive language (like, someone telling someone "you can bring your husband, or wife, or a friend, or whoever" rather than assuming what gender person the person would want to bring), I usually assume the person is queer, and I'm usually right, but sometimes I've found a really awesome straight ally. More often, I hear people using assumptive language, so I know they are not queer nor an ally.

      (BTW, a lot of transgender people are very very obviously transgender when they walk into a room, and there's nothing they can or should do about it. I think your comment reveals that you might not have been considering a wide range of trans folks when making that statement.)

  13. @ Yam and Aeve

    Its hard to put my finger on why Savage's piece and others like it make my racist radar buzz. When I think about pieces written about generic homophobia (not ascribed to any specific community which in turn means white people, I suppose) it goes into all this explanation about social and religious dynamics... it seems sort of thought out. Everything I've read about black homophobia is just so lacking. The beginning, middle and end is 'blacks are homophobic' with a sprinkling of inferences about how blacks owe the gay community somehow. Nobody seems to really go into the history of Christianity in the black community or political reasons or whatever. Its just another sweeping statement about the African American community without any attempt to understand the nuance of the situation. I hope that made sense.


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