When Sue O’Connell, the publisher and editor of the Boston-based LGBTQ newspaper Bay Windows, which I also write for, penned her piece “Sharing our experience: White gay men and black men have more in common than they think,” a firestorm erupted. Evidence of the conflagration was not only seen on the paper’s website but was buzzed about around town. Responses to the piece included a deluge of criticism ranging from thoughtful advice to damning personal attacks.
The fury that O’Connell’s piece ignited raised for me this query: Can white LGBTQs suggest or give advice to communities of color from their own experiences of discrimination? It’s a polemic that has been avoided because of the politics of political correctness as well as an awareness of how any discussion of race, no matter who’s stirring the conversation — a rabid racist, President Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder — invariably inflames our emotions more than it informs our faculties. Many communities of color contest that white people — straight and LGBTQ — show no real vested interest in engaging in this country’s much-needed dialogue on race. Indeed, many whites have confessed their aversion to such a dialogue, employing the cultural defense of “white guilt” and citing their cultural fear of “black rage” when they inadvertently say the wrong thing. What further complicates the dialogue on race is a real and perceived avalanche of attacks by communities of color claiming that whites are as unconsciously racist as they are incurably so. This too leaves that much-needed dialogue on race hanging in the balance.
But for some people of color, given the indelicate dance of white privilege and single-issue platforms that continues to dominate the mainstream LGBTQ movement and thwart efforts to build coalitions with communities of color, the notion that marginalized and struggling whites (e.g., white women, white LGBTQs, and the white poor, to name a few groups) might have something to offer communities of color in terms of advice and/or shared experiences (that is not to say the same experiences) appears absolutely preposterous. And it is equally absurd to think that people of color wouldn’t see things that way.
How, then, do we, the LGBTQ community, broach the dialogue on race? My answer: Past harms need to be redressed. For example, the various civil rights struggles in this country have primarily been understood and carried out as tribal and unconnected from each other rather than as intersectional and interdependent, and the queer community must address white LGBTQs’ history of whitewashing and appropriating the narrative of the struggles of people of color. Case-in-point: The Stonewall riots of June 1969, widely considered the spark that ignited the modern LGBTQ liberation movement, started with working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar, but those brown and black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the few photos of those nights but have been figuratively bleached out of its written history. Many LGBTQ blacks and Latinos continue to argue that one of the reasons for the gulf between them and LGBTQ whites is the fact that the dominant queer community rewrote and continues to control the narrative of Stonewall.
For many years I taught a college-level course titled “Power and Privilege,” which explored how many of our stereotypes about people whom we perceive as being different invade our lives without much conscious deliberation on our part. Issues of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, age, and ability, among others, were considered, as well as how such distinctions often lead to an inequitable distribution of political power, social well-being, and the resources available to individual members of society. On the syllabus I laid out rules regarding classroom interaction:
We will address our colleagues in our classroom by name.
We will listen to one another — patiently, carefully — assuming that each one of us is always doing the best that s/he can. We will speak thoughtfully. We will speak in the first person.
Although our disagreements may be vigorous, they will not be conducted in a win-lose manner. We will take care that all participants are given the opportunity to engage in the conversation.
We will own our assumptions, our conclusions, and their implications. We will be open to each other’s intellectual growth and change.
We cannot be blamed for misinformation that we have been taught and have absorbed from our U.S. society and culture, but we will be held responsible for repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.
We each have an obligation to actively combat stereotypes so that we can begin to eradicate the biases that prevent us from envisioning the well-being of us all.
O’Connell blundered on her piece. Some of the mistakes were factual, but the big mistake was thinking that the LGBTQ community could have a civil conversation on race.