Saturday, October 04, 2014

Can Queer Folk Be Racist? Of course.: Be the Change You Want to See

Fear of a Mixed Baby Planet 
There are few of us who haven't heard of the lesbian couple who are suing their sperm donor bank because the mommy was inseminated with the "wrong" sperm, which happened to contain DNA for Black phenotype features.  There has been justified outrage at their decision to make their discomfort of raising a mixed baby in their racist community a public issue for everyone to see on shows like NBC's "Today."  "Couldn't they have handled the sperm bank's mishap in a more mature way that will not emotionally scar their child?" is the main question on the minds of many.  However, there is a secondary question that has intrigued me more: Can queer folk be racist?  I find the number of people who have brought up this question to be astounding.  The question is on every thread I've seen regarding this news item.  Of course queer folk can be racist.  Of course.  And the topic is not new in any way, shape, or form.

Dr. Justin C. Young, on "The Huffington Post," recently called for gays to unite, and states, "While we have the public appearance that things are going well, as a community there are signs of internal division and segregation and it's time to fix it."  Chong-suk Han, in "A Different Shade of Queer: Race, Sexuality, and Marginalizing by the Marginalized," states that current media images of queer culture promote "a monolithic image of the 'gay community' as being overwhelmingly upper-middle class – if not simply rich – and white."  His criticism doesn't include shows like RuPaul's "Drag Race," but one could argue that RuPaul's show doesn't depict everyday queer life.  In the end, the implication is that a different shade of queer is "othered" within the LGBTQ community, just as in the larger, dominant culture.

A little while back, Scott Stiffler, a New York City writer/performer, compiled information about gay White supremacists and cited several independent films that address the issue of racism within the queer community, and a year earlier, Bradley Campbell interviewed Jamez Smith, about his encounters with racism within the queer community of Minneapolis.  Most recently, Sierra Mannie, in "Time" magazine, asked White gays to stop appropriating African American female culture.  I find this last issue to be especially compelling because, as a teen and young adult, I absolutely loved that Black and queer culture were intertwined, most of all in nightclub and art movements.  However, in the 1980s, when I grew up, one could argue that these intertwined cultures lived right next to each other in the arty spaces of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.  Today, in the land of the Interwebs, there might be less intertwining and more appropriation by, for example, a rural or suburban youth who has had no real exposure to African American culture yet feels the need to emulate it because he/she has heard the work of Sylvester, or seen the work of Mapplethorpe, or watched films like "Paris is Burning."   I do understand the discomfort/cringe that comes from seeing someone try to emulate what is supposedly female/Latina/Black/Asian, when it is clear that the person has no real understanding of the culture he/she is trying to pay homage to (Gwen Stefani's portrayal of "chola" culture comes to mind).   But I digress.  The point is that racism among queers is something that queers have been trying to address for a long time.  This new development has brought it to the forefront.

In my own experience, I remember going to a queer female gathering in the early 2000s, in NYC, and I was the only Latina there.  There was one African American woman and she never spoke.  NEVER SAID A WORD.  She didn't even say "hello."  When we talked about 9/11, which was on everyone's minds back then, I tried to be part of the round table discussion.  My only comment was one of hope, but I received death stares from other women and one woman even exclaimed, "Uh!"  I knew it couldn't have been because of anything controversial I might have said; my comment was benign (something like, "I have faith that we will get through this.") and it was similar to what others said.   I know I was unwelcome there.  I, of course, never went back.  

However, my main experience has been one of loving inclusion.  The majority of queer gatherings I attend are extremely diverse and open, which is why I strongly believe that this incident provides an opportunity for everyone to speak about prejudices, in general.  A common comment about the couple in question is criticism for their desire to live in a racist community to begin with.  Many feel that it would have been unacceptable to raise a White child, or any child, in a racist community.  Why create another White racist?  Let's take this further.  Han mentioned in his essay that current depictions of queer culture portray middle- to upper-class queers; can we get some love for working class queers?  

Academics have been talking about the intersections of race, gender, and class for decades.  We now have the opportunity to take the conversation out of the Ivory Tower and remind the general population that if you want to end racism, you have to end sexism.  You can't fight for Black men if you are still raping Black women.  If you want to end sexism, you have to end classism.  You can't expect women to achieve equality if you still believe that some people deserve to be poor.  If you want to change how we see/define gender, you cannot be an elitist or a racist or bigoted in any way.  If you want others to stop behaving in a bigoted fashion, YOU have to stop behaving in a bigoted fashion, and that includes all kinds of bigotry.  You cannot expect equality for all if you don't advocate for more ramps and spaces that are inclusive of the disabled.  You cannot end racism if you are a nationalist who hates people from other countries.  You cannot expect respect from others if you have already decided that you will not respect a population of people because of their religious beliefs.  You feel me?

And the most important part of this conversation, for me, has to be what I learned from Dr. Sonja Lanehart and Dr. Joycelyn Moody, at a conference years ago at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  There was a discussion where someone said something that I thought was ignorant and racist during a Q&A session.  My first reaction was to attack this person fiercely, but my mentors had a different approach.  They provided the person with historical context that she had never been exposed to and by the end of the session, she left the room a bit more culturally enlightened.  I saw this approach by my dad, Rev. Dr. Samuel Acosta, too.  He didn't hate bigoted people, which is not to say he sat back and accepted their behavior.  Instead, he tried to guide them and teach them, while still giving them their dignity.  It worked very well, many times.  

He tried to be what he wanted to see: someone who saw possibilities in everyone, someone who saw opportunities in the situations that make us uncomfortable, someone who was ready to be proactive instead of reactive.  I love that vision and I hope others might find it useful.