The recent sociological blog debate on the supposed era of post-racism still weighs on my mind today, even as the conversation has tapered off. Beyond arguing against this idealistic (and limited) vision of post-racism, I have reflected a great deal on how we have talked about race and racism, and the barriers that seemed to have gotten in the way of meaningful dialogue.
I have reflected upon how others have perceived me or even gone to the extent of criticizing me. Most recently, I heard that some of my fellow graduate students dubbed me overly-sensitive. I am used to this critique. But, I joked with some of my friends that I must have gone “soft” over the years; I was labeled “militant” within my first year of graduate school, and then “uppity” by my third year. Now, in my sixth and final year, I am merely “overly-sensitive.”
Doubting And Dismissing
Initially, it is upsetting to have fellow scholars — who are, by training, critical of the social world — lazily dismiss your critique of oppressive and unequal practices as sensitivity. But, I learned to make peace with the reality that making friends in the academy is a bonus, not a given (this is not college!), and privileged and oppressed people come to academia for very different reasons. Though we get the same training and do similar tasks (i.e., research, teaching, service), these are means to different ends.
So, I have grown used to the criticisms of unsympathetic privileged individuals — purportedly-liberal whites, heterosexuals, men, those of the middle-class, and those born in the US. This weekend, it donned on me that the criticisms that have stood out in my mind, those with which I struggle for some time, are those from fellow marginalized group members — people of color and LGBT folks in particular.
Doubt And Dismissal By Other Marginalized Individuals
Obviously, the recent debate with Fabio Rojas (a Latino professor who advocated the “post-racism” thesis) continues to linger in my mind. And, I still shudder today at the thought of having a gay man (who was a friend at the time) dub me “uppity” in arguing about the persistence of homophobia and racism.
My initial concern with having another person of color deny that racism exists, or is a persistent problem, or was relevant to a particular event in question is the fear of “airing dirty laundry.” This is particularly true for Fabio’s suggestion that we live in a post-racist era. Whether this is true or not, I fear that whites who secretly believe this, or who are on the fence about the significance of racism today, or who are too lazy or limited in their thinking to assess for themselves, will take this “post-racism thesis” and run with it. “You see, even he thinks it, and he’s Latino!” But, realistically, the hunger to declare racism dead is strong enough that those kinds of folks will find the evidence they need to do so anywhere.
But, beyond that fear, it has become clear to me that having another member of your oppressed group doubt or deny your experiences with oppression or your perspective more generally is harmful and disappointing in its own right. First, because they do not completely agree, and, second, because they deny your perspective. Of course, this is not to say that they cannot disagree, nor that you are automatically right and they are automatically wrong. Rather, I take issue with those who seem so set on denying the existence of oppression that they reject your experiences and perspective that challenge that ideal picture.
In the two examples I mentioned, after drawing upon my personal exposure to racist prejudice and discrimination, a fellow man of color pointed out my (justified) rage and pressed on with his argument that racism does not exist. After describing the homophobic prejudice and discrimination I have faced, a fellow gay man dismissed me as “uppity” because I became angry that he denied that homophobia is “all that bad.” For whatever reason, they are so tied to these post-racist and post-homophobic utopias that my experiences failed to serve as evidence of racism and homophobia, and I needed to be further silenced by trivializing my anger.
Intersections With Power And Privilege
What complicates these kinds of challenging conversations with other marginalized individuals is that we may hold other privileged identities. The force of the blow of being called uppity was multiplied by 100 because it came from a white man. Our shared marginalized status as gay men shifted to the periphery in my mind as I was subject to the most racist verbal assault in my life, short of being called “nigger.”
As I have since learned, the racist history of the term uppity is not widely known; however, he failed to apologize once I called that to his attention. Rather, he pressed on to correct me: “you could also say ‘uppity bitch’ or ‘uppity faggot’; it’s not just about race.” He was right; it is not just about race. It is about power. Rather, it is about disempowering the recipient of the charge of uppitiness.
In addition, axes of power drawn from institutions can complicate matters, as well. One challenge to the dialogue with Fabio is that he is a tenured professor; I am a graduate student on the verge of finishing my training (so, I still tread lightly to prevent making myself vulnerable to backlash). Though he has not exploited his power, and has been civil throughout the debate, he very well could draw upon his status as a professor to silence me.
In my and other students’ interactions with other professors, being told homophobia is not that bad or sexism is dead and gone, we, as mere students, can only go so far in disagreeing with a professor. Beyond fearing retaliation, we are constrained in many ways because these conversations tend to occur on the professors’ turf and terms. How intensely and for how long can you disagree with a professor as you sit in their office, meeting with them during the time they are available? And, you probably met with them for their help. Moments after you leave their office, you could witness a white professor pet the hair of another Black student and ask whether it is really hers, but, while in the professor’s office, their view that “racism is not that bad today” is Truth.
A Call For Better Support From Our Fellow Group Members
I should stress that I do not intend to demonize those individuals of one’s own marginalized group for disagreeing, or even verbalizing that disagreement. Also, I do not care to engage why some oppressed people fail to “see” oppression. Some may have yet to gain the necessary consciousness to see more subtle expressions of prejudice and discrimination. For the rest, dismissing them as having internalized their own oppression is just as harmful as them denying your oppressed reality.
Instead, I call for doing a better job of supporting one another. As marginalized people, we already face enough doubt and denial from privileged people. I will probably spend much of my energy in research, teaching, and serving on various university committees trying to convince whites that racism still exists. What I need from other people of color, then, is a shared safe space to be free from doubt and denial. Let us be sure to protect a space for ourselves where we do not have to convince one another that racism exists, or that our experiences were really shaped by racism. We need a space where we will not trivialize each other’s emotional responses to prejudice and discrimination.
In fact, this safe space is one of the reasons why marginalized folks seek out others like themselves. It is exhausting to deal with heterosexism and homophobic prejudice and discrimination, having your rights debated daily and voted upon every election cycle, while being told your fight for equal rights is not that important. So, LGBT and queer people find solace in one another’s company. It is no coincidence that, given my challenging experiences in graduate school, most of my closets friends today are queer, of color, and/or working-class.
I do think that we should challenge one another, whether it be raising our consciousnesses about our oppressed reality or trying to think outside of our own perspective. But, this is not the same as outright doubting or denying someone’s experiences or perspective. While growing together, supporting other people of color, other LGBT and queer people, other folks from working-class backgrounds, and other women means seeing, hearing, and validating each other in a society set on making us invisible, silent, and insignificant.