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White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You

Source: CLAgency, University of Minnesota.

Earlier this week, I took to Twitter while on the train returning from the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was exhausted and frustrated after the conference, but suffer from just enough anxiety to prevent me from sleeping in public. So, I decided to address one irony of the conference.

The ASA conference theme was Feeling Race, yet many white sociologists in attendance were surprisingly unreflective about their white privilege, complicity in racism, and negative emotional reactions to people of color who called them on their privilege/prejudice/stereotypes. I even witnessed some paint a person of color, who vocalized offense at the way in which another person of color was snubbed, as a villain who berated well-meaning white people.

Below, I have turned the rather long Twitterstorm into an essay.  Thanks to the MANY kind people who asked whether they could share this, nudging me to turn it into a blog post to more easily share. And, special thanks to @DamienMcKenna, who kindly put my tweets into one document, sparing me a lot of copying and pasting!  Please read on…

Envision this perhaps all-too-familiar scenario.

You’re white…

and, a person of color — let’s call her Denise — has directly or indirectly suggested that something you have done toward or said about race, people of color, or whites is problematic. Or, Denise noted that something seemingly race-neutral or otherwise unrelated to race was inherently about race. She might even have said, “you(r comments) are racist.”

Next, you feel a wave of emotions: surprise, anger, resentment, sadness, embarrassment. Denise, a Black woman, has questioned your racial politics, your allyship to people of color, your commitment to liberalism, equality, and social justice. You are hurt!

You want to do many things, but do not want to provide more fodder for the accusation that you(r comments) are racist. Maybe you to clarify for Denise, “I’m not racist,” or “you’re reading into things,” or “you’re being overly sensitive,” or “it’s not always about race,” or “you’re playing the race card.” You certainly didn’t intend to be insensitive. Doesn’t that count for something? So, you might try to further explain yourself. Maybe Denise just didn’t have enough information before she vocalized her conclusion that your comments were offensive.

Or, Denise doesn’t know enough about you — YOU! She don’t know that you voted for Barack Obama (twice!) and certainly voted against Donald J. Trump (and will do so again in two years). That you have friendly relationships with people of color, who have never said otherwise. Maybe you’ve even donated money to NAACP, marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, or acknowledge the existence of your Latina housekeeper.

You’re upset because the explicit or implied accusation that you are racist lumps you in the same category with Trump, neo-nazis, and your Archie-Bunker-like grandfather who insists on referring to Black people as “niggers” or “Negroes” or “coloreds.” You know, those white people who intentionally discriminate, actively hate people of color, and feel superior as a member of the white race.

Now, you are probably so in your head. Race relations are so fraught! Why can’t we ever talk about race without someone being accused of racism? It seems to you that some people of color already come to the conversation closed, angry, reading to call out “whitey” for racism. Why did Denise have to go there?

Now that you, white person, are currently under an informal investigation for racism, let me tell you about what may be happening for the person of color who has accused you of being offensive toward people of color (perhaps even racist).

Some of us folks of color never bothered, or have stopped bothering, to figure out which white people are racist and which ones aren’t. Accusing any white person of racism often results in the aforementioned emotional response(s). White people rarely respond in productive ways. (Since posting this Twitterstorm on Tuesday, I’ve been responding to a number of whites who demand room for caveats and exceptions, who want acknowledgement of the ways in which they are victimized in an unequal society, or who really just want to put me in my “place” and shut me up.)

Instead, we pay attention to racism as a system of oppression that shapes institutional practices, policies, and cultures, constrains interpersonal interactions, and manifests on the individual level as white privilege, individual-level discrimination, microaggressions, and prejudice. It’s never been a matter of a few racist “bad apples,” a simple fix of changing hearts and minds.

We won’t waste time calling a singular white person “racist”; it’s too much of a given to waste the time that will ultimately be spent on the white person’s negative reaction, possibly even having to comfort them so that they can restore their fragile identity as a white liberal. Honestly, some of us just assume that every white person is racist because each one benefits from an inhumane, oppressive system that robs people of color of our livelihoods, our health and well-being, and our lives.

So, in this hypothetical situation — Denise, a person of color, has accused you of being racist (again, either explicitly or implicitly). It took her incredible patience and courage to do so. We know, most of the time, we will be punished for doing so, at a minimum through the exhaustion of explaining ourselves and defending our right to feel pain under the oppressive system that is racism.

This is one of those (possibly rare) moments when we feel the stakes are too high to remain silent, or when we might actually reach you. Honestly, there are infinite ways in which we let problematic shit from white people slide; it’s not worth the energy to constantly fight. I’d venture to say that we let half or more of what we endure and witness slide because of the risks of calling it out or the energy it will take to explain ourselves.

And, now, we’ve reentered an era when calling out racism and white supremacy (or not) is realistically a matter of life or death. We have to weigh the costs. And, let it be known that pointing out that something is offensive will always come with costs, none of them negligible. Denise has drawn from an already depleted reserve of energy to “deal with” your problematic view or comments. Depleted because that isn’t even her first exposure to racial insensitivity today!

Before that meeting, a white woman moved away from her on the elevator. An older white man stared at her. A white cashier wasn’t as friendly with Denise as the white customer ahead of usher A white colleague just called her Angela — the name of the only other Black woman in the office who is several shades lighter, has short hair (unlike Denise’s locks), wears glasses, and is easily 5 inches shorter than Denise.

Unlike you, for many people of color (especially those in the middle-class), our interactions outside of the house are overwhelmingly with white people who come from a range of political backgrounds and levels of ceaselessness and insensitivity about race and racism.

You just said something was “ghetto” in reference to a Black middle-class person who grew up in and currently lives in the suburbs. (Please never refer to our bodies with the reference “ghetto booty.”) And, we don’t have enough energy to clock you on the problems with conflating Blackness with poverty and “low-class” lifestyles.

You think you’ve just complimented Denise’s new hairstyle and touched it while doing so. But, she simply doesn’t have the time to educate you on the history of whites’ possession and inspection and exploitation of Black bodies, especially Black women’s.

Denise is already exhausted because her white supervisor wanted to play “devil’s advocate” — what if we focused on class instead of race in diversifying the staff because “it’s really about class” — like it’s a game for whites while it’s our livelihoods.

That discomfort you felt in being called out for a single racist comment is a pinch compared to a lifetime of beatings by whiteness and racism that people of color face. In your efforts to defend your good white liberal identity, you will inevitably enact further violence against the person of color you have offended. Telling Denise that her experience in that conversation, in life, is a form of gaslighting — and we face it 24/7.

Falling into the predictable trap of “but, I’m not racist” is an attempt to separate yourself from every other white person’s racist behaviors — for example, this morning Trump and friends called us criminals, rapists, animals, put our kids in cages, forced us out of the country. You want to be seen as an individual white person. You don’t want to be stereotyped, you don’t want assumptions made about you because of your race. Yes, the exact thing that is systematically denied to people of color — you know, because of racism.

People of color do not receive the privilege of individuality. Assumptions are made about who we are, what we do, what we want and value, how we talk, who we love and make love with, etc. all the damn time. We are a color first and, sometimes, an individual. Even as an individual, white people in our lives come to us to work through their feelings and opinions about race (while not talking to other white people). This is a form of labor which goes unpaid, on top of already receiving a fraction of wages for the same work whites do.

Whites often come to us to be absolved for slavery, internment camps, Latinx kids in cages, the Trump regime, their racist uncle, the theft, removal, forced assimilation, and genocide of First Nation people, for white guilt, for white privilege, for even being white. Somehow, whites view us as the ones who bring race into the room or conversation. Part of the package of white privilege is being able to think of yourself in spite of your race (while reducing people of color to their race).

You’re able to think of yourself as raceless. You’re able to ignore that all of your friends, family, coworkers, fellow congregants, neighbors, elected officials, teachers, etc. are also white. But, then, see people of color as “playing the race” card. You’re totally oblivious to how you refer to individuals as “diverse,” which is logically incorrect because diversity implies difference among people not within an individual person.

White person, when Denise has called you out for saying or doing something problematic, I implore you to do anything but become defensive or angry. Do not proceed with restoring your “good white liberal” identity because that makes the situation about you. Yes, that person of color is calling you out specifically, but she is also speaking to the broader system of racism. So, please don’t make it just about you. (Most situations are about white people. Take a breath. Take a seat — take several seats.)

You should relinquish the assumption that you will never do or say anything offensive toward people of color. Odds are, you will, and you will do so frequently. You won’t be able to help yourself. You studied in schools that pushed curriculum that spoke of your superiority and, if it ever reflected people of color, framed these communities as marginal, barbaric, extinct, exotic, criminal, and to be feared. The media, politics, medicine, science, religion, and various other institutions have only echoed the centrality of whiteness and the marginal, devalued status of people of color. So, let’s get past that so we can actually address racism rather than your sense of self.

It might be fair to say that the more you make what follows about you — how right you are, how non-racist you are, how wrong they are to accuse you of being offensive — the more you undermine Denise’s sense of self, perspective of the world, and sense of safety.

I’m going to ask you to do something radical: start viewing instances in which people of color call you out for being offensive (or even racist) as gifts. Denise has taken the time to let you know how she feels and she has invited you to consider rectifying the situation, to do better, to learn and grow.

What may feel like an attack from a person of color is actually a form of “tough love” in what should be a collective project to fight racism. She likely assumes you are receptive enough to hear her and do better — or at least hopes so.

What you’ll have to do is assume you already complicit in racism by virtue of benefiting from the racist system. Work on taking the sting out of the label “racist.” It’s so counterproductive to get hung up on who’s racist and who isn’t while we leave intact the system of racism.

White person, I ask that you recognize being able to feel something about racism that then is recognized and dealt with by others (especially people of color) is a form of white privilege. How people of color feel about race and racism is too often dismissed, questioned, ignored. Hell, even the research that scholars of color do on race is labeled “me-search” and suspected of being personal opinion rather than empirical research. (It seems only whites are able to maintain “objectivity.”)

Remember when Black folks felt so enraged and sad that the deaths of innocent Black children and adults went unpunished? When we eeked out “Black Lives Matter” through voices hoarse from crying? A lot of white people got mad and said, “no, all lives matter.” You made it about you. Your cries of “All Lives Matter” was you making our grief and rage about you. And, then, you made a joke of it (e.g., Black Labs Matter). Honestly, I can’t find another way to describe this than violence. Co-opting and mocking our feelings following white violence against Black bodies… sick.

I implore you to not weaponize the anger people color feel in the face of racism. People of color are standing in a pool of white tears as it is. Please resist the effort to villainize us as the “Angry Black/Latinx/First Nation/Asian American” person because we called you out (or called you in). Again, that is a form of racial gaslighting.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying do not emote. I am not ignoring the inevitable discomfort you feel after someone has accused you of being a bad (white) person. Whites’ collective identity as non-racist is powerful; being a proud racist fell out of fashion (though it seems to be making a return).

What I am taking issue with is how you then respond. I can’t stress this enough: do not get defensive; do not demand an apology or to be consoled; do not do anything that either makes it about you or that undermines the accusation you(r comments) are racist or offensive. An implied or explicit accusation that you(r comments) are racist is an opportunity for you to learn and grow. This means that you will have to listen, open your mind and heart, even beyond limits that feel uncomfortable. (Recall that it is hella uncomfortable for Denise to call you out.)

If you do not immediately understand the accusation, resist the urge to dismiss it. Rather, you should ask to hear more (if they are willing to educate you, especially if requested without compensation and in the face of personal and professional risks of calling out racism). But, you should also make a commitment to learn on your own. It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate you about racism, for you to unlearn years of racist indoctrination. Here’s a hard truth — white people invented racism to justify the enslavement of Africans, justify stealing land from First Nation people, and to limit US citizenship and other privileges of whiteness to European Americans. (Here’s a great 5-minute video made by sociologist Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza on the invention of race.)

“Please teach me” sounds innocent enough, but it misses that whites perceive themselves to be uneducated about race and the lives and histories of people of color. But, that ignorance is by design. Our stories are not included in mainstream education, history, nor portrayed in the media. You probably don’t know much about race and the lives and histories of people of color because you never had to. When people of color demand it, we lack the power to do anything more than ask you to care. Meanwhile, racist propaganda disguised as education, religion, and popular culture are shoved down our throats from childhood.

We know so much more about race, even more than white people 1) because racism is set up to ensure we are all indoctrinated into whiteness and 2) because we have to understand our “predator” as a matter of survival in a society designed to exploit and destroy us. (Check out Dr. W. E. B. Dubois’s work, especially his concept of “double consciousness.”)

Many of us deal with white people all day long, while the reverse is hardly ever true. And, most whites who do encounter people of color do so in fleeting, rare, and power-imbalanced interactions — you the manager, them your employee, you the teacher, them the janitor, etc. So, we’ve had to learn a lot about you. But, white privilege allows you to remain ignorant about us, to maintain whatever stories you already hold about us while saying to the token person of color in your life, “you’re not like other Asian/Latinx/First Nation/Black” people.

Should emotions arise after you’ve been accused of being offensive by a person of color, I’m going to ask that you place the burden of consoling you on fellow white people. You’ve got white privilege; please don’t ask anything more from us. But, to be frank here, white folks: get your people. Dole out some tough love when your fellow white folks are sobbing because they were called out for being racist. Do not feed into the white-victims-of-angry-people-of-color narrative. Do what is necessary so that they can move past the negative emotional reaction, to then focus on processing the situation effectively enough to grow from it and right whatever wrongs they’ve done if possible.

Something is wrong if you only talk about race and racism with people of color, especially if you privately express support or sympathy to us but are publicly tight-lipped about race. I’m tired of whispers of support from whites who have so much more power and privilege than I will ever have, yet sit in their cowardice as they try to maintain that power and privilege.

White people, most of your conversations should probably be with other white people. And, I’m not talking about politely enduring your Aunt Patty’s tirade about “too many Mexicans” taking up all the (supposedly non-Hispanic white) jobs. White people, you need to get comfortable with making yourself and other white people uncomfortable with the racist status quo. Watch, and rewatch, and bookmark Luvvie Ajayi’s TEDWomen 2017 talk, “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable“; become the brave domino who pushes others to stand up against injustice.

Please do not wait until after the encounter to privately commiserate with us about how racist that was. You have far less to lose in calling bullshit out as soon as it happens, and publicly for all to hear. Please do not wait on us to speak up when something racist occurs. That is everyone’s job, especially whites who benefit from racism and want to dismantle it.

If you are familiar with the bystander approach for intervening in the face of sexual violence (including rape jokes and other more “minor” instances of rape culture), many have applied it to fighting racism: https://egrollman.com/2013/02/27/bystander-intervention-racism/ Like we do in this racist society, you should already assume your relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow congregants, elected officials, etc. are already racist. No need to dwell on “what did he mean by that? I can’t believe she said that!” Take the shock out of it. Racism is pervasive, period.

You need to take it upon yourself to call out racism no matter how minor. Mirror good anti-racist behavior for other whites. Yes, it is scary and always will be; but, someone else may be thinking “this is messed up,” but are far less brave and/or have more to lose if speaking up.

And, in those moments that you, white person, do call out racism, you do not get a prize. A lifetime of white privilege and a history of white supremacy is more than enough of a reward. You need to give some back. Consider supporting efforts to pay out reparations.

Getting a cookie everytime you “aren’t racist” defeats the purpose. Do it because the alternative is complicity in an inhumane system of domination. Resist the urge to say “it’s not my problem/my place/responsibility.” Everyone is impacted by racism, and therefore we are all responsible for its dismantling.

Resist the urge to cave to feeling too ignorant on race issues to speak up. There is power just in saying “I find that problematic,” or asking a question that forces fellow white people to reveal what may be underlying racial bias. You don’t have to have all of the answers to have an impact in fighting racism. Even the slightest articulation of concern could force others to rethink their behavior or words.

And, don’t expect that you will have an impact. Calling out other whites’ racism may not have a positive impact right away. And, it will likely take many people in their lives calling them out to not simply dismiss these accusations. Maybe take the time to find one good educational resource on racism to recommend. This means doing a little bit of homework, but trust that many people of color and anti-racist whites spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on creating and publicizing these resources.

From my own experience with speaking up, I’ve found that being the first to do so often doesn’t mean I’m the only voice. You very well may make space for other whites to challenge racism when it occurs. But, even if you are the only one to speak up, you have to be okay feeling afraid and awkward. Racism is structured in a way that rewards you for your complicity in it.

To your credit, white-dominated institutions are designed to fail people of color. So, the burden you feel as an individual to fight racism is the product of that institutional failure. It sucks and its unfair and its very hard. I wish I could offer more than acknowledgement here.

But again, the second you think “this is hard/uncomfortable,” I want you to remember the pinch you feel is a plane crash for people of color. I want you to proactively push through the discomfort of addressing racism to lighten the heavy burden people of color feel at every turn.

Get creative about it, use the resources that are already at your fingertips. Maybe partner with a fellow white person to hold you accountable for being anti-racist; maybe to tag-team in calling out other whites’ racism. Find a way to take joy in making other white people squirm in their white privilege. (Seriously, y’all take yourselves too seriously.)

When you’re invited into a space and see few or no people of color, immediately raise that point. If you’re invited to speak, consider declining and, in your place, recommending a person of color. Examine every seemingly race-neutral context in your life for the ways in which white people are actually privileged.

The reality is, most middle- and upper-class white folks’ lives are so busy because you are committed to living the lives to which you’ve been told you are entitled. “I just don’t have the time!” means it’s more important for you to invest in your white kids’ futures and your all-white community than uplifting communities of color and promoting racial equality.

Sure, you never actively, intentionally exclude people of color. But, you are complicit when you take part in systems and organizations that are not inclusive of people of color. There is no such thing as “not racist” or “non-racist.” You cannot be neutral within a racist system.

To be at the mercy of cultures, traditions, communities, organizations, and institutions that privilege white people makes you complicit. If not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Of course, totally rejecting white privilege and exiting white supremacy is impossible. And, that’s not necessarily the goal here. Rather, I want you, white person, to feel empowered to leverage your white privilege in service of racial justice.

Know that the fear you feel about speaking up is the way in which white privilege (and white supremacy) protects itself. (Most) white people no longer use terms like “race traitor” or “nigger-lover” but the sentiment remains. This is the way white people keep one another in check in the white supremacist project.

The parallel from my own life is feeling cisgender men attempt to police my commitment to feminism as part of the patriarchal project. My loyalties have been questioned and, of course, I am usually assumed to be queer (because to be straight means to hate women). (For the record, I am queer AF.)

You have to let go of the need to be liked by other white people. It’s pretty messed up if you have to comply with racism in order to be liked. You’d be the person who pushed a stranger in front of a moving train to be accepted into a fraternity or sorority.

White privilege is like a boomerang. Even if you throw it away, it will come back right to you. So, fear not. Pissing off a few fellow white people who are racist won’t ruin your life and, again, the costs pale in comparison to what it costs people of color.

In summary: white folks, being called on your racism can be upsetting — but, it’s not about you; it’s part of the larger effort to dismantle white supremacy. Calling out racism may seem hard to you, but being oppressed under racism is unimaginable to you. So, when (not if) Denise calls you out/in, apologize for the impact (and don’t bother explaining your intent — it only stings more), listen listen listen, note that it won’t happen again because you will genuinely make a point to grow from this exchange and learn more about racism. Being called out is a gift — you are welcome.

On Being Gender Agnostic

Team T

Academics, raise your hand if you have trouble sitting down to write in the morning?  Now, how many of you find that your procrastination stems from trying to figure out who you are in this world?  I do — and, today is one of those days.  In being a good little solider in NCFDD‘s Faculty Success Program bootcamp, I set aside this time to prepare my keynote speech — “Blogging for (a) change in higher education” — for next week’s Media Pre-Conference, ahead of the American Sociological Association annual meeting.  Instead, I am blogging (for a change) because my head, heart, and spirit are stuck this morning in the question, “who am I?” — at least with regard to gender.

I acknowledge that I am a bit self-absorbed, less because of arrogance or egotism, but more because of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety about my survival and success.  I am incredibly self-aware and reflexive, perhaps to a fault.  I am constantly trying to find meaning in the world, and to make it a better place.  My gender identity, though, is frequently up for internal debate because I lack a clear, static sense of who I am.  Is certainty about one’s gender identity a privilege afforded exclusively to cisgender people — those people who wake each day knowing who they are, and who go to bed each night having had their identity affirmed through every interaction and by every institution they enter throughout the day?  Once again, I canot get right to my work challenging patriarchy, cissexism, heterosexism, and racism out in the world because I’m consumed trying to figure out who I am in the world.  So much for the unlimited supply of cisgender male privilege I was promised when assigned male at birth.

You see, I recall as early as age 5 that my sense of gender does not align with the sex I was assigned at birth.  After openly writing about my gender as a journey, and my developing sense of being non-binary, my mom commented that she doesn’t recall me telling her (in my 5 year old voice) that I should have been born a girl.  I found girls my age to be incredibly interesting in their depth, complexity, and compassion; boys seemed one-dimensional in their desire to connect purely on a detached, physical level through sports.  In hindsight, perhaps being a girl in a boy’s body was the best I could come up with to name what I later realized was a queer sexuality.

In 2003 — the year I turned 18, and transitioned from high school to college — I passed the coming out test with flying colors.  After years of hiding in the closet, I left it and never looked back.  But, upon taking courses in sociology and gender studies, I began to realize my uniqueness was not limited to being a male-assigned-at-birth who is sexually and emotionally attracted to men.  I found my attraction to masculinity extended beyond its expression in cis men, and that my attraction to maleness was not limited to those with a masculine gender expression.  And, I began recognizing that the category of (cis) man was incredibly narrow for all of my queer fabulousness — or that it didn’t fit at all.  So, I went off to graduate school proudly identifying as genderqueer to account for my queer gender identity.

I won’t once again rehash the role the traumatizing chapter of graduate school has played in my gender journey.  Let’s just say mainstream sociology is not a place that welcomes playing with, fucking with, or transitioning gender.  I have grad school to thank for putting me back in the closet, at least in terms of being genderqueer.  I have slowly come out again quite publicly, now as non-binary in large part because I have begun to recover from that trauma.

But, if anything, I feel as if I have been hiding in plain sight.  To the extent that people have internet access and actually give a damn, they can easily find that I am non-binary.  I’ve written about it and I sign my emails with a note that I use they/them gender pronouns.  There are even a few pictures of me in various states of drag.  I have even gotten comfortable enough to share pictures of myself donning various gender expressions to personalize my lectures on gender identity and expression.

You know — but, the joke is on me, because you can easily forget.  I dress like a dude — partly because of comfort and partly because of fear of violence and discrimination.  I don’t want to admit that the slow genocide of Black trans women is perhaps one factor that has held me back from owning trans womanhood.  Though I don’t quite feel comfortable in the category of cisgender man, I present as such on a daily basis, and am rewarded accordingly.  When I put on a suit each day next week at the sociology conference, I’ll easily pass as a cis man, perhaps even white in a certain light, and maybe even straight if I’m not feeling particularly excited or chatty.  I hesitate to fuck with gender at the conference for fear it will be seen as too political (somehow more political than is any other gender expression), for fear it will distract from my message, and for fear of harassment.  But, I feel I remain complicit in misgendering myself by not being non-binary “enough.”  What’s a non-binary unicorn to do?

Fear of others’ reaction aside, I cannot seem to get passed the heavy emphasis on proving my gender identity through my attire and appearance.  My partner has the exclusive pass to see what’s in my pants, but the entire world will take me at my word that I am “biologically” male (with all of the required parts) because of the masculine attire I wear.  But, I’m afraid no one believes I’m genuinely non-binary because I don’t look it.  I don’t don a queer, colorful hairstyle (umm, thanks a lot early onset baldness).  I don’t wear make-up or nail polish (meh, too lazy).  I only seem to wear feminine clothing on special occasions (it’s fun for a night, but seems really impractical otherwise).

My preference for masculine attire has less to do with the gender I wish to express than simply being comfortable in loose-fitting clothes. Unlike other non-binary folks like Jacob Tobia and Alok Vaid-Menon (of Dark Matter Poetry) who frequently share fab pictures of themselves, I generally don’t feel compelled to express my non-binaryness through dress.  For me, it’s about how I feel in my spirit, my mind, my politics, and how I relate to other people.  Frankly, I’m non-binary in all of the ways you can’t readily see on the outside.

Maybe this is also connected to race and body size.  (You have got to read this essay by Ashleigh Shackleford on the complex intersections among gender non-conformity from Blackness and fatness.)  When I Google images of non-binary, I see dozens of images of thin white androgynous people; I don’t really see anyone who looks like me.  And, of what I see, I am drawn to people I assume to be female-assigned-at-birth in masculine or butch attire; my eyes skip over the (thin white) likely male-assigned-at-birth individuals in feminine attire.

The best I can do to make sense of this complexity is a sense of agnosticism about gender.  In my heart of hearts, I’d rather not constrain myself to a particular gender category or gender destiny.  The two main options — woman and man — suck.  I’ve thought, these days, it would almost be easier for me if I just identified as a trans woman; increasingly, Americans know at least something about trans people.  (Like my father, the average person likely would respond, “non-binary?  what the hell is BINARY?)  But, I have realized I am not a trans woman because I am not interested in attempting to authentically perform the rather constraining category of woman.  And, the category of man is pretty shortsighted, too.  There’s always agender, but I can’t wrap my head around not identifying in gendered terms despite not being able to opt out of the gender system.

There is no escaping being gendered and doing gender!

How ridiculous this all seems when I am well aware that gender is a social construction.  Drawing from the Thomas and Thomas theorem, to which many intro sociology students are exposed, if people define gender as real, it is real in its consequences.  There is no physical or biological basis for gender.  Yet, it is a fundamental organizing principle in society; gender shapes and constrains every social interaction, social institution, and every individuals’ sense of self.  Even if I decide I simply don’t believe in gender, I can’t escape its influence in my life.  And, pretending to be “gender-blind” would be just as dangerous as is trying to be “color-blind.”

So, I’m left with three options: 1) identify as a cis man (because I easily read as one), but queer the hell out of the category where possible; 2) identify as non-binary, and define for myself what that entails and what that looks like (if anything); or 3) do nothing, and just awkwardly move from gendered interaction to gendered interaction.  I’ve gotta say though, I’m pretty lazy about getting dressed in the morning.  I suppose I can live up to my declaration to keep playing with gender and to do gender boldly (to boldly go where no queer has gone before?), but, as a gender agnostic, I keep wondering whether there is more to gender than its expression in clothing, hair, and make-up.  Can’t I be a woman today, even if I’m wearing a loose black t-shirt and bagging blue gym shorts?  Can’t I be non-binary without dressing like a skinny white androgynous hipster?  Can’t I be a man, even when I’m rocking a blonde bombshell wig, a sexy red dress, and knee-high boots?

More questions than answers, as usual when I’m reflecting on this gender journey of mine.  But, at least I can get to work now.  Thanks for reading.

I Am (Kinda) Transgender: More On My Gender Journey

Rockstar

I am transgender.

Sorta.

Mostly, but not really.

Since age 5, or even birth — but, really only recently.

Am I making any sense?  If not, it is because I have yet to make sense of my gender identity and expression for myself.  I was 5 years old when I first acknowledged that my own sense of self, interests, and experiences bear little resemblance to what we define as “man” and “masculinity.”  Early on, I knew that I wasn’t like other boys, and later learned that I like other boys.  So, adopting a bisexual, and then gay, sexual identity made sense.  But, with exposure to LGBT and women’s studies in college, I knew my uniqueness transcends whom I find attractive.  So, upon discovering genderqueerness, I adopted that as my own, and began identifying as queer more broadly.  Queer as an identity reflects my attraction to masculinities (no matter the bodies that expresses them) and maleness (no matter the genders it expresses); it also reflects that I do not neatly fit into the category of “man” (nor “woman” for that matter).

Joining the cult of academia, beginning with my graduate studies, proved to be a hard-right turn in my intellectual, professional, and personal development.  There were blips of authenticity, resistance, and fierceness.  I had a tongue ring for a month.  Had both ears (re)pierced for a few months.  Did a little drag.  But, as I attempted to advance professionally, I caved to the pressures to be gender-conforming — both in my appearance and in my scholarship.  As a researcher, I write with unwavering authority.  When I present at academic conferences, I no longer bang on the podium, despite my internal anger about the issues of my research — discrimination, violence, oppression.  Slowly, I have moved away from the full suit and tie look to teach, but that really just means no tie.

As a fat Black/multiracial genderqueer person, the implicit and explicit pressures to sever ties with my own identities, politics, and communities for the sake of professional success proved traumatizing.  My own parents’ hesitation to accept my queer sexuality when I came out at 17 pales in comparison to the misery of graduate school.  I am closer with my parents today than ever in my life — even after recently coming out as non-binary to them.  (Mom: “Hmm, I saw this coming.”  Dad: “Non-binary?  What the hell is binary?!”)  My grad school advisors… not so much, despite their supposed life-long investment in my career.  And, I imagine the more I veer away from my training, the less likely they’ll care what becomes of me.  In their eyes, it was my career to throw away, anyhow.

Late in my first year of college, I stopped taking calls from my parents.  I made clear that they either accepted all of me or none of me.  I was tired of lecturing them in public spaces about why I was taking classes in queer studies and “insisted” on being publicly out.  My Dad eventually drove the 45 minutes to see me.  (I wouldn’t have agreed to see him, but my dorm’s front desk called my room and said, “there is a cop here to see you!”)  Refusing to look him in the eyes, I told him I was on full scholarship and could figure out summers, so I didn’t need them anymore.  I didn’t see his heart break a little every time I said that.  Eventually, he got through to me, we had a nice heart-to-heart over lackluster pizza, and have been close since.

I wish I had been as cavalier with my grad school advisors.  Sure, I pushed back, and eventually took my current position despite their opposition.  But, I only rarely stood up for myself, and regularly caved or at least tried to compromise.  Their voices, with their goals for my career, remain in my brain.  By design, grad school is about professional socialization — that is, a systematic program of teaching new values and ways of viewing and behaving in the world.  And, the program was somewhat successful in re-programming me.  But, not enough to do so completely.  I am like Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager; my scars are reminders that I once was Borg, and occasionally the Borg way of thinking trumps an independent perspective.  (No, I’m not a Trekkie.  Well, you can say I’m a second-generation Trekkie.  I’m fairly fluent, but only talk Star Trek with my father.)  So, even in deciding to write this essay after much back-and-forth, I feel I have a mini fierce queer activist on my left shoulder who is constantly reading the mini R1 minion on my right shoulder for filth.  On my right, I hear, “but you’re a professor!  Professors don’t write personal blog posts like this!  Professors don’t blog!  Professors aren’t trans…”  And, there it is.  The transphobic roots of my academic training.

Then, why write this essay?  Wouldn’t my time be better spent working on a manuscript about transphobia than publicly agonizing over whether I am, indeed, transgender?  I can’t right now.  Aside from the fact that I am exhausted on so many levels after a difficult semester, I can’t sit down to do research on other people yet because I need work.  Yesterday, when I sat down to make a list of research projects I wish to pursue over the next five years, it morphed into journaling about whether I am truly trans.  There is internal work that cries for my attention when I sit down to do research that I tell myself is detached from me as a person.  I need to write this.  I allowed my personal journey and development to be interrupted during my academic training; I internalized (at least partially) the view that my scholarship is divorced from the scholar — the myth of “objectivity.”

But, why publicly?  Why risk the potential consequences of transphobic and queerphobic discrimination in my profession?  I won’t try to convince others of the benefits of baring your soul on the internet.  But, for me, I feel a sense of release when I push back on the social forces that are constraining me, erasing me, killing me.  Why should I privately struggle through the transphobia and cissexism that I have internalized when these are forces that affect us all?  I know that I am not alone.  I write because there may be others out there struggling, too.  And, I know I’ll likely hear more hostility or at least crickets than any sort of appreciation.  And, it’s not about feeling appreciated.  It’s about sharing my journey with others — perhaps even those who will simply read and learn.  To ignore the critics, and haters, and trolls, and bigots, and nay-sayers, I now just write for me — the me of the past who wishes he had stumble upon a professor who spoke so openly about their gender journey.  I write for the future me — the me of 10 years from now who has no regrets, and sees sharing such vulnerability and uncertainty as just what you do.

And, see, now I feel better.  The R1 minion stormed off.  The mini queer activist is doing her victory dance, muttering “why y’all gagging so?  She bring it to you every ball!”

Thank you for tuning into my journey.

Can We Celebrate Queer Lives And Activism, Too?

James Franco

I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic?  I appreciate these efforts.  And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate).  In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.

Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy.  Coming out.  Refusing to hide.  Refusing to conform.  Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence.  Refusing to tolerate the status quo.  Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples?  Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.  Straight, cisgender people, get used to it!  That is some brave, bold shit.

Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave.  Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute.  Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex.  Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families?  How do we navigate our communities?  How do we navigate the law and institutions?  All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media.  All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.

Sometimes, the well runs dry.  Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship.  The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon.  Maybe you are naive to hope for better.  Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world.  Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.

Fuck.  That.  Noise.

My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical.  It is radical if equality is radical.  We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting.  When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them.  By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations.  It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.

So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them.  And, I am honoring the fallen.  Fight on.  Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.

Coming Out (Or Not) Is A Selfish Act?

This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day.  Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out.  The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years.  So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.

Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act

Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)?  Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.

I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish.  She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely.  To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone.  But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes.  (Other than that, I loved her talk!)

Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish.  She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me.  Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents.   (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.)  Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.

So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families.  And, a queer person is selfish if they come out.  I guess.  Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?

Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish

I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.

That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth.  A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.

When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.”  At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity.  We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”

Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance.  Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out.  It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.

More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different.  The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work.  So, the big guns have to come out.  We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc…  Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted.  Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity.  Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.

Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions.  The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.

Thinking Critically

As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context.  In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society.  Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).

As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities.  For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out.  For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.

So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.

Concluding Thoughts

My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people.  But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out.  Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to navigate survive in this world.  There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences.  Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out.  Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not.  And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.

Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make.  If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people.  We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!