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The Importance Of Representation: Voice, Visibility, And Validation In America

For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group.  In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities.  However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men.  Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US.  Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.

Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power

The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members.  In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts.  Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth.  In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.

However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences.  In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts.  Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men).  Do the math.  Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women!  Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black.  Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination.  But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.

Representation: Why Group Composition Matters

There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters.  Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US.  So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups.  In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing.  Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.

So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group.  Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes.  But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members.  For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:

When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group.  However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.

In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making.  And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members.  Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making.  I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).

Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group.  I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male.  The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group.  I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.

Seeing Yourself

The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes.  The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated.  For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year.  The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions.  In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys.  One primary reason?  White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch.  And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles.  This is less so the case for other kids.

Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being.  I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief.  I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality.  To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.

Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”

Resilience: It Gets Better Because We Make It Better

Hope

Sociologist Tey Meadow‘s recent op-ed at Huffington Post makes an important point.  It is critically important that we acknowledge and address the bullying, harassment, and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming youth that, in turn, results in their elevated risk for suicidality, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, among other threats to their health and well-being.  However, it is also of critical importance to acknowledge and celebrate the many ways in which LGBTQ youth are surviving and thriving, embracing their individual and community resiliency.

In the face of tremendous overt hostility and covert neglect, still, most LGBTQ teenagers do not wish to end their lives. The Trevor Project, a national crisis and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, has fielded over 200,000 calls since its inception in 2008, calls from youth reaching out for affirmation and support. They survived. Some of them even thrived. Where are their stories?

This call for broadening our focus on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ youth comes after yet another tragic suicide of a queer teenager.  Eric James Borges took his own life last week.  What makes this tragedy more unsettling is that he interned for the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicides, and created his own “It Gets Bettervideo.  As Meadows makes clear, we must continue to change the current social and political climate that demonizes LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities — this means society at large, as well as in schools, the military, families, places of worship, the medical system, etc.  But, we must not allow bullying, harassment, suicides, isolation, and the other negative aspects of LGBTQ youths’ experiences in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic society; we must not allow LGBTQ youth to be equated with suicide and victimization.

LGBTQ Resilience

Advocates and researchers have made great strides in highlighting the hostility LGBTQ youth and adults face in the United States and world wide.  This includes theoretical and empirical developments that help us to understand how prejudice and discrimination create and maintain health disparities, for example, the minority stress paradigm.

One area that needs much more work is resilience among LGBTQ individuals and communities.  Each individual has the capacity for resilience, as defined by Psychology Today:

Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.

Indeed, as health researcher Ron Stall points out in his calls for better understanding resiliency among LGBTQ people, those who live today in our homo/bi/transphobic country maintain some level of resilience.  In his words, given the effect of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment on LGBTQ individuals health and well-being, we could envision a world with the majority of LGBTQ people suffering, abusing drugs, harming themselves and their bodies, and engaging in unsafe behaviors.  Yet, despite elevated risks for mental, physical, and sexual health problems among LGBTQ people compared to heterosexuals and cisgendered people, most LGBTQ people are in good health.  As he explains, there must be, at both the individual and community levels, a great deal of resilience that prevents these homo/bi/transphobic forces from becoming every LGBTQ person’s inevitable reality.

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

In addition to identifying factors that promote resilience among LGBTQ individuals and for LGBTQ communities, it is necessary to continue to understand and address the social forces that impede on the lives of LGBTQ people.  I, like many others, have supported giving young LGBTQ people a message of hope, for, in the words of Harvey Milk, hope is necessary to carry on through the day when all seems difficult or impossible.  But, we must continue to fight against transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia — we cannot simply hope for the day when it gets better.  We already know that it has gotten better because we have fought to make it better.  Fighting for our rights and our lives is, arguably, one of the strongest forms of resilience because we take an active role in challenging inequality.

Thinking More Critically, Thinking Globally

Another point that I like about Meadow’s op-ed is the emphasis on recognizing the institutional and societal manifestations of oppression faced by LGBTQ people.  Like good sociologists, we must push attention to the bullying and harassment faced by LGBTQ youth to who is doing the bullying and harassment and how society and various institutions condone or promote such behavior.  This includes highlighting the failure of schools to promote acceptance, inclusion, and safety of all of its students, yet also, attending to the actions and attitudes that disparage and demonize LGBTQ people at home, in the government, in religion, and so forth.

A second shift in our attention is to better understand how homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia intersect with other systems of oppression.  Too often, the priorities of LGBTQ communities misses the unique needs and experiences of LGBTQ people who are multiply disadvantaged: women, transpeople, people of color, people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, people with disabilities, religious minorities, immigrants.  Arguably, the well-being of LGBTQ people is only as strong as its worst-off members — those who are often invisible in society and even in LGBTQ communities.

Third, and finally, I echo calls to reconceptualize LGBTQ rights as human rights.  Such a move forces us to think globally about the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people.  While some places, especially Western nations, are relatively tolerant of LGBTQ people (I use the term “relatively” strongly, here), other countries keep homosexuality on the books as a crime punishable by death and, even if not, such punishments are carried out daily by everyday citizens.  We cannot become complacent with mere “tolerance” in places like the US, Canada, and some counties in Europe while LGBTQ people face severe violence and repression elsewhere.

It gets better… and already has… because we’ve made it better, and will continue to do so.

Unbeknownst White Privilege

Sometimes, I catch myself being envious of those who are comfortably disinterested in race, be it race relations, their own racial identity and community, or the history of racist oppression around the world.  Frankly, I disdain that the concept of race exists at all, but I will continue to force recognition of the way race (unequally) structures our social world.  I hate that I have to be conscious of the way my own racial identity operates as a force in my life, but, with so few people willing to acknowledge the continued existence and significance of race and racism, I cannot in good conscious block it out of my mind.  Ignorance may be bliss, but once you know, you cannot turn it off or ignore it.

On Being Multiracial

Since I was old enough to conceive of the concept of race, as a social force and as an identity, I have known that I am of two racial ancestries: African American (Black) and European American (white and Jewish).  As early as kindergarten, I can recall being frustrated by the insistence of official forms and documents that I choose only one racial category when I so clearly fit into more than one — a battle that has been a consistent theme in my life, as well as the lives of other multiracial people.  Unfortunately, upon moving from Maryland to Indiana, I felt a sense of racial culture shock, moving from a place where interracial couples are fairly common, to one where there seem to be little awareness that a person could occupy multiple racial categories.  This meant, for a brief period, feeling that I was forced into the category of Black.  My anger and frustration with some of my new experiences as a Black person in the Midwest fit with what many other Black people experienced.  But, with time, I have re-realized that I am not Black.  I am not white.  I’m neither, yet both – a complicated description of my racial identity which reflects the complexity of my experiences with race and race relations.

My White Privilege?

Along with my Black racial identity and white racial identity comes the associated racial disadvantage and racial privilege — in particular, the disadvantages, stigma, discrimination, and prejudice experienced by Black people and the privileges and  sense of being the normal, default racial category experienced by whites.  Yep, that’s right.  In all of my years of acknowledging being simultaneously Black and white, it has never occurred to me until now that I have white privilege.  Gag!  My anti-racist self is nauseous just at the thought.  But, in a number of ways and on a number of levels, I am privileged by my presumed and/or actual whiteness.

Direct, Interpersonal White Privilege: In two ways, I am privileged as a white person, or at least not disadvantaged as a Black person.  The first, of which I have always been aware, is being read either as a light-skinned Black person (and, thus not burdened by the stigma associated with darker skin color) or some other non-white race.  In thinking about sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva‘s research on race, namely his theory of moving toward a tri-racial system in the US in which there emerges as third, middle category that is treated as honorary whites (e.g., Asians, light-skinned Latina/os), I am arguably more privileged, or at least less disadvantaged, than many Black Americans.  The second of these two ways, wholly new to me, is being read as a white person — a white male, to be more specific.  As such, there are an innumerable number of encounters in which I have been presumed to be a white man and, arguably, afforded the privileges that are associated with such interpersonal interactions.  (Could it be that the times, at least some of them, that I have concluded that a white stranger was especially nice was a product of my presumed whiteness?)

Secondary/Indirect White Privilege: At two levels, both interpersonally and structurally, I am afforded white privilege through my relationships with white people.  The largest, most sustained batch of white privilege has come from my white heterosexual male father.  The privileges he is afforded through interactions with others and those that come from the structured pattern of race relations have, in turn, been handed to me through our father-son relationship.  That means that, in part, my process of becoming socialized was shaped by white heterosexual male privilege.  (This was, of course, in combination with the Black female disadvantages by mother is afforded.)  Although weaker and not as sustained , I also am benefited by the white privileges afforded to extended family, professors, colleagues, friends, and past and future romantic partners.  An interesting story was released recently about the secondary white male privilege afforded to scholars of color who have white male mentors; although the findings are overstated, the idea of privilege being trickled down to others who are denied those privileges directly is quite interesting and relevant for my family, friend, and work relationships.

What To Do About White Privilege?

Well, sheesh, I feel a bit at a loss about quickly moving to the “what next?” question so soon after being hit with the realization that I have white privilege.  My initial reaction has been surprise and guilt — a similar reaction to the eventual awareness that I am privileged as a middle-class male.  As I encourage others, I must acknowledge such privilege and attempt to be critical enough to see when I am being privileged simply because of my presumed whiteness, or maleness, or middle-classness, or even the rare instances of being presumed heterosexual.  But, on the flip side, I have entertained the idea of capitalizing on these privileges for anti-racist pursuits.  For example, when I asked one of my professors to write a recommendation letter for graduate school on my behalf, she noted that she was surprised I was not white (after seeing my personal statement) — she had assumed whiteness and was proud of my frequent comments about race and racism in our class.  In some instances, members of the privileged group are afforded more room to speak, are listened to, and their words carry more weight because they are assumed to be from a place of genuine concern rather than self-interest.  (And, as I have argued before, white people are likely less often challenged or doubted in general, even on matters outside of race.)  But, as I am continuing to learn, reflect, and evolve, I suspect that I will have a better sense of the “what next?” question in the future.  Thus, expect more to come.

Being Gay Doesn’t Make You Anti-Racist And Anti-Sexist

By the time the supposed Black vs. gay war had been (re)launched following California’s passage of 2008 Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marrage in the state, I was well aware of oppression within oppressed groups (I ranted back in February about the problematic expression, “gay is the new black.”)  In this post, I want to challenge the notion that being a minority automatically makes one empathetic toward other minority groups, and, further, that being a minority makes one immune to oppressing others.

Wow, Was I Naive Or What?

As a young biracial gay feminist aspiring-vegetarian activist, I understood the experience of a minority to include empathy for other minorities and explicit efforts to challenge all forms of oppression.  In my case, being of color and gay meant being a feminist and actively challenging sexist oppression, as well as other forms of prejudice and discrimination.  This mindset continued into college, particularly when I shifted toward a queer identity.  I suppose it only took moving to Indiana and beginning my graduate studies to burst my naive bubble.  It only took a few sexist and racist comments at the local gay bar and a growing awareness of the heteronormativity in Black communities (like any community) for me to begin to realize experience with one form of oppression doesn’t translate into advocacy against another.  I began to recognize that being a queer man (now genderqueer-identified) did not make my objectification of women any less sexist.

“It’s Okay, I’m Gay”

My intention is to critique this misguided assumption in general, but I use queer folks as my example case here.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen gay men fondle women’s bodies at a bar or party, sometimes with the woman’s explicit consent or assumed consent through her laughter or silence.  I’ve even heard such behavior justified by comments like, “it’s okay, I’m gay.”  This logic implies that sexism and the objectification of women is merely something of heterosexual men (and I guess bisexual men, too).  It has also been extended to justify racist prejudice.  (I can’t tell you how furious I was when I met a white gay man who saw himself as a Black heterosexual woman because of his “ghetto”, sassy attitude.)  Certainly, this logic may carry over to justify other forms of prejudice: ageism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and so forth.

Gay Can Mean Anti-Racist and Anti-Sexist

Today, a gay identity is not merely about sexual behavior – it’s a sociopolitical sexual identity.  That means that lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities incorporate an explicit challenge to heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classist oppression, etc.  LGBT and queer people, like any other minority, can begin to build coalitions (again) with other minority groups to challenge the status quo.  Such coalitions have existed in the past, and I’m certain that a number exist today.  But, like the Prop 8 fiasco, it seems that the “divide and conquer” strategy of pitting Blacks against gays against feminists against immigrants is still alive, well, and successful.  Not only is coalition-building across minority groups possible, it is necessary now as it was in the 1960s and 70s.  Although our President is of color for a change, white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied men still rule the country, yet they’re a numerical minority!  But, one could say that people of color, feminists, queers, working-class people, immigrants, and other minorities banded together to vote President Barack Obama into office.  Real and effective alliances are possible!

Male Privilege 101: Safety From Sexual Harassment and Assault

Me - GI BeyonceI won’t lie – I pride myself on my pro-feminist ideology, further extended and nuanced through a black queer lens through which to view the world. I spend a considerable amount of time agonizing over the privileges that have been bestowed upon me because of what is assumed to be between my legs and its extension into my self-presentation to the world.  I am aware that, even with a genderqueer identity, my masculine gender expression, especially in terms of clothing and name, grants me an indefinite number of conveniences, leg-ups, head-starts, and other forms of unfairly distributed advantages that are denied to women and transpeople. But, no matter how hard I work to recognize and reject my male privilege, there will always be a block of privileges that are unknown to or unseen by me; hence, this is how privilege sustains itself – it is invisible to its beneficiaries, even those who fight to challenge inequality.

Again, another admission: I wish I could dress and behave in ways that more accurately express my genderqueer identity. But, I’m both too comfortable in boys’ clothing and too afraid/unmotivated to deal with the expected harassment, violence, outcasting, and discrimination that I would face if I were to stop dressing in masculine clothing.  So, dressing in feminine or androgynous attire for Halloween is the next best thing. This year, I donned a feminized and sexualized army uniform.  I supplemented the costume with my own blonde wig, leopard print bra (that I stuffed for additional bust), fishnet stockings, and men’s combat boots.

My goal was not to pass as a woman, so I didn’t shave my facial hair, legs, or chest – and all of these areas were exposed. If anything, I wanted to be a sexy expression of both masculinity (i.e., hair, boots, and failure to feminize my voice or behavior) and femininity. I would say that the numerous compliments from friends indicated a success!

But, from others at the local gay bar I attended for Halloween fun and dancing, I found that complimenting was not limited to pleasant appraisals of my outfit. In fact, the first two people that approached me decided to grab my breasts in order to measure their authenticity – both were men dressed as drag queens. Then came the man dress as a mail carrier who insisted on giving me a chance to select a free drink from his bag of random goodies. (To his disappointment, I pulled a note that said “happy Halloween!”, the same note I pulled a second time later. Eventually, he just pressed to buy me a drink and I caved so he’d leave me alone.)

Then, there was the heavily intoxicated woman, whose costume wasn’t much more than a ball gown, who decided to give me what seemed to be a mammogram because she was so fascinated by my breasts. (As an overweight male, yes, I have breasts, but I stuffed with a couple pairs of underwear in a way that pushed up the real breasts to achieve an authentic busty look.) There were long, shameless stares; an attempt to see if I had “tucked” my penis; a few anonymous grabs of my butt; two “motor boats” (essentially vibrating one’s head between a woman’s breasts); an attempted kiss by the cowboy friend of the mail carrier, to whom I was introduced as the mail carrier’s boyfriend; and a bit of following during the night (mainly by the cowboy and mail carrier).

Lessons Learned?

I do not attempt here to suggest that I now know what it’s like to be a woman.  This experience was limited to a few hours, which were otherwise fun. Most of my “admirers” were men, though there were a few drag queens, one drag king, and one woman.  And, this happening in a gay bar rather than a predominantly-heterosexual bar makes this experience somewhat qualitatively different than a night a woman might experience. But, this experience, brought on my by appearance, is one that I do not otherwise have access to.  Even if different, I was able to gain some insight into what it’s like to be stared at, felt up, given “free” drinks under the implicit expectation of sex in return, and followed.  I could see that others, even if in masculine attire, who bore some skin were often the target of aggressive, sexual attention. In that women face greater pressure to wear very revealing clothing, this skin-as-invitation-for-harassment experience is faced to an enormously greater degree by women than by men.

And, I am certain that any complaints I would make about being harassed would be rebuked with, “well, what did you expect, coming dressed like that?” At one point, I felt it was implied when I did complain. I am well aware of the victim-blaming that is practiced when women are victimized by sexual assault, rape, and intimate partner violence, but I had no idea that victim-blaming was so pervasive, that to bare one’s skin is read as an explicit, intentional invitation to be gawked at, fondled, and propositioned. The double-bind is ever-apparent: wear sexy, revealing clothing in order to get attention, be desirable, and not to be dismissed as an inauthentic or unsuccessful woman; but, then, when you do bare some skin, be aware that you are essentially “asking for” any and everything that comes your way.

Back To Life, Back To Reality?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. The drag is off and I’m back to my usual genderqueer-identified and masculine-expression self.  Though inappropriate touching, staring, and commenting are always a possibility, the rate at which I experienced them last night will never be seen again unless I re-transform into my sexy GI Beyonce self. But, this unintended breaching experiment’s results will not disappear. I am debating, today, about whether to address this new found awareness of gendered sexual harassment and assault in my lecture tomorrow on sexual assault and rape. But, my fear is that my male privilege allows for me to speak openly about a one-time experience, while women and transpeople experience sexual assault and harassment, or at least the threat of it, on a daily basis. In some ways, I resign myself to capitalizing on the privileges I cannot avoid by speaking out against injustices that are otherwise dismissed as a woman’s issue, or a play of the “race card”, or cry-baby complaints.

In any event, even if my Halloween experience does nothing to help others become more aware of the rape-encouraging culture we live in and gendered violence more broadly, I find comfort in the eye-opening of at least one person: myself.