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Counter White Supremacy With Black & Brown Supremacy (For A While)

"Black Lives Matter" by 5chw4r7z.

“Black Lives Matter” by 5chw4r7z.

Did you know that white supremacy reigned even before dooms day November 8th, 2016?  Yes, even with a (half) Black man in the White House, our country continued its legacy of white supremacy — one of many things that remain constant no matter the political party or race (or gender) of the sitting president.  The election of a known racist, sexual predator, xenophobe with the same level of political experience as a newborn baby was, in many ways, the inevitable conclusion of a supposed threat to the white supremacist order delivered by the election and re-election of Barack Hussein Obama.  My gut told me that Clinton should have waited another election cycle because this one might get ugly; and, it was so much uglier than I could anticipate.  Jesus herself, if she were to run as a Democrat, could not have won up against a candidate who promised to leave white supremacy intact (or, perhaps, advance its return — “Make American Great Again”).

I have Black feminist women in my life to thank for my relative calm about what a Trump presidency will mean.  While I’ve witnessed white liberals openly weeping over the election outcome, I’m surrounded by many more Black women who have all but asked, “why would you expect otherwise?”  Certainly not pessimism or resignation, as these women, like nearly every Black woman who voted, had hopes for a Clinton win (albeit with a more subdued, “child, I guess I’m with her…”); their slight lack of enthusiasm does not reflect a lack of commitment to gender equality or feminism, as research overwhelmingly suggests that Black women are more committed to it than are white women.  Rather, a(nother) Clinton presidency would be Diet White Supremacy (sweetened with stuff you know might kill you ultimately); but, her often centrist platform (and the inevitability of working within the deeply racist system) left no illusion that she would be much of a white savior for us folks of color.

But, some white liberals are afraid now. Have y’all been sleeping as Black cis and trans women have been murdered at historic rates — while Obama has been president???  White women jumped to plan a Million Woman March, staying true to a history of co-opting the work of Black people while excluding them.  (Where were y’all in 1997?)  Others are are wearing safety pins to publicly (albeit subtly) signal their solidarity for various oppressed groups.  I’m afraid I won’t notice because I’m looking to see which white folks (cops included) may be armed.  (Will your safety pin stop a bullet?)  Stop weeping and start organizing with people of color.

Did you know that real change requires sacrifice, risk, maybe even pain and getting a little dirty?  The residual pinhole in your shirt from a safety pin pales in comparison to the bullet holes that too frequently pierce Black and Brown bodies.  Taking a day off of work for a march is cute, assuming you have a job that allows time off for a political cause.  But, these initial efforts to return America to the pre-Nov. 8th days (you know, the ones in which white supremacy still ruled, just under a Black president) are not enough to bring down systemic, institionalized racism.  Real change needs to be more than a warm smile, a good intention, or a minor inconvenience.

White supremacy isn’t just the spike in racist hate crimes the week since election day, or graffiti displaying racist messages on public buildings, or putting known racists into powerful political positions.  It is also the mundane, everyday-ness of whiteness, the treatment of white as the default.  You are complicit in white supremacy to the extent that you are complacent about whiteness operating as the default, that you are too lazy or afraid to go against the grain, and that you are too ignorant to realize other possibilities exist.  Efforts to “see past color” or treat everyone equally help to maintain the racial hierarchy, whereas ignoring the ongoing legacy of racism does anything but create a level playing field.  (Why do you think most whites oppose Affirmative Action?)

My suggestion to counter whiteness-as-default is to make Blackness and Brownness the default starting now.  To the extent that you have a choice or power to shape something, prioritize the inclusion of people of color, our voices and contributions, and our herstory.  I’ll use academic examples, as that is my own profession.  If you are selecting scholars for a panel, speaker series, or edited volume, start by looking for scholars of color (especially cis and trans women and trans men).  Prioritize the hiring of candidates of color for job searches.  Nominate students and scholars of color for awards.  Assign readings in your classes by writers of color.  Cite researchers of color in your own research, and consider collaborating with colleagues of color.  Tenure and promote faculty of color.  Develop and generously support racial and ethnic studies programs.  If you use images of people in your Powerpoint presentations, take the time to find images of people of color.  Yes, much of this takes some extra time, but consistently going the easy route (who do you already know?  who is recognized as the “best” in your field?) will consistently yield white face after white face, white voice after white voice, white idea after white idea.  Concern about your time and energy are innocent enough, but they contribute to the treatment of whiteness as the default; and, to the extent that most white academics do this, it’s a systemic problem.  Who ever said racial justice was convenient?  It’s not.

I believe the easiest way to make racial justice, rather than whiteness, the default is make self-reflection about it a standard act.  I consistently draw from a racial justice frame from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project:

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black people?

This is something you can use in your own life, but also ask that others with whom you live and work make this a standard reflexive act.  Imagine, if you will, that American voters asked themselves this question last Tuesday; I wonder if fewer would have voted for the racist-rapist.

I know some may take issue with the language of Black supremacy or Brown supremacy — implying that people of color are superior to whites isn’t helpful either.  (How would we know since we’ve never been given a fair shot?)  I use such strong language to emphasize just how intense your efforts will need to be to make any sort of real impact.  We need something infinitely more powerful than safety pins and a one-day march to overcome white supremacy.  Think of the possible impact of even just a year of treating people of color as the default — only nominating and electing people of color (the reverse of what happens now), only featuring actors of color on film and TV (reverse of today), only hiring talented and qualified people of color (the reverse, still), only teaching Black/American Indian/Latinx/Asian American/Muslim history (not [white] US history).  What about regularly taking the time to seek out and amplify the voices of people of color rather than other whites (you might be surprised that we have important things to say!).  Getting involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and/or other racial justice movements.  If you give to charities, donating exclusively to those that promote racial justice (especially those with inclusive leadership — meaning cis and trans women of color and trans men). Consistently and generously compensating people of color for their labor and contributions to the community.

In 2017, the year of Black and Brown supremacy, children of color would see themselves, the employment rate for people of color would go up, perhaps the racial wage gap would shrink (or at least stop growing); maybe skeptical whites would finally see the potential of people of color and begin investing in us and partnering with us.  Of course, on year won’t be enough to counter centuries of white supremacy and whites’ efforts to exterminate and decimate communities of color; but, we’ve got to do something grander than safety pins.

Here’s a tissue.  Wipe up your white liberal tears and get to work.  You’ll know you’re actually making a difference when you need that tissue to wipe sweat from your brow, dirt off of your hands, and blood from injuries you’ve sustained.  Your people elected Trump — what are you going to do about it?

Racism vs. Homophobia: Why No One Wins the Oppression Olympics

I suppose I should not be surprised that even in 2013 we are still hearing debates that compare racism, the lives of people of color, and the Civil Rights Movement with homophobia, the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT), and the modern LGBT movement.

It is somewhat ironic that the efforts of President Barack Obama – our first (half) Black president and the first sitting-President to support same-gender marriage – have sparked such debate about race versus sexuality.  Back in 2007, he won my support over my initial favorite candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, because he addressed anti-racist advocacy, anti-homophobia advocacy, and the need to heal the wounds between Black and LGBT communities.  Wow!

Since the historical 2008 election, we have seen variations on the debate that compares racism and homophobia, civil rights and LGBT rights, and people of color and LGBT people.  As recent as January, we still see the strange question, “is gay the new black?”  And, on a recent CNN panel, various commentators and political leaders were asked, “are gay rights the same thing as civil rights?”  Fortunately, the first two panelists to respond, LZ Granderson and Roland Martin, noted that, of course, the LGBT rights movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement; but, “civil rights” refer to the equal rights and status of all people, not just people of color.

No One Wins The Oppression Olympics

Comparing these two communities and their past and contemporary movements for equal rights do many a disservice for a at least three reasons.  First, no one wins the “Oppression Olympics.”  Taking the time to decide whether people of color have it “worse” than LGBT people is futile.  With both groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and violence throughout history and today, what difference does it make whether one group faces “more,” or faced it for a longer period of time?  It would be impossible to measure oppression in the first place.

Second, participating in the “black vs. gay” and similar debates gives more weight to the efforts of groups that are both racist and homophobic (and sexist, and classist, and transphobic, etc.) who intentionally attempt to “divide and conquer” various marginalized groups.  The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization at the forefront of efforts to prevent marriage equality, has actively fanned the flames of resentment within Black and Latina/o communities toward LGBT people.  Then, a double standard for homophobia, such that “black homophobia” is used as evidence that Black people are behind-the-times or even un-evolved, while persistent homophobia in white communities goes unnoticed.  In fact, conservatives have been (successfully) pitting minority communities against one another for decades.

Third, “black vs. gay” continues to mask that there are a significant number of people who are Black and gay, Latina and lesbian, Asian American and bisexual, and American Indiana and two-spirit.  Whereas some members of communities of color are LGBT, efforts to secure the civil rights of Blacks, Latina/os, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians necessarily implicate LGBT rights.  All people of color are not treated equally if our LGBT relatives and friends are prevented from marrying their same-gender partner, are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace and housing, and so on.  Similarly, the efforts of LGBT activists cannot stop at legalizing same-gender marriage, for too many LGBT people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, ongoing racial discrimination, and the resultant mental health problems.

And, a quick history lesson: the earliest efforts for LGBT rights in the US date back to the 1950s.  While Civil Rights activists were beginning their efforts that evolved into a national movement, so too were Homophile activists.  When the more radical efforts of the Black Panthers emerged in the late 1960s, so too did those of gay liberation activists leading up to and then taking off with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (which were led by Black and Latina/o transpeople and drag queens).  Gay cannot be the “new Black” because LGBT activism is far from new; and, neither being Black nor the racist oppression that Black people still face has become old or a thing of the past.

But, the supposed black-versus-gay divide is old, and frankly a little tired.

Is There A Double Standard For Homophobia?

Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people exist.  Black same-gender couples exist.  Black heterosexual and cisgender allies to the LGBT community exist.  However, the way that race and sexual orientation, race and gender identity, race and bi/homophobia, and race and transphobia are talked about, it almost seems as if LGBT and Black are mutually exclusive.  And, to be more specific, they are at odds with one another.

Black people who are homo/bi/transphobic exist, too.  But, somehow, the US seems fixated on the anti-LGBT prejudice harbored by Black communities as if such sentiments exist in a vacuum.  That is, we discuss “black homophobia” as a social problem, while, of course, acknowledging “homophobia” as a social problem.  Notice here that we do not hear of explicit concern about “white homophobia.”  Why?

An Example: Prop 8 In California, 2008

Let’s take an example.  Prop 8.  In 2008, the state of California successfully passed an amendment to ban the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.  While the entire nation witnessed history with the election of the first (half-)Black president, the US also took one step back by stripping one of the few states with marriage equality of legal same-sex marriage.  Now, over three years later, legal challenges to Prop 8 are working their way up the judicial branch.

Immediately following the passage of Prop 8, many in LGBT communities, the media, politicians, and others engaged in a blame-game, pointing a finger squarely at Black Californians for the amendment’s success.  Initially, results from the California exist polls suggested that a larger proportion of Black voters voted in favor of banning same-sex marriage relative to voters of other races.  Corrected analyses were released later, indicating that Black voters were no more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to vote in favor of Prop 8.  More importantly, Blacks only represented 6 percent of all voters in California in 2008; even if every Black voter voted in favor of the ban, that 6 percent cannot be fairly held accountable for the entire 51 percent that voted in favor of Prop 8.  But, despite what the numbers say, some were quite hostile toward Blacks in the US, even resorting to racist assaults.

A Double Standard For Prejudice?

Why was it so easy to blame a fraction of the population for the majority’s decision to deny marriage equality in California?  Why did our attention focus on homophobia in Black communities, while failing to ask about homophobia in the US and, more specifically, homophobia in white communities?  And, why were we so angry with Black homophobes (and, at times, all Black people), but not so much white homophobes?

I argue that the answer is a double standard for homophobia.  At the root of the angry reaction toward Black voters who favored the passage of Prop 8 is confusion.  We are confused by what seems to be an oxymoron: a prejudiced minority, the oppressive oppressed, and so on.  We cannot seem to understand how one group, still facing the contemporary remnants of a history of enslavement, exclusion, discrimination, and violence, can harbor prejudice and discrimination against another, marginalized group.  The logic would seem that, given Blacks’ own experiences with prejudice, discrimination, and violence, they should be empathetic toward the plight of LGBT communities due to their exposure with prejudice, discrimination, and violence.

While the logic of empathy makes sense on the surface, it creates five problems (of likely a few others):

  1. It makes invisible the anti-LGBT prejudice, discrimination, and violence of whites.  Though we single-out Blacks when we express our concern about homophobia in Black communities, whites are invisible as a specific racial group in larger discussions of homophobia.  And, it begs the question, should we expect whites to be homo/bi/transphobic?
  2. It holds Blacks to a different standard than whites.  Thus, LGBT- and non-LGBT people alike scrutinize the positions and actions of Black communities and organizations regarding gender and sexuality.  In the aftermath of Prop 8, LGBT and cisgender heterosexuals criticized Blacks in California for their contribution to the passage of Prop 8.
  3. It leads us to overlook the alliances between Black and LGBT communities and organizations, and the positive steps that Black people have taken to fight for the equal rights of LGBT people.
  4. It keeps invisible Black LGBT people.  In discussing whether Blacks are homophobic, we fail to acknowledge that some Black people are LGBT, have friends who are LGBT, and who have relatives who are LGBT.  Unfortunately, predominantly-heterosexual Black communities, predominantly-white LGBT communities, and society in general are responsible for maintaining an image of Black as straight and gay as white.
  5. It fails to ask about racism in LGBT communities.  Even with some obviously racially motivated anger directed at Black communities by LGBT people following Prop 8, there was little explicit discussion about the racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence perpetrated by LGBT people.

Let’s Look More Broadly

Frankly, the social science research on racial and ethnic differences in attitudes toward LGBT people, same-gender relationships, and homo/bisexuality is mixed; but, the tendency seems to be, once you have accounted for racial differences in religiosity and education, you see little racial difference in these attitudes and, for some matters (e.g., LGBT rights), you actually see more favorable attitudes among Blacks compared to whites.  But, that is missed in a narrow focus on homophobia among Blacks.  The larger point that is missed is that Blacks, like whites, are socialized in a society that stigmatizes LGBT people.  Period.  Thus, all people, regardless of race and ethnicity, are implicated in the maintenance or elimination of homo/bi/transphobia.  Though one might be sympathetic, or even empathetic, to the plight of other marginalized groups, one’s own marginalized status does not make one automatically an ally.

Another point that is often overlooked is the sneaky (and not-so-sneaky) efforts of white, cisgender, heterosexual men to pit Black and LGBT communities against one another.  A recent example of such “divide and conquer” strategizing is not as subtle as other conservative politicians and religious leaders’ efforts:

Edwin O’Brien, Baltimore’s soon-to-be Cardinal, used a speech this week to denounce marriage rights for Maryland’s gay and lesbian couples. He angrily attacked the pending passage of marriage bills in the House and Senate. Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, is a strong supporter of marriage equality and he helped to introduce the bills this past Tuesday.  On Wednesday, O’Brien put his own spin on one of the most heinous arguments put forth by social and religious conservatives — that gay people’s civil rights are an affront to black people and the rights of black people.

For all of these reasons, it is important that we regularly acknowledge the intersections among race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.  What are the unique experiences of individuals who are marginalized on more than one of these axes?  Where are opportunities for coalition-building across marginalized and privileged communities?  And, as my last point suggested, how the intersections of these systems manipulated for gain?  Obviously, these are difficult questions, but important nonetheless.