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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.

A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism

In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible.  In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism.  In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.

Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism

In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly.  That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements.  But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color.  As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.

But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression.  Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today.  Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.

As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are.  While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2).  (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)

A Personal Anecdote

Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence.  So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future.  One such event stands out in my own life.

At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer.  In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as  interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews.  It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it.  I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”

This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week.  That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this.  Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.

Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence.  As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.

The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself).  Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.

With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before.  The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.

To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet.  Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division.  I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events.  But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.

A Call For Bystander Intervention

I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism.  Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help.  As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.”  Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.

However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations.  Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.

Ways To Intervene

A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:

  1. One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment.  Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done.  And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt.  If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police.  If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
  2. Challenge racist prejudice.  This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes.  It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
  3. Challenge yourself.  No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism.  It is important to also check your own biases and actions.  Do you seek out friends of the same race?  Do you avoid “that part of town”?  Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
  4. Educate yourself.  Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month.  To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January).  Read books about and by people of color.  Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity.  Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
  5. Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions.  But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions.  Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker.  See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint.  Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
  6. Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions.  Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color.  It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level.  Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities.  Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality.  Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers.  Most of us are not lifelong activists.

But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small.  For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality.  Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society.  As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475).  So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination).  Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:

  1. Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
  2. Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
  3. Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).

When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play.  Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life.  We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play.  This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society.  And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.

Everyday Racism

Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism.  By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism.  Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.

In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job.  This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination?  was that because I’m Latina?”  Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play.  That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).

Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions.  Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed.  This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment.  It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic.  I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur.  And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace.  So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.

My optimism is a gift.  And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment.  An example:

I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago.  Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other.  I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse.  (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.)  I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days).  I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me.  With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out.  Two people were ahead of me in line.  I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later?  Oh, you can pay for this then.”  Such trust.  And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.”  It is what it is in this racist country.

Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line.  I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer.  Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior.  The other customer began checking out.  The person who cut in line did not check out with her.  She did not move behind me upon seeing me.  I became angry.  “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?”  I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully.  My anger started to beat out my logic.  I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention.  Nothing.  With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable.  Nothing.  She checked out.  I checked out.

Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction.  I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on.  I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van.  An opportunity for revenge!  I stood in the way of their exit.  I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times.  When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line.  Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.

The entire event disappointed me.  Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism?  And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me.  Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation?  But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction).  We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?”  And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.

The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.”  Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive.  Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.

I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people.  But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person.  I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.

“Stop-And-Frisk”: Legalized Racist, Homophobic, And Transphobic Discrimination

New York City’s unpopular, but supposedly “effective” crime-reducing program, “Stop, Question, and Frisk” or (“Stop-and-Frisk” for short), was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday.  The program entails the following: “a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”

The judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that NYC police officers were systematically stopping people with little cause for suspicion.  (In this particular case, police officers were stopping individuals thought to be trespassing on a Bronx apartment complex property.)  In reviewing police training, she further noted that this evidence “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”

“Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote.

In a way, this is exactly what NYC major Michael Bloomberg and other advocates of the “stop-and-frisk” program call for.  In exchange for the universal possibility of being stopped by a police officer, residents of NYC see a significant reduction in crime and gun possession.  While there have been notable declines in the crime rate (but few seizures of guns), many have argued that this purported exchange is not enjoyed universally.  Rather, an overwhelming majority of those stopped by police over the past two years were Black and Latino men.  Judge Scheindlin took note of one role of race (and racism) in her decision:

As a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.”

The decision continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”

Legalized Racism

Many civil rights and anti-racist activists have criticized the “stop-and-frisk” program due to the overrepresentation of men of color in police stops.  Indeed, in practice, the program is a form of institutional discrimination — in this case, as disparate impact discrimination.  That is, while the program does not target a particular disadvantaged group — men of color — by design, it does, in practice, disproportionately burden them.

Typically, disparate impact discrimination is deemed otherwise innocent in terms of intention or bias; these are merely programs or policies that have been unfair in practice.  Yet “stop-and-frisk” actually operates as a legal door for racial profiling by both those unintentionally and those intentionally targeting Black and Latino men.  Some say the racial and ethnic imbalance is merely a product of geography: greater surveillance of predominantly black and brown areas of the city (this, of course, is problematic, too!).  In light of stories of being stopped many times in one’s life, others suggest the “stop-and-frisk” program legally allows police to use one’s blackness/brownness as suspect.  “You’re Black/Latino, so you must be up to no good!”

Even if police stops were equally burdensome for every racial group (and police were evenly hostile to “suspicious” people), the experience of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police is fundamentally racialized.  Given the history of racism, including racist violence and harassment by police or by others yet ignored by police, no white person can ever fully experience the feelings of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness that follow being targeted by police as a person of color.

Further, programs like this one, Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law that unfairly targets Latina/o people, among others are just the tip of the racist iceberg of the US criminal justice system.  From interaction with the police, to arrest, to court, to prison, racial inequality exists at every step and every facet of law enforcement and criminal justice.  Unfortunately, the narrow view of the law cannot handle the reality that racism shapes the core and operation of every social system and institution, including law enforcement.

Legalized Homophobia And Transphobia

It may have come as a surprise to some that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups joined the chorus of anti-racist and civil rights organizations that rallied against the “stop-and-frisk” program.  Beyond advocating for racial equality, these groups took issue with the disproportionate number of LGBT people of color who have been stopped by police.  Often, young Black and Latino LGBT people are stopped as suspects for sexual crimes (e.g., public sex, sex work).  In these stops, many are sexually harassed or assaulted by police.

Parallel to blackness and brownness as suspect, LGBT people are legally targeted through the “stop-and-frisk” program often because of their gender expression.  LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, are deemed suspicious because their “appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society.”  It turns out that stops based on suspicion of sexual crimes has already been deemed illegal, again by the same judge:

In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.

“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”

Missing The Complex Reality Of Discrimination Today

The above discussion points to the inability for the law, in its present state, to fully appreciate the complex reality of discrimination today.  One challenge is to prove that a law or program — instances of institutional discrimination — disproportionately affect a particular group (without just cause).  This sidesteps the matter of proving biased or prejudiced intentions, a matter central to cases of unfair treatment; however, the narrow view of the law fails to account for the systemic, wide-reaching influence of systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia.  Indeed, it can be argued that discrimination within one institution (e.g., criminal justice) mutually reinforces discrimination in other systems (e.g., education).  The true challenge, then, is proving when discrimination is not at play, at least indirectly.

The other important matter that is systematically overlooked is the simultaneous, interconnected operation of multiple systems of oppression.  “Stop-and-frisk” reflects the practice of both racism and homophobia/transphobia by police and the criminal justice system.  What, on the surface, appears to be a matter of racial inequality has turned out to disproportionately affect Black and Latina/o queer people.  Another instance of legalized discrimination, the US military’s “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, had its greatest effect on Black women.  And, given the greater number of Black same-gender couples who have children, Black LGBT people hold a greater share of the burden created by laws that prohibit or hinder same-gender marriage and adoption.

Of course, greater attention should be paid to the reality that some people are victimized by multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racist and sexist discrimination).  Yet, discrimination cases that pursue such claims are ultimately less successful in court, probably because the court is unable to apprehend this level of complexity.

The days of explicit, unapologetic racist discrimination are (mostly) gone, and great progress has been made toward equality for LGBT people.  Yet, the task remains to better understand prejudice and discrimination in the new millennium.  There is a great deal of complexity to discrimination that we consistently miss when attending to the discriminatory actions of a few bigoted apples.  We will never achieve full equality, whether in opportunities or outcomes, without an appropriately comprehensive understanding of what discrimination is, how it operates, and how to prevent it.

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.”