Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Pink Elephant in the Room..."

...is white privilege in the queer community, according to Creating Change conference* presenters Sheltreese McCoy and Breianna Hasenzahl-Reeder who led an amazing workshop on the topic.
 
White privilege is defined by Racial Equity Tools as:
"[T]he concrete benefits of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society that whites receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color in a racist society."
The site goes on to explain that examples of white privilege range from very explicit laws (like post-WWII when white families were provided subsidies by the federal government to buy houses, and people of color were not included in the program) to more subtle examples (to quote RET again) such as "which groups are considered dangerous and how that affects emergency response in various communities. It even shows up in decisions about whose art and literature is considered 'classic' and whose is 'outsider' or 'primitive' and the educational and economic consequences of those decisions for artists, students and museum goers."

In the "Pink Elephant" session, Sheltreese and Breianna did an excellent job of showing that anti-racism work must be a core part of LGBTQ advocacy work. Just in the way that LGBTQ people ask non-LGBTQ people to be allies in standing up against homophobia, white LGBTQ people must be allies to LGBTQ people of color, doing anti-racism work both within the queer community and outside of it. And as the facilitators pointed out, there is no such thing as a passive ally. It is a contradiction in terms. Many white people (including myself, until this session...) comfort themselves and maybe even give themselves a pat on the back for knowing that institutional racism exists and for believing that it is wrong. But awareness without action means that white people actually perpetuate racism and white privilege--to be silent is to condone.
Being an ally means actively interrupting acts of racism, no matter how small, and especially in all-white groups. All too often we let a racist joke slide because it's our boss who said it, or a family member, or a stranger, and it would be awkward or uncomfortable to call them on it. This session for me was a call to arms--that it's time for me to step up and interrupt racism, to not be cowed by all the excuses for inaction running through my head. It was also a good reminder that while abhorrent acts of explicit racism are still extremely common (many workshop participants shared stories of being targets of race-based hate), implicit and covert racism are also very damaging and many times not contested. Some examples of implicit/covert racism that the facilitators shared (and I added the last one):
  • "The black community is responsible for Prop. 8"
  • "Gay is the new black"
  • "We couldn't find any qualified candidates who are people of color"
  • "We [LGBTQ activists] are doing outreach to people of color"
  • "Students of color don't come to our events"
Some of them might have white readers saying "that's not offensive, is it?" but when you dig a little deeper, you can see how each of these are othering and/or diminish the value of people of color. To break down a couple of them: "We [LGBTQ activists] are doing outreach to people of color" takes people of color out of the queer community, giving white LGBTQ activists ownership of LGBTQ activism. It implies that queer people of color don't or don't care to work in the LGBTQ community, that they need white LGBTQ people to invite them in.

"Students of color don't come to our events" places blame on students of color--they are the ones not attending, rather than flipping the framing to "our events are not welcoming to students of color." When you change the framing, the onus of responsibility also flips and it becomes more clear that the sentiment behind the original statement no doubt perpetuates the alienation students of color feel around these events.

Thank you so much to Sheltreese and Breianna for making structural racism and white privilege less abstract and for showing me that anti-racism work needs to always be embedded in both my LGBTQ activism and my personal life.

--
*Creating Change is an annual conference run by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and IT IS AMAZING. Over 2,000 LGBTQ and ally activists from around the country come together to talk about all kinds of LGBTQ issues and forms of advocacy--from grassroots organizing to campus advocacy to raising an alternative family to kink. If you do any kind of LGBTQ work in your personal or professional life, I highly recommend you consider attending next year's conference in Atlanta. I will be there!

**Pink elephant image from http://www.etsy.com/listing/41741058/japanese-cotton-elephant-fabric-pink

2 comments:

  1. thank you Judy for speaking of your experience in the workshop and starting to do the work.

    Sheltreese M

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  2. Thank you for this post Judy. Since reading an article about 10 years ago on white privilege, I often feel that I have hard time articulating it to others, and your post has given me more language. I know that I've probably said something to the extent of the 3rd bullet, and placing the onus on us/me really resonates with me. Thank you for putting a spotlight on our blinders! -Eiko

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