Bruce Parker

Erasing Race: The Persistent Denial of Whiteness in LGBT Organizing

Filed By Bruce Parker | April 26, 2006 7:06 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement

More than a few times a month I sit around the table with leaders from the LGBT community of Indiana (of course most specifically Indianapolis). No one is surprised that the majority of people I sit with are, like me, white folks. I can honestly say that a majority of the people in these groups are seriously invested in bringing more racial diversity to the table, if possible. Calls for increased participation by Black lgbt individuals are not uncommon and are never met with outright disagreement by anyone. I am found wondering after a year of sitting at the table for discussions on this issue and being involved in email communications around this topic - why are we still talking about inclusion, equality and social justice in rooms full of white folks?

This very forum, where I am a happy contributor and have engaged in many good and powerful conversations with our very inspiring host (Bil Browning) about the inclusion of diverse racial voices remains to my knowledge an all white ensemble. I do not believe this is from a lack of Bil and other contributors attempting outreach to people of color to encourage their involvement. So if we are putting forth good-faith efforts at being racially inclusive where is the missing outcome?

In order to think about race and racism in the United States in potentially transformative ways, I believe we have to start by looking at ourselves. Being white does not mean being without a race. Whiteness exists as a category of identity that separates individuals and mediates worldviews and social interactions. Everyone gets a little uncomfortable when their identity is spoken about in absolute terms. If I say all white people see race, whether they admit it or not. I probably lose my audience just a little because no one likes to be told that some part of who they are directly means something else entirely. However, if I say all gay men and lesbians have formed identities at least partially by navigating a world that is largely homophobic. This statement is in itself an agreed upon assumption by the majority of the lgbt community. When I say lgbt community, I suppose I should be more specific and say the white lgbt community. Many people of color who are also lgbt often list race as more fundamental to their identity than sexuality. Well, what if I say white people have an inherent serious distance from statements about them that include some notion of whiteness as a unifying social trait.

Whiteness studies have started to finally take hold in academic settings, but my fear is that much like a lot of queer theory it will stay in academic settings never reaching activist frameworks. Stating clearly that as a white person, I am a racist makes people very uncomfortable. Now I spend a large portion of my week thinking about how to teach future teachers anti-racist ideologies as a teacher educator at Purdue University and my job prior to being a teacher and a graduate student was as an anti-racist educator/administrator at a small liberal arts college. I feel like it would be very easy for me to claim that I am not racist. However, the temptation to consider myself separate from the problem doesn't result in productive or meaningful conversation. The United States of America has a history of racial discrimination and violence that existed long before I was born and will continue to be a problem long after I die.

Our media still serves to largely reinforce the social and ideological domination of whiteness. Children of color still do worse on standardized tests than white students. College admissions still result in white students dominating university settings. How many black men and women are in leadership positions in our government? Race still exists as a problem.

Recently, I was called out for supporting a suggestion that a local organizations board (of which I am member) should engage in anti-racism training. We were told that, "anti-racism implies that we are racist and can we not call it diversity training?" Mind you, we can call it whatever you like however claims that you are not racist and vehemently turning the conversation away from serious consideration of race issues to instead focus on how innocent the white folks in the room are in this persistent problem of race leads us back to sitting very comfortably in our white skins.

Perhaps, reframing the conversation from racial difference being the problem to whiteness serving as a primary force and ideological dominating construct in all relations within the united states would serve to move us further toward fixing the problems of racial violence. Following years of serious social science and education research, I do not focus on teaching my white students how to teach black students. Instead I try to teach white straight students how white privilege and male privilege and heterosexual privilege and middle class privilege all impact their lives and access to opportunities. This conversation tends to make people very uncomfortable, but we need to have it anyway.

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I know I've reached out to several individuals of color to see if they'd be interested in blogging here on bilerico - and the answer has been a resounding "no." Not that they had something against what we were doing - several are readers - just that they didn't feel like putting in the work to blog on a regular basis. They're already over-committed.

Which seems to me to be a lot of the problem in local LGBT organizing. There aren't a lot of non-white leaders in the LGBT community - and the few that there are usually tend to be so busy and so involved that they can't take anything else on.

As I sit in on meetings and talk to people around the state about LGBT issues, I often wonder where the black folk are. They don't come to community meetings in the same number as the white people. They're not represented in leadership equally. And there doesn't seem to be a lot of younger black men and women who are picking up the mantle of leadership. What gives?

Jeffrey Roth | April 26, 2006 8:03 PM

What Bruce has to say is something that a lot of people think to themselves, but never actually voice - I think at least. While I was reading his entry, I was hit with the realization that just earlier this week, I was at the Spotlight 2006 event at Clowes Hall. I served on the steering committee - a group of about 25 people who organized and promoted the event for the past 6 months or so. But, what was interesting was the committee was mainly white, straight females. Okay fine. We've filled our quote of Carmel volunteer wives, but even after that, there was only one other black woman, and an Asian man. I just found it interesting because statistically, HIV/AIDS is most prevelant in women, the poor, and black men (and not necessarily those who associate themselves as GLBT). So, a room full of white, straight, women, and a random sprinkling of gays and minorities planned an event mainly attended by, surprise, straight white (rich) people. As a fundraiser, I don't care who comes, as long as they donate and come back the next year. But, we had a focused marketing plan on younger adults (18-30) and minorities (mainly blacks). Maybe its just the way we've all been raised, as Bruce said, to be the way we are. Silently segregated.

I'm rambling. To get to the point (if there ever was one), I think as a white person, I just don't see what the average black person sees. What I notice isn't what someone of a different race, or label, might notice. Maybe we're thinking about things the wrong way and although we tell ourselves we're really out there fighting for social equality, we're just doing what we know, and not what we ought to be doing.

Ben Strole | April 26, 2006 8:17 PM

Why would someone of color join a group of people who, for the most part, are exclusively white? Given a turn of the tables....honestly, would you, (speaking specifically to white readers) want to (voluntarily mind you) go to a meeting of a group of people of color? For me (before I took Bruce's class just one semester ago) I would have honestly said no. Because of the structure of our society, we do tend to feel leery and uncomfortable around people of other races.

Focusing on white privilege is a very effective method for teaching anti-racism. After all, how can you expect people (white people specifically) to tackle the issue of racism, with out understanding what their race means not only to them, but its impact on the rest of society?

What Bruce wrote makes a lot of sense. I've known Bruce since he was teaching multi-cultural workshops at 15 to grade school students. Hearing him refer to himself as a racist takes me by surprise and yet it is this line of thinking that more people need to adopt. The part of his post that impacted me was his reminder of the United States long history with racism that will persist long after our lifetimes. This is easy to forget when you are white, heterosexual and come from a middle class background. I am hopeful that we can as a society begin a long conversation about race/diversity that will have the power to change people and communities. This is a conversation that academics, activists, artists, educators, and other progressives are having. I am interested in how this transfer of knowledge from theory to practice might occur.

:::laughs::: I love the denial that everyone has about being inherintly racist; how uncomfortable that makes people feel in their own skin. Why do we have to cover that with "diversity" terminology instead of simply owning up to the fact that we a) are all racist and thusly, b) live in a very racist society? Hiding behind more comfortable terms seems to be defeating the very purpose of the training itself. It we make it comfortable for everyone, where's the growth in that?

This post got me thinking about this issue. Seems to me that people usually feel the need to identify with a group that most meets their needs and goals. Sometimes you have to pick and choose. For instance, I am white, Jewish, and involved in the GLBT community because I have a gay son. Where does my alliance lay the most? To be honest, since I'm Jewish I don't often think of myself as typically "white" since I am not a member of the WASP community. I have been very involved in the Jewish community for many years. Now I am working for GLBT rights and that's where most of my time and effort go now.

So where do many black GLBT people feel most comfortable and where do they want to get most involved in? Because of the busy world most of us live in, they too must pick and choose. This is pretty universal - I see it in all groups I've been involved in. Would it be helpful to have a dialogue and ask them what their needs are and what they want to accomplish? Perhaps, on the other hand, the black GLBT community wants to do things their own way. I don't know. Just my two cents.

Excuse me I just stumbled upon your blog and I thought I might throw in my 2 cents.

As a black women I find it interesting when predominately white organizations ask themselves the vary same questions that are being asked on this blog. My 2 cents, is look at your own personal lives. If your personal lives are diverse then your organizations will be as well.

BTW organizations have benefited greatly from anti-racism training or anti-opression training.

Check out these people if your willing to do some hard coalition building

Thanks so much to TBLF for the referral. I work with Bruce on the aforementioned board and I think not only us but other organizations we are a part of could start our own journey of self-education by participating in such workshops. I am sorry that I learned too late about the White Privilege Conference that is taking place this week (as we speak!) in St. Louis. This is something we should commit to sending several people to next year. Who's with me?!

Also, check out "An Open Letter to My White Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender
Sisters and Brothers"
for more ideas on what we can do to build an anti-racist social justice movement.

I understand where Ben is coming from to a certain extent regarding minorities entering an all-white setting. However, what he seems to be asserting is that racial differences would be more important to a lgbt minority, than the fact that everyone in that meeting is lgbt as well. I wonder if their focus would be on the fact that everyone is white, except for them, or rather, if they would feel a unity with everyone in the group on a different level.

I strongly agree that things need to move forward within the issue of African Americans doing better in education. Going through a multiculturalism class, and finally realizing what a problem it is, I wish that more could be done. I feel that part of it results in the lack of good, solid teachers to treat the students all that they can. The lack of these teachers puts students, mostly in the inner schools, greatly behind others, usually whites, that are in the suburban schools. This is clearly coming from and educational standpoint, but there needs to be a lot done.

Bruce Parker | April 27, 2006 11:58 PM

Dave and everyone,

Clearly we have no way to really understand the situation and the answer would probably vary from person to person however, I would assume that race would serve as a dominant identity in this context. Sexual identity is mutable and disguiseable. While in most cases race is undeniable and visually present. Alot of research I read as an undergrad suggests that alot of the ways we commonly understand same sex identities are build in white middle class ideologies. Leaving little for frameworks that do not fit neatly into that little package.

Bayard Rustin who helped organize the march on washington for MLK often felt conflicted about this conflicting allegiances but continued to focus a majority of his energy on race and labor efforts.

Bruce, Bil suggested I post a link to a report I recently published on the shift of prejudice's focus from race to class (and am now realizing the implications it means for the gay community).

And yes, I'm only an undergraduate college student, but please consider the entire report seriously.