A few explanatory notes:
Peter is my boyfriend/domestic partner.
DePaul University is my academic institution.
"Spectrum" is our group for GLBT, Queer and allied students.
I included some source theorists because I wanted to properly credit my ideas. I did not include citations of specific texts, because this is not an academic paper.
Earlier this week, Peter (my "clipping service, as he is fond of calling himself) forwarded me an article from the New York Times about an internet "flame war" involving White gay pop/rock musician Stephen Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields) and music critic Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker. Although the situation itself is complicated, involving multiple events occurring over a two-year period, the argument revolves around Frere-Jones's contention that Merritt's musical tastes, published both in the "New York Times" and in "Time Out New York" when Merritt served as a critic for that publication, are a reflection of his White supremacist racial bias. Although Frere-Jones is not himself a Black male, the article emphasizes Merritt's distaste for hip hop, whose prototypical performer (as constructed in the dominant culture's consciousness) is a hyper-heterosexualized Black male. In so doing, the article perpetuates one of U.S. dominant culture's most insidious and damaging oppositions: the effete White gay man (Merritt is described as "diminutive, gay and painfully intellectual") vs. the Black heterosexual misogynist. Rather than being attributed to a dominant cultural system that prizes the White middle-class heterosexual union and its "nuclear family" above all other relational models, homophobia is located in the bodies of Black men, who are understood to be inherently violent. In an era of increased consciousness of "gay rights," this lets White heterosexual liberals off the hook for counteracting homophobia, as their homophobia is projected onto a racially "othered" body. Additionally, it provides more fodder for the "cultural deficiency" arguments that justify modern-day American racism. These arguments -- which have their roots in earlier "sociological" studies like the Moynihan report -- attribute racialized inequalities such as poor healthcare, education and housing; joblessness; incarceration and HIV/AIDS to the cultural "insufficiencies" of people of color. In the case of poor African Americans, these "insufficiencies" are almost invariably sexualized, as African Americans' inability to successfully emulate the ideal White middle-class heterosexual nuclear family (an ideal that they can never fully achieve, as it is always already White) is identified as the source of inequalities (this perspective is presented in detail by Patricia Hill Collins in "Black Sexual Politics. The histories of the Moynihan report and other sexualized constructions of African Americans can also be found in the work of Angela Davis, Barbara Omolade and many, many others).
The article incites rather than clarifies, failing to critically explore whether interrogating White individuals' musical tastes is an appropriate or useful site for exposing these individuals' White privilege. The one perspective the article does offer on this question is limited -- Slate Magazine's John Cook decries "the dangerous and stupid notion that
one's taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent the same way a university's admissions process can: If the number of black artists in your iPod falls too far below 12.5 percent of the total, then you are violating someone's civil rights." Slate's perspective is based upon a conflation of anti-racism with civil rights. But in an era where racism is primarily cultural rather than legal (although there is clearly still legislation based upon fundamentally racist assumptions, such as TANF "welfare deform" and the criminalization of "crack mothers."), Slate sort of misses the point of Frere-Jones's critique. Insomuch as our likes and dislikes can be a reflection of acculturation, perhaps it is indeed valid, as Frere-Jones suggests, to "to look at [our] own preferences and find something that [our] consciousness was not letting [us] in on?"
Also this week, I received an email from an individual who has frequently challenged me on issues of race and privilege. In this letter, he suggested that my friendship choices reflect my White privilege. By maintaining a predominantly White Queer friend base, he maintains that I have tacitly contributed to racialized divisions within DePaul's Queer communities. My initial reaction was defensive: The persons who are now closest to me are the persons who have been the most consistently present when I most needed them, who have been the most loyal, who have called me most frequently to remind me that they miss me and wish they could see me more often. I have not chosen my friends on the basis of race. I have chosen them on the basis of merit. A typical White liberal reaction. Racially homogenous friend groups are common, was my next (also somewhat defensive) thought. Isn't it better to acknowledge my friend's White privilege than to self-righteously declare that "some of my best friends are Black"? But acknowledgment of privilege is only an introductory step -- antiracist actions must follow to render this acknowledgment meaningful. The individual who wrote this letter suggested that I had taken the "easy road" to "Queer social comfort and acceptance." In one sense, this criticism is valid. As a White-privileged person, if I only befriend those with whom I find it "easiest" to get along, I am unlikely to move outside my comfort zones. Experiencing discomfort is necessary for dismantling White supremacy.
At the same time, befriending people of color or adding racially diverse music to my collection should not be understood as antiracist activism. At home in our apartment, when I jam to Jill Scott or loudly echo Meshell Ndegeocello's invitation to "step into the projects where I found love," Peter will accuse me of appropriating Black music and culture. Because I do not believe in such a concept as "pure" culture (that is, I believe all cultures interact and feed off of one another), I am sometimes reluctant to give too much credence to critiques of cultural appropriation. However, cultural exchange is also shaped by relationships of domination and imperialism, and it is indeed violent when dominant cultures "lift" from marginalized cultures elements that they find useful while continuing to subordinate these populations. Shortly after I became "Diversity Outreach Coordinator" for Spectrum DePaul, a White Queer female friend approached me with a workshop request. Rather than discussing White privilege in traditional terms, she wanted us to discuss what she identified as the more complex "privileges" that various persons experience for various reasons. She used the example of her Black female co-workers, whose ideal body image she perceived to be less constrictive than the one promoted within White popular culture. These Black women, she asserted, valued natural curves over the rail-thin imagine of female beauty presented in mass culture. Viewing them within the context of their Black female friend community, she understood them to experience a "privilege" she did not experience within communities of White women. Although these women were able to assert alternative beauty standards within their own community, Black women's bodies remain "deformed" within dominant culture. What my friend called "privileges" were in actuality developed strategies for survival and resistance.
As White-privileged persons, to simply assimilate people of color into our pre-existing lives proves problematic. We are like the 1st world gay male traveler who visits the "third world" to experience its "natives," enjoying a sexual freedom unavailable within his own nation. The problem isn't sexual freedom, but the unequal distributions of power reinforced by exoticism. True to colonial form, the relationship is non-reciprocal. The gay traveler usurps the "native's" sexuality while doing nothing to assist him in securing similar freedom and mobility (this analysis is taken from/influenced by the work of Jacqui Alexander). Having multiracial friends and listening to multiracial music means nothing if it is not accompanied by antiracist activism.
Which brings me to our contemporary situation. By pitting White gay men against heterosexual Black men, the New York Times creates and fuels antagonisms that are damaging to both antiracist and anti-homophobic "causes." When I highlight the limitations of "identity politics" or challenge the notion that race, sexuality or gender are fundamental components of our "identities," people sometimes think I am being a pretentious elitist, or worse, invalidating individuals' connections to their gay or lesbian identities or racial/ethnic heritage. I certainly do not mean to discredit the resistant power that comes from celebrating marginalized cultures. Rather, I believe that understanding race and sexuality as processes in which we participate rather than "parts of who we are" is often politically necessary. It allows us to understand White supremacy and heteronormativity as inextricably linked rather than separate and unrelated oppressions that are happening simultaneously. When I (and generations of feminists and Queers of color who have influenced my thinking --my statements on "identity politics" are especially influenced by Cathy Cohen.) say that race and sexuality "intersect," I do not mean that racism and homophobia are "similar," or that there are people of color who also happen to be gay. I mean that they are fundamentally constitutive of one another: White supremacy cannot exist without heteronormativity, and vice versa. Predominantly White Queer organizations shouldn't undertake antiracism because it will make us appear inclusive. We should undertake antiracism because it is absolutely necessary for Queer liberation. We cannot simply fold people of color into our preexisting "gay rights" agendas as though they are new CDs that demonstrate out diverse tastes, banners advertising our progressivism. We must dismantle White supremacy by shifting the definition of what we understand to be Queer activism to include antiracist causes -- Black women's disproportionate HIV infection rates or welfare rights, to provide two examples. Incidentally, both of these examples demonstrate the heteronormative values that structure American racism.
At the end of his email, my acquaintance hoped that I'll "continue to be challenged, learn, and grow every day," because "it's never too late for anyone to change." For my sake and ours, I pray that he's correct.