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White people embarrass me

whiteTwo recent GLBSGDQ events in London (including one at 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British Prime Minister) highlighted the queer community’s ‘colour blindness’ – and not in a good way, writes Del LaGrace Volcano.

 White people embarrass me. Probably not quite as much as I embarrass myself but then again, I’m white people too. 

White people embarrass me because so many of us think that to be ‘colour blind’ is a good thing. I understand the dynamics at work in this logic but I want to suggest another way of looking at this concept.  

To be ‘colour blind’ doesn’t mean you don’t discriminate on the basis of colour or don’t enjoy the privileges that being white affords you. It simply means you don’t notice how whiteness operates in our culture. 

It’s a way of ignoring the structural racism that permeates every aspect of our white lives but that we mostly ignore because we don’t think it affects us

White people in my family embarrass me. Like my favourite aunt, who I had never heard utter a racist word until her bi-racial grandson was born and she described his beauty to me in terms of the lightness of his skin and lack of African features.  I was horrified and my relationship with her hasn’t been the same since. 

My mother taught me about civil rights and that people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Angela Davis really mattered and why. But in the last years of her life, as she lay dying of lung disease she would make ‘off-colour’ racist jokes about being the head “N” in her house; maybe to provoke me, maybe to get back some of the power she was losing, day by day. 

I couldn’t – I wouldn’t – let her get away with it. I was more than embarrassed, I was disappointed and angry with her for causing me to doubt my entire cultural legacy; what I had always thought of as an inherited commitment to social and racial justice. 

I find it embarrasing that the vast majority of my white friends don't have any friends of colour.  I’m not talking point and click friendships like on Facebook or people you know to say hello to in the street.  

To me friends are people you invite into your home, who you eat with and call up just because. 

I remember a few years ago inviting my friend and collaborator Mojisola Adebayo to go out with me to Club Wotever in North London. From my perspective Wotever was much a club with a lot of racial and gender diversity and I thought she would enjoy it. 

She did and she also commented on how ‘white’ the space was, compared with other venues in South London, where she lived at the time. 

The ways in which space is racialised was something I hadn’t thought enough about before. This was one of many ‘teachable moments’ I’ve been blessed to experience because of my friendships with people of colour. 

I sometimes refer to myself as ‘off-white’ in order to give ‘whiteness’ a hue and place it on the colour wheel of fortune.  

I come from a long line of waitresses, a side-step away from what is called ‘poor white trash’. Some whites are seen as ‘whiter than white’ and the lower down the economic scale you are the dirtier you literally become. 

Whiteness as a concept came into existence in the late 1600s, along with the racialisation of slavery. In the Deep South of the USA there was the ‘one drop rule’ a belief that any trace of African ancestory made a person black and therefore a slave. 

In apartheid South Africa there was the ‘pencil test’, which involved inserting a pencil in a person's hair to determine if the hair was kinky enough for the pencil to get stuck. If so, you were classified as black and could be legally discriminated against. 

My mother’s great grandmother was an Osage Indian and my father’s grandmother was bi-racial but passed as white. Growing up in California my mother was often mistaken for our Mexican maid. 

Thus it seems more accurate for reasons of both class and ancestory for me to call myself ‘off white’ as a means of challenging the erroneous nature of racial purity. 

For more than 25 years I’ve been producing images from the so called margins of society, which for simplicity’s sake I will call the ‘queer community’. 

Although I’ve always been demographically oriented and OCD about counting…how many women, how many people of colour, how many people with disabilities, etc, make up any given situation, it’s only in the past 10 years or so that I’ve come to take my responsibility as an artist who gets to be published seriously. 

When I was photographing lesbians for my first book, Lovebites, 1991, I believed it was tokenistic to go out looking for lesbians of colour, reasoning that since they were more than welcome in the spaces I inhabited it would be dishonest to put them in the picture if they weren’t there already. 

It’s embarrassing to admit but I expected them to come to me and pretty much that’s how the majority of white people still think. 

Two current events that took place in London in February this year got me running to my soapbox and serve as excellent examples of how whiteness performs the act called cultural dominance. 

February is LGBT History Month in the UK and number 10 Downing Street (the residence of Prime Minister Gordon Brown) held an exclusive event to demonstrate his commitment to diversity before the general election in May.

The first I knew about it was from some of my Facebook ‘friends’ as the newsfeed filled up with comments; of congratulation for being invited to such an exciting and prestigious event, questions about what to wear and more than a few disgruntled comments from some that weren’t chosen but felt they should have been. (All white.) 

I asked one of my oldest friends who was attending to report back about the racial and class demographics of the event. The next day I’m told that there was only one person of colour at the party, Lord Waheed Alli (the super rich media entrepreneur). 

Although this turned out to be factually inaccurate, the consensus from those who did attend was that queers of colour were definitely not represented as they should have been and that the event was primarily white and middle-class. 

With characteristic anger-fuelled impulsiveness, I posted on my Facebook page: 

“Did any of you white invited queers point out that queers of colour EXIST and contribute to our community? Or were you all too busy being impressed with yourselves for being invited?!” 

Although my provocative and admittedly aggressive posting stimulated well over 100 responses I know have a lot to learn in terms of how to challenge racism within the LGBT community. 

A professional gay male writer took issue with me for ‘naming and shaming’ him.  He wrote on his Facebook page and I quote, “I refuse to apologize for attending the event, for being white or for having a penis! (Not sure why he had to bring his penis into it? Must be a gay thing.) 

Others made excuses for the (no doubt white) civil servants who sent out the invites. Were they just following orders or didn’t it occur to them that diversity includes racial diversity? 

To her credit the editor of Europe’s largest lesbian lifestyle magazine took it upon herself to find out more about how the guest list was created. (Without referring to her clit once I might add.) 

On Penis Boy’s page I was told by his fans to shut up and get off my soapbox and then deleted as a friend but not before he pointed to “the irony of being lectured to by a white transman”.  Is it because I don’t identify as a man, trans or otherwise, that the irony escapes me? 

A few nights later in London The Red Room hosted Gay Africa “a powerful response to the human rights and sexuality crisis sweeping the continent.” 

“In Uganda they propose to execute gays, in Malawi they imprison gay men who marry, in Nigeria they ban all meeting and support for LGBT people. How far does the American Christian Right support homophobia in Africa? … Do activists and the media in the West help or hinder African lesbians and gays?” 

While this event was more admittedly more ‘mixed’ than the LGBT event at Downing Street it was also mostly black (and male), from what my friends who were there tell me. 

The gay/lesbian white media was notable only by its absence.  Was this due to lack of interest or simply because they felt they had done their ‘duty’ by listing it? 

Or could it be that most white people are simply unwilling to step outside their comfort zones and be in the minority for a change? 

At a time when many African and Arabic countries see homosexuality as a ‘white disease’ it is crucially important that the (white-dominated) media does not continue to collaborate with this racist notion by further erasing the contributions made by those of Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent.

I know that ‘head counting’ is considered ‘politically correct’ and out of fashion. I know that some people think we are living in a post-racial society after the election of Obama and I definitely know that if one tries to hold other white people accountable there is a price to pay. 

I wasn’t as skillful as I could have been, as I would like to be. I don’t want people to feel guilty, I want them to notice who is excluded and take action. 

But to quote my hero, James Baldwin, an out gay black man who was around in the 1960s who spoke and wrote eloquently on race and power:  

“What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” - James Baldwin, Saturday Review, December 21, 1963 

As I wrote the final draft of this essay I got an email from an Italian friend, informing me that the British conservative politician and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, (called ‘The Blonde Bombshell) has slashed the budget for Black History month from £132,000 to £10,000, axed the funding for Africa Day completely and halved the funding for all Jewish cultural events in the metropolis. 

But USA Day gets £100,000 and St. George’s Day saw its funding increased by 33%. Some notable academics and writers, from Stuart Hall to Sarah Waters have noted in a petition against this move that “it is particularly ironic that this occurs in the run-up to the Olympics, with the GLA busy marketing London as a great world city.”  

A blogger for The Telegraph, Ed West, writes: “Boris Johnson is right to cut funds for Black History Month, an event that provokes contempt and racism”. 

I would like to believe that most white people don’t want to be racist but what I actually believe is that what terrifies white people is being branded a racist, not racism itself. 

Most whites feel no need to question the ‘rightness of whiteness’ as the dominant discourse as long as we, ourselves, have access to the ‘good life’.

The fact that my LGBTQ culture mirrors the mainstream rather than resists it makes me and many others, feel alienated and powerless in the face of the overwhelming apathy and self interest that surrounds us. 

We are segregated by race, gender, sexuality, ability and yet each and every one of us are share this dying planet.  Resistance is NOT futile, but it IS hard work. 

One last quote:

“You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you are doing are right.”- Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a letter to Tim Wise. 

Top Tips for being an anti-racist ally

  • 1. Think about the unearned advantages and preferential treatments you’ve received as a white person. At the same time try to think about what makes you proud to be white.
  • 2. Listen more than talk and follow more than lead.
  • 3. In any new venture include people of colour in the leadership – from the start.
  • 4. Prioritise the issues people affected by racism (and all other forms of discrimination) say is a priority.
  • 5. Ask who else has been invited to the ‘welcome table’, be it a party, exhibition, conference or panel. Refuse to participate unless the invitation list is inclusive.
  • 6. Refer to white people as ‘white people’ when discussing them. Be specific and name white ethnicities.
  • 7. Share your resources and insider knowledge.
  • 8. Find out about the contributions made by people of colour in your field: in art, in science, literature, education and sport. EDUCATE yourselves!
  • 9. Become ‘radically conscious’ by interrogating every policy, practice and procedure at home, work, school and in your social circles that may inadvertently be perpetuating inequality based upon race, gender, gender expression and able-bodiedness.
  • 10. Get over your guilt. Be willing to be challenged, get it wrong and keep going!
    Adapted from White Like Me (see below). 

    Recommended Reading: 

    OUT OF PLACE: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality
    Edited by: Adi Kuntsman, Esperanza Miyake
    Raw Nerve Books 2008 

    WHITE LIKE ME: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son
    By Tim Wise
    Soft Skull Press 2008 

    TERRORIST ASSEMBLAGES: homonationationism in queer times
    By jasbir k. puar
    Duke University Press 2007 

    BAREED MISTA3JIL (True Stories)
    Meem (Beirut) 2009 

    QUEERING THE COLOR LINE: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture
    Siobhan B. Somervill
    Duke University Press 2000 

    Del LaGrace Volcano uses photography, performance and film to challenge concepts of sexuality and gender identity. His controversial Love Bites book that showed lesbian sexuality, including in an S&M context, was censored by booksellers in the US, UK and Canada in 1991, while The Drag King Book with Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam remains the first and only visual monograph of the drag king scenes of New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Milan and Paris. In 2009 his Femmes of Power book (with Ulrika Dahl) was released.



    0 #36 kreina 2010-05-23 08:42
    thanks for the article!!
    i m a white queer dyke writing from germany. this link reached me via facebook.

    to be "colour blind" is an idea white people can afford, coming from the privileged position where their skin has the note of the "invisible" and "normal" ...

    here is a text (from Peggy McIntosh) that i find a useful tool and want to recommend to white people to get more aware of their own privilege and what it does in everyday life.

    and this from the freedom trainers.
    0 #35 Lindsay River 2010-05-21 22:37
    I thought it was a great article. Thanks. I agree race does not exist, but I think we have to talk about the false concept of race while racism exists. I have found Chakravorty Spivak's term 'strategic essentialism' helpful - meaning using a term which is essentialist in a temporary and simply strategic way in order to challenge the dominance of one group (in this case white people). I've just checked this on wikipedia and it says Spivak is not keen on how the term has been taken up and used, so I don't know if I should be using it. But it has surely helped me. I still don't see how we can discuss the workings of racism without drawing attention to white dominance, even though 'white' does not really exist.

    Personally (and when I had less idea resources on this) I have had poor experiences trying to challenge racism in a field I was once in (I left it) and it was also a homophobic and transphobic field. I feel that I did not do it well because I lost my temper and alienated a lot of people. I think we need to talk about the strategies we can use to challenge racism and learn from each other about this.

    Perhaps simultaneously challenging racism and challenging the concept of race is a way forward. I think Del's article does this. Thank you. Many white people are embarassing with their racism. I once went to a talk by Bell Hooks and she told how a Black woman at a mainly white conference said her partner (he was white) had left and gone for a rest. 'He gets white people fatigue too' she said, which made Bell Hooks laugh. I think we all need to be deeply fatigued by white people who are unconsciously racist and look into our own assumptions and behaviour without assuming we are not fatiguing ourselves, and then find the way to get past that fatigue and change things.

    One thing that is particularly challenging in your list, Del, is involving many BAME people in starting things up when many say to me that they don't have time to do all the things they want to. I have been trying to get a new older LGBT campaigning organisation off the ground (Age of Diversity) and have made some new links with black LGBT people who are very supportive. But they don't have time to work on setting it up because they understandably have other things they need to prioritise. I don't want either for Age of Diversity to (unintentionall y) exclude BAME people from its core start up group, nor for it to be mainly older gay men with fewer lesbians and even fewer trans and bi people and other queer people who don't fit the labels. I am deciding to work on getting it to be more representative before trying to launch it. I guess that is the only way, though it may take a long time.
    0 #34 Doctor Mayhem 2010-03-23 20:36
    Great Article! and a funny contrast to the Muslim feminist articles going in the other pages of this issue.
    When I was a teenager my image of London was formed by Culture Club and Hanif Kureishi flims and so I was really shocked when I stayed there in 2007 and saw how WHITE the queer/squatting subcultures were. I asked someone at Bar Woteva (a white queer ESL teacher ) where all the Asian & Black queers were and she said they probably had their own clubs or their own music or something, but didn't know!
    Australia isn't much better, and where I work isn't white but it isn't queer, and where I socialise is queer but it is pretty white and I'm not entirely sure how to challenge this, but I like Volcano's dot points, because the daily micropolitics of facing and challenging our own privilege and comfort zones is continuous, and difficult, and so very necessary.
    0 #33 Essa 2010-03-18 19:11
    'I think that many Blakck and Asian people are equally guilty'

    Really though? Come on.

    And what does this mean? 'Equally, though, I have held parties for students, where there has been no alcohol and the muslim students still will not come, "just in case". ' You are angry with Moslem students for not coming to your party? Why should Moslems be interested in coming to your parties?
    0 #32 Jamison Green 2010-03-17 02:40
    Thanks for a great article, Del.
    0 #31 Stephen W. 2010-03-16 21:13
    ps. I got an invite to Downing Street, but decided against it. The cost fo the train travel, and missing an afternoon's work was just too much. I'd been once before, and it was fun to go to and be a fly on the all so to speak, but as you say very white.
    I did write a criticsm of the Downing Street meeting prior to Pride on my blog at -- becuase tjhat was very L and G, and there wasn't a T in sight.[http://w hittlings.blogs /and-not-trans- person-in-sight -pride.html]
    0 #30 Stephen W. 2010-03-16 21:08
    Hi Del,
    great piece - and completely on the ball. Born into a very racist family in the 1950s, I never forgot the day my father spent the family allowance down at the pub, and then produced the 'new mattresses' he was meant to buy for the bunk beds. They were ex-war straw palliases. After my mother had beat the living daylights out of him, he said he would sell them to the new neighbour who had moved in a few doors down. My mum said he was mad; "why would they wan't those things?" , Dad repleid "because being n.....'s their kids won't have anything to sleep on".

    My mother dissabused him quickly of that idea, pointing out the father of the family was a teacher at the new secondary school and so could more than afford to buy his children proper beds to sleep on. I was 6 yrs old and it struck me at that moment that there were some people despised by others solely becuase of the colour of their skin, and I became committed to changing that. I confess though that the racist bigotry that permeated my family home; "all the irish are tinkers and rob you blind", " the italian wops wil take your wives as soon as look at you", "the thieving poles pay for nothing", "pakis smell of curry", and "black people are lazy and sneaky" took years and years to shake off. I would flinch whenever a black man came too close to me. I was aware I was flinching, and I knew it to be wrong, but could not actually stop it happening - even in B&Q when looking at the light fittings - which was totally rediculous, until finally in my forties I actually worked alongside a black guy who became a firm friend.

    But I agree that being anti-racist is not about being colour blind but about being colour conscious. Up here in the north, though we have friends from all sorts of ethnic origins, and I teach courses where over 50% of students are of asian ethnicity and mostly Mulsim, I am very aware of the cultural lines that go up to protect people anhd give them a sense of safety. Yet, at home,we m(unlike he children) would find it difficult to find close enough non-caucasian friends to, lets say, invite them to a family party. Plenty of Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese friends but not people of asian (i.e. from India, Pakistan or Bangledsh) or african, including african-carribe an and african american. I think one of the problems we have, and we are very conscious of it, is that we belong to a generation of metrosexual, middle class, middle aged 'white' liberal people who whilst we welcomed with open arms the Race Relations Act, and the Sex Discrimination Act, and all of the other anti-discrimina tion legislation, forgot to welcome the cultural mores of different peoples. I think that many Blakck and Asian people are equally guilty, we all hide behind our cultural walls, unable for example, in our case to hold a party without alcohol so enabling our muslim friends to come. Equally, though, I have held parties for students, where there has been no alcohol and the muslim students still will not come, "just in case".

    We all sit behind our cultural walls, failing to connect. In the law school of 80+ staff,where over 50% of law students are of asian ethnicity, and mostly Muslim, we do nnot offer any courses in Sharia law, because we don't employ a Muslim member of staff, nor are any other members of staff willing to learn about it. Equally though, we deride the born again Christian students.

    I was fortunate enough to work for some time with PhD students from Libya and with Damascus University, it was through this and my visits to Syria in particular, that I learnt how similar our lives and our aspirations were. Unfortunatly the unversity did not, at that time, want to continue the relationships, being concerned that they would feature in a local newspaper headline as supporters of the Axis of Evil countries, but that is another story.

    But working in Syria, which i an incredibly cosmopolitan Arab country, I realised we cannot tackle racism alone. In Syria a lot of work goes into working together towards a common culture, it is about respecting our diversity and our cultural values, but it must also be about respecting our sameness and opening up the doors of our cultural walls. My daughter's first boyfriend was black - if I had a pound for everyone who said "Oh, how is that working out" I would be a rich man by now. all the best and thanks for a great article.
    0 #29 Jake Lara 2010-03-13 20:20
    "where people suffer from racism they can become paranoid and suspect everyone'

    Suspect everyone or suspect everyone racist? I suspect they suspect everyone racist. But you go ahead and believe that people of colour are having paranoid fantasies instead of believing in racism if that makes you feel good. "

    I didn't say the rascism that hurts people is their fantasy. I said that where people suffer from rascism they need to know that there are people who support them and are not racist. Lots of people wearing anti racist campaign badges is one pretty good way of doing that. There are lots of techniques to counter rascism. We need all of them.
    0 #28 sophie 2010-03-12 16:21
    I was on a bus as a kid, crying about something and mum turned to shussh me, "Stop crying," she said,"You never hear the black children crying". I never did, not once. For the other kids on the bus tears were a luxury.
    0 #27 Lizzie 2010-03-12 14:52
    'where people suffer from racism they can become paranoid and suspect everyone'

    Suspect everyone or suspect everyone racist? I suspect they suspect everyone racist. But you go ahead and believe that people of colour are having paranoid fantasies instead of believing in racism if that makes you feel good.

    I LOVE the title of this article, it's brilliant - thanks!

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