White people embarrass me
- Published: 08 March 2010
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Two 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
Adapted from White Like Me (see below).
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.