Tag Archives: Racism

Clueless White People

CN: Orlando

I wrote this before Brexit happened. Now, more than ever, white LGBT people need to shape up and see how much we exclude people of colour from our communities. I’m done being patient with people who would rather devote their time to explaining why they aren’t racist than spend it showing up for PoC. I’m frustrated with my white friends who don’t challenge racism in their own communities. I’m impatient with the white LGBT organisations I work with who don’t even notice the unconscious biases that keep PoC excluded, and I’m tired of white people derailing every conversation and every action to focus on themselves or other white people.

It’s time we all took a stand and recognised we are either united in our differences or doomed to let the bigots win.

[Image: A statue plinth covered in candles. tealights spell out the words love and pride

Responding to Orlando

I am writing this as a clueless white person. I have worked very hard to be a less clueless white person. I think I have moved from a position of unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – i.e. unlike many of my peers, it seems, I know I am clueless.

I am learning to listen, but it turns out white people really aren’t great at listening to people of colour. I keep working on it. I accept I’ll never fully overcome the racist culture in which I was raised but that I should never stop trying. The point is not to become complacent, nor waste time on shame and defensiveness that does nobody any good. Just keep working.

So, Orlando happened, and I haven’t even begun to sort out the emotional tidal wave that’s washed over me from that. But I know one of my early thoughts:

My queer brown friends are going to be hurting.

Because the first thing we learned was the shooter was Muslim. And so suddenly it was given a political context – not a hate crime against LGBT people by a fellow American in what is still a very homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society, but an “act of terror against America”.

“It could have been anyone” someone said on my timeline. “Apparently the shooter was casing out Disneyland but the security was too high”. “Don’t make this about gay people or push your gay agenda”, I hear elsewhere.

For those who are unaware, despite the fact that Muslim people are in the billions, when one Muslim does a bad thing the entire, diverse, religion is implicated. People I know who are Muslim suffer unjust prejudice and violence as a result. The word for this is Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, more queer lines of communication were letting us know that the victims were mostly PoC too – something that seemed to be getting missed/erased by a lot of people.

Which erasures matter?

Gay people started to get cross at the erasure of the homophobic element of the crime (we know the shooter was homophobic, as well as domestically violent and racist against other minorities). Owen Jones even walked off Sky News because of this erasure. My fellow white LGBT people cheered his anger and his political stance. It started to feel like this was being prematurely and inappropriately co-opted as terrorism against the US “way of life” and not viewed as LGBT hate. But of course, white gay people were just as guilty of their own erasures – they said “gay” instead of “LGBT”, as well as forgetting to think about the specific issues that may affect communities of colour dealing with such a tragedy in a majority white, racist culture.

We are so very aware of how it is to be LGBT in a majority straight, heterosexist culture, why so hard to understand the impact of a majority white culture on PoC?

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So I was relieved when I heard that our local QTIPoC group were the first to organise a vigil for the whole community. For once, the right people were centred – queers of colour honouring queers of colour, what could be more appropriate? I planned to attend, but had no involvement in the organising.

A few hours before the vigil, I got a message from a friend saying she’d heard of another vigil – I thought this was a shame, another group organising a separate vigil one hour earlier in the same place, instead of supporting the QTIPoC one. It seemed to me to lack awareness of something really fundamental in all this; that queers of colour were the majority victims in this tragedy, and it would be respectful to consider the QTIPoC-organised vigil as the one to get behind.

I wondered what this other group might be thinking, but concluded that like many LGBT people, and perhaps myself once upon a time, they probably didn’t think much about how things are for PoC in our community, or perhaps don’t really even see PoC as part of our community, or feel the ethnicity of the victims was important. Our LGBT spaces are so very white, and people rarely ask themselves why. In Nottingham, a city with 33% BAME population, local LGBT leaders remain incredulous that that means around 33% of Nottingham LGBTs are BAME people too.

Then I saw this message on the QTIPoC vigil event page from the organiser of the other event:

"just to clear up any confusion... there are 2 events in the same location between 6/7 tonght that are being joined together - we hope to see everybody there that can attend x"

Curious, I thought – advertising their (so far unadvertised) vigil on the other vigil’s event page and also saying that it will be a joint event? Seemed a little bit like they were taking over. Not unheard of for white people to take over the enterprise of PoC. But nothing was said by QTIPoC group members, so I let it go.

The vigils

I didn’t plan to attend both vigils, but I’d bussed into town early so I went along to the earlier vigil. The vigil was mostly harmless – there were candles, which were lovely, and a fair few people came.

Unfortunately, someone had brought an American flag and hung it centrally, with the Pride flag to one side. I doubt they had considered what a strong, or inappropriate, political message this was. With so much erasure of this as an LGBT hate crime against people who have a marginalised status within America (on three counts – race, LGBT status, and undocumented status), pandering to the highly political notion that this was an attack on America was just not on. But I’m sure the person who did it did not think this through, so I said nothing. I know they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but they did. This was not a time for American nationalism, it was a time to focus on the victims of this tragedy. But so often that ultra-right wing nationalistic politics is seen as neutral and apolitical and the harm it does is ignored.

We observed a minute’s silence, and then a few people – all white, spoke. Lots of mention of homophobia and the hate all of us face every day – passionate, angry, emotional, political speeches, demanding an end to homophobia. One person even talked about how all LGBT people face “terrorism” every day due to hate. I wasn’t sure about them co-opting that terminology, but people have a right to be passionate and angry when stirred up by something like this, surely?

By 6.30, just 15 minutes later, it was winding up. At the end, I asked them to remind the crowd about the other vigil, as they had not even mentioned it. People milled around – quite a few went, but a lot more came. Heading up to 7 there was a much bigger crowd, a different, more diverse crowd that had mainly come for the QTIPoC vigil.

I became increasingly anxious about the presence of the American flag. As 7.00 came, I felt it was now becoming a space set aside for the QTIPoC group to lead their planned vigil in their own way. It was nice that the Pride group had brought candles for both vigils, but I and others felt the flag, whoever brought it, was problematic. I spoke to some people about it, and resolved to respectfully remove it. I took it down, folded it carefully. In its place we put a beautiful art quilt that housed a myriad of identity flags to reflect a diverse community. Later, a list of the names of the dead was placed there.

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I hoped at this point someone would come up and claim the flag, and I would have an opportunity to explain why it had been taken down, but nobody spoke to me in the full 15 minutes between taking the flag down and the vigil starting. I placed the flag to one side of the plinth. Later, a couple of younger people picked it up and stood on the plinth with it. I explained to them that some of us felt it should come down, they said ok, we’ll just get a photo.

Blurred boundaries – whose space was it anyway?

I guess if it had been understood as a separate vigil, things would have been clearer, that the original QTIPoC organisers had every right to set things up the way they wanted. But the boundaries had been blurred by talk of it being a “joint vigil”. The PoC space had, in fact, been encroached upon.

The second vigil was powerful – a bigger crowd, passionate speeches, singing and readings.  It went on for about an hour. Speakers represented 3 religions – Christian, Jew and Muslim, as well as people of no faith. Women, NB folk and men, brown, black and white. A much more diverse space that went deeper into the issues and feelings that people were holding in their hearts. From the people who stayed for it, I have not heard a bad word spoken.

I felt much more represented and included as a non-binary trans person. The existence of my identity (bisexual and non-binary) was mentioned by more than one of the speakers, and when one cis lesbian spoke of the “lesbian and gay” community she got a good-natured heckle from a cis (I believe) member of the QTIPoC group: “and trans, non-binary, bisexual and intersex!”

Good-natured challenges like that go a long way to build better inclusion, and the atmosphere was such that it was safe for these challenges to happen. People were showing up for each other, making and holding space for each other. On the whole, it was a very unified crowd.

To me, this is the big difference between a Fascist vision of unity and genuine inclusivity – in an inclusive world, people are free to bring all their lived experiences, differences, disagreements, passions. A fascist vision has everyone singing from the same sheet – we will all be assimilated. Fascists talk about “divisiveness” when people don’t act or think the way they want them to, while inclusive communities are robust enough to cope with disagreement without falling to pieces.

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It took a bit of time for the second vigil to get going. Maryam, the organiser, seemed slow to get up and speak – I could tell she was nervous. She had a loudhailer to try and send her quietish voice to the back of the now 200-strong crowd, but it wasn’t always enough to get her heard. I was close, so I heard her fully, but I wondered who else caught all of it. It didn’t help that quite quickly a small group of people not far from the centre started speaking while she was speaking – so disrespectful! I got the impression that as soon as she mentioned this is the holy month of Ramadan they just tuned out. They looked cross. At one point a couple of them came over to talk to me, and I told them not while Maryam was speaking and they strutted off looking grumpy. I don’t think it occurred to them what it means for a white person to speak over a person of colour. They were clearly forming an impression of events, but it was not through paying any real attention.

Oh how I wish they’d really heard what Maryam had to say! But she repeated the gist of it when she spoke to the Post, and I recommend watching this video. Despite a few sour faces, most of the huge crowd were with her, and gave her a huge cheer. I suspect the few that walked away angry had grasped very little of what was being said, their minds closed up that Maryam had dared to mention her religion at all, or dared to speak her worries about racism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the attack with a similar level of passion that the earlier speakers had spoken of homophobia.

After a couple more speakers, I got up and spoke spontaneously. I was close to tears, although apparently I sounded angry. Perhaps loud hailers make you sound angry with their harsh sound. I spoke of my upset that the news and politicians were politicising these events, naming the ethnicity of the shooter, but ignoring the lives of the dead, both their ethnicity and LGBT status. I explained that I had taken down the flag as a mark of respect to the dead – at least I tried to say that! I was rather overcome, and I was brief, because I did not want to take up too much space.

A Statue plinth with the word pride written in candles. A list of the names of the Orlando victims is tied to the bottom of the statue.

A little later Angela Dy got us all roused with a beautiful Audre Lorde poem and a call and response: “Black and Brown, Trans and Queer, Our Lives Matter”.

At some point a white gay guy got angry and aggressive saying “all lives matter” as if he did not understand we were lifting up the kinds of lives that matter less to too many people and remembering them specifically. “All lives matter” is on a par with “heterosexual prideOther than that, there was no trouble. The crowd remained large, and there was convivial mingling in solidarity long after all the many speakers had finished. People continued to light candles way into the night. I think for the vast majority, it was a wonderful vigil, and I was very grateful for the chance to be in such a warm, inclusive space.

A bitter aftermath 

Sadly, we returned home to fallout, very angry people online who felt some of the principled words and actions in the QTIPoC vigil were out of place, and felt it necessary to loudhail their condemnation over social media. I have reflected a lot in the ensuing fortnight, but I still can’t find any validity in these attacks. A kneejerk feeling of unthinking anger is one thing, and I would not want to censor people’s feelings, however illbegotten, when they are grieving. But to take that onto social media and use it to whip up hate and anger is quite another.

There was nothing inherently more “political” about the later vigil than the earlier one, it’s just that it was a politics some did not understand as well – they were as clueless about issues of PoC erasure, marginalisation and Islamophobia as Sky news had been about homophobia. Same exact problem – lack of knowledge, lack of empathy.

It was a shock that people could stir up so much nastiness during a time of mourning, and create rifts so quickly. The silence of a lot of my white peers was equally depressing. They rallied round me for taking down the flag, but then I felt centred when all I’d wanted to do was take some of the heat. Nobody directly challenged the underlying stink of Islamophobia and racism in online posts about the QTIPoC speeches.

All of what was said was insinuation – an impressionistic portrayal of people being too political, politically correct, having a religious agenda – no mention of what had been said or how, or why it had offended, just a vague impression given of nasty people doing nasty things, not in the “Spirit of Pride”. All inference, and of course no substance, but it’s amazing the insidious power of allusion to make something seem bigger than it is. You only need really say the speaker was a Muslim who “pushed her religion” and enough people will get angry, just because they need someone to be angry at right now.

When the earlier vigil’s organiser launched an angry online attack on Maryam one responder said “I was on my way n had to turn way in disgust I wasn’t sure what was going on but now I know” – in other words, they were ready to be angry without having witnessed much of anything. I’d love to know what “disgusted” them if they hadn’t taken the time to listen. Another complained about the use of a loudhailer, not considering how hard it is for some women to get their voices to carry. A few people used the massively inappropriate word “hijacked” – they all spoke as if the QTIPoC group were outsiders, and many somewhat obliviously considered the earlier vigil more inclusive. Not one other person challenged the organiser’s post, which was public, and shared in groups I am in. Not one.

Let me spell out why. People are afraid of challenging racism, and that’s why it is taking a greater and greater hold. Plenty of people were condemning this oblivious racism, just not directly to the people concerned. What we don’t challenge, we enable. The silence of white LGBT people exactly mirrored the silence of cishet people in the wake of this atrocity.

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People only need to say a Muslim did a bad thing and too many people will believe it without any evidence. Because similar is true for trans people. We are united in our marginalisation, the constant attack and condemnation, the prejudice and closed ears, the sufferance we receive in our communities if we are sufficiently well behaved and assimilated, and make no demands for change. The readiness people have to go against us if we put a foot wrong or make any kind of a fuss, or even dare to consider ourselves to have as much of a claim to the community as anyone else. Our experiences are not the same, and we should not co-opt each others struggles, but we should stand united in empathy for one another’s plight.

Well, a Muslim did a good thing here. Maryam was so incredibly brave and generous to stand up like she did. I will never forget her good work, and Angela’s, and all the others who brought together such a rainbow crowd on that powerful night. My gratitude is huge to them for holding a space that truly reflected the diversity of our community, and for empowering so many diverse people to speak. If that wasn’t a comfortable space for unconsciously racist, clueless white people, well I’m not really sorry – we pander to their comfort too much at the expense of others, and this level of discomfort and more is what QTIPoC people feel in LGBT spaces all the time.

We can accept our failures and focus on doing better

I don’t want a witch hunt like the one that came at the QTIPoC group. People need to learn from their screw-ups, not be hounded out and excluded. I know I’m a clueless white person too. I will continue to fuck up, but I will continue to make myself accountable to those more marginalised than me rather than letting those with less marginal positions always dictate terms. The reality is, prejudiced people will look for the flimsiest excuse to push marginalised people out, and claim they are doing it out of some sort of weakly justified self preservation.

We are all enraged about what happened in Orlando, we are all in grief. How this was expressed at the vigil (aside from the hostility towards the QTIPoC and trans speakers) was appropriate. All of those voices needed to be heard.

A community that cannot make space for the anger, needs, feelings, views and lived experiences of QTIPoC is not an inclusive community, and not my community.

Go listen to Maryam’s speech again. This time listen without prejudice and you will hear how we can be united.

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Shallow progress: What “The Force Awakens” and “The Danish Girl” have in common

CN – minor spoilers for both films , discussion of racism, sexism, intersex erasure  and cissexism

I watched Star Wars Episode IV in the cinema, aged 6, wide-eyed and full of uncritical wonder.  Later, as a much more critical adult, I was let down badly by the racism in the portrayal of Ja Ja Binks in The Phantom Menace (among so many other disappointments).

I was holding my breath before seeing The Force Awakens.

I didn’t buy into the hyped controversy around those racist asshats complaining about a black stormtrooper – it smacked of a publicity stunt, a way of displaying the film’s right-on credentials, and possibly encouraging us to overlook its shortcomings. And yet, when I went to see the film, I was seduced. I loved the film, uncritically and with the same childish wonder I had in 1977. More of a remake than a sequel, it was just like going back in time only the effects, and the acting, were so much better. And as a feminist, it was great to see a woman in the active, heroic role, spurning help and rescuing herself. It was great to see the film’s leading man playing second fiddle to her.

[image: fan art depicting Finn, a black male stormtrooper, and Rey, the white female hero from "The Force Awakens" - they are depicted next to the villain's lightsaber, which looks like a burning cross]

If it wasn’t for my feminism, would I have noticed the problem inherent in Finn being portrayed by a black actor? Because having a black man play second fiddle to a white woman is hardly shattering the status quo in quite the same way. I wonder if Finn being white would have been a much bigger challenge for mainstream audiences, or indeed for the writers. The problem is, the apparently right-on casting kind of cancels itself out: Finn being black dilutes the film’s feminism, and the strength of Rey’s character reduces Finn to yet another black character who lacks agency, as beautifully described here (more spoilers).

In the end, I felt Finn’s character, despite his prominence and screen time, perpetuated some pretty racist tropes, right down to his job in sanitation – a black janitor, how very ground-breaking.

But I still went back to see the film again, caught up in the magic of my childhood being reinvented for the 3D, IMAX generation. I saw the problem, but it was far too easy for me to overlook.

Which is where The Danish Girl comes in. Because when it’s a film about trans people, it’s much more personal. I find myself agitated and hurt when I see my cisgender friends going to see it, and tutting at my objections. I refuse to go and see it myself, based on the copious accounts I have gleaned from trans friends and commentators, all of which tally with one another.

.[image: Lili Elbe pre-and post-tranisition]

There are a number of problems with the film. Casting a cis man as a trans woman (who was also intersex) is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that trans women are men that become women. Ideally a trans or intersex woman would play Lili Elbe, but if not a cis woman would be more appropriate than a man. Just look at the picture of real life Lili pre-transition – she was never a man. I find it really sad that Nicole Kidman, apparently the original choice, was replaced by Eddie Redmayne.

There are many problematic tropes in the film, such as it focussing on the idea of performing femininity, as if being a woman is in itself just a performance, and all about clothes and mannerisms, rather than heartfelt identity. The film also has a sexualised and fetishistic gaze.

Worse, the true story has been fictionalised in ways that preserve a false but pervasive idea of trans lives. Real life Gerda was bisexual, and fully accepting of Lili – in the film she struggles, as no doubt she is expected to. Film Lili’s intersex condition is never mentioned, contributing to the ongoing erasure of intersex people. The film also appears to many to give the message that Lili died for “trying to be a woman”, with the implied blame laid at her door for her selfishness, another hurtful trope the trans community have heaped endlessly upon us. In fact Lili died because doctors tried an experimental and still impossible to this day surgery to transplant a uterus. The film has her dying as a result of a now routine and then successful vaginoplasty.

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History was changed to tell the story the cis director wanted to tell. Changed to be acceptable to the cis gaze.

Overall, a lot of trans people are concerned that yet again the film views trans people from a cis perspective that fundamentally misses the truth of our lives, and erases intersex altogether.

So is this cissexism worse than the racism of The Force Awakens because Lili was a real person, because this is fundamentally a trans and intersex story and not just a flight of fantasy? Or is it only worse because it is my minority affected by this movie?

I’ll admit it – I don’t want my friends to go put money in Tom Hooper’s coffers for this movie, I don’t want Lili’s true story trashed for this fantasy, and since it has been, I don’t want people to be sucked in.

But of course, cis people will go, and they will see it as progress, they will praise Redmayne and Hooper and they will probably brand those of us voicing concern as over-sensitive. They will tell us we should be grateful our stories are being told at all and many trans people will agree with them, thankful the portrayal is at least kind, if not accurate. It is progress, after a fashion, just like Rey and Finn are progress, sort of.

But the progress is shallow, and it too easily preserves the status quo and fails to challenge people’s views or really dig deep.

But I am a hypocrite, for while I will dig my heels in over The Danish Girl I will no doubt continue to be riveted, albeit somewhat critically, to the ongoing Star Wars reboot. I have no justification for this. In the end it is really difficult to judge the level of offence when it’s not you or people like you being undermined. All I can do is keep promising to listen to and amplify the voices that count and hope others do the same.

When it’s well documented, then I’ll believe it’s real

Rachel Dolezal has opened up a big old can of worms. Trans people are suddenly finding themselves caught in some rather transphobic crossfire, as people compare what she has done with what, say, Caitlyn Jenner has done.

I’m white, and therefore not well qualified to speak about race. My understanding of the word “transracial” is that it is a legitimate term, applicable to, for example, black children born or adopted into white families. So we can’t say “it isn’t a thing” but we can say it’s a questionable word to apply to Dolezal.

I don’t want to speculate as to what is going on for Dolezal, I don’t feel it’s my position to judge her but to follow the lead of the black community and accept their feelings about her. Her deceptions don’t sit well with me, but I cannot judge her situation because I am not connected to it. Were I involved in an organisation where something like this happened, I would be deeply concerned, and I would be consulting my black friends as to how to deal with her.

But I want to write about the comparisons being made to the trans community, because a lot has been said about it not being the same thing, but I think something has been missed as to why it isn’t the same thing.

Because the truth is, if Caitlyn Jenner was the first assigned-male person ever to show up claiming to be a woman, the world would rightly be suspicious. If there had not been a history, as long as the history of the human race, and across multiple cultures, of individuals who have similar experiences in relation to their gender, then cautious scepticism would be a fair response.

Maybe, scepticism would even be reasonable in the case of the first half dozen or so cases we encounter, maybe even the first hundred, but there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing. We are way past the point of this with trans people.

Transgender people exist – there are millions of us. We even have an inkling of how trans people exist, and an understanding that our hormones play a part in what turns out to be the very complex dance of gender. Our hormones influence our gender identity, and gender identity (for all the inadequacies of this term) is a real thing in and of itself, separate from both the socially constructed nature of gender and the biological facts of reproduction and chromosomes.

We have, as yet, no evidence that there is an equivalent phenomenon to this in terms of race. I am open minded, and if one is discovered, I will accept it as a real thing when the evidence is in. But there is no reason to assume that just because a particular phenomenon occurs in relation to gender, which is mediated by hormones as well as social construction, that it would therefore occur in relation to race, which arises from a very different set of historical and social conditions.

For instance, there is not a point, after conception, when an embryo has a chance to be born either black or white, depending on the hormonal journey it takes in the womb. There isn’t a hormone I can take that will switch on some biological coding to make me black, in the same way I can take testosterone and masculinise my body.

They are different things, and that’s all there is to it. And it doesn’t seem that Dolezal is claiming they are the same, but rather claiming a right to “choose” her race. This is where analogies with trans folk really get me steamed up – trans people do not “chose” their gender, the only choice, if choice it is, is how to negotiate their gender in a cissexist world.

The salient discussion is about how we experience gender as something over and above the historical and constructed, and more than just in connection with our reproductive systems. I’m not at all sure that race is experienced in the same way, or that there is evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity.

Meanwhile, this debate is distracting us all from the issues of racism that matter – the police profiling of trans women of colour, and their frighteningly high presence in statistics for victims of violence and murder; the extraordinary double standards applied in the reporting of crimes committed by and against black people and white people, horribly evidenced by the last week’s US and UK news; and the ongoing, casual white supremacy that every one of us white folks supports, often unconsciously, every day of our lives, just by being so easily distracted from what the real issues are regarding race.

Because making an issue that is entirely about race and racism all about trans issues also gets us off the hook from exploring our racism. It’s a neat distraction, but look how easily when racism comes up we skip off into something else entirely.