On Sunday, my daughter and I were in Starbucks. It was very busy, there was a long line, and it was a small Starbucks. Three Asian girls were in front of my daughter. A white employee opened another register and asked me for my order while shooing my daughter ahead to the next register with the Asian girls. The employee was frazzled and my 12 year-old confused until I said, “She’s with me.” My daughter is Asian American. I am not. After we got our drinks my daughter said, “Geez, I feel like I should have asked her where the calculus club was meeting.” I acknowledged the incident and affirmed my daughter’s feeling. I explained that it was a momentary confusion, made in good faith. My daughter deemed it “no harm, no foul” and we moved on. It was just one of the many conversations about race and bigotry that I had with my daughter that day.
The prior Thursday, a column I wrote about my view of the specific intersectionality between gay white men and black men. Some posters to the Bay Windows web site characterized me as a “nice white <lesbian> lady”; as someone who had no first hand knowledge of discrimination; as someone who enjoys all the benefits of middle-class white privilege—as someone who wasn’t “queer” enough. I don’t know any of the commenters personally, and from what I can determine, they don’t know me. I was being judged by the column, fair enough, and by the photo next to my column. (You can read some of the comments on page **, or in their entirety online.)
I wrote about issues I care deeply about—race and bigotry, issues that negatively affect Americans every moment of every day.
I have been involved in discussions about race almost my entire life (I’m 51 ¾s). In the 1960s, my parents’ best couple friends were Hispanic (a rarity in my hometown of Revere). My mother was a social justice advocate. At least one African American has played a prominent role in my life—mentor, best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, relative, colleague) since my teen years. This is not to say I am free of racism and bigotry, but having been present during discriminatory behavior, and talking openly about it, has informed my point of view.
For at least the past 20 years, I have paid daily attention to race and bigotry, in both my professional and personal life. I have pointed out white privilege when a writer noted a “black hand”, inferring that a “white” hand was the norm. I, with my co-publisher Jeff Coakley and our former editors endeavored to make both Bay Windows and South End News as representative of our readers as our resources would allow. Our staff, when we used to have one, was usually at least 30% minority. It’s an ongoing effort that is never fully successful.
Last week’s column is possibly the worst I have ever penned. The writing is not in my voice—it’s more term paper (it needed footnotes) than conversational column; it’s stilted and disjointed. It reads a bit like it was written by committee, because it started as a draft for a collaboration, and, as a solo piece, passed through writers (black) who offered input. It had none of my humor (snark, sarcasm, or otherwise). Not my best effort.
I make a lot of mistakes. Luckily, I catch the majority of them. When I make a mistake in a column or on TV or the radio, someone calls—corrects me. I learn, I correct it, apologize, we move on. Because this column was about race, homosexuality, and bigotry, and “I am a nice white (lesbian) lady” (sorry, it’s just that nobody ever characterizes me as ‘nice’), I wrote it very carefully. Apparently not carefully enough. Some have taken exception to my mention of the late gay activist Frank Kamney’s efforts protesting the White House and his involvement in founding early gay rights groups. I did not intend to portray Kamney as the inventor of these tactics, simply as gay activist who took great risk to change the public’s perception of gays and lesbians. An effort that continues.
The ideas in my column were not new, either. Rev. Irene Monroe, a weekly contributor, often writes about issues of intersectionality and recently wrote about the commonality of bigotry in the experiences Trayvon Martin and Mathew Shepard. I purposefully chose a very narrow slice of experience shared between minorities (themselves narrow slices of the greater community pie). I used my marketing and public relations background to identify a challenge in perception (not in being) and offered an idea. The reaction was immediate and forceful. How can a white woman assume to know what a black man feels? How could I compare the bigotry that gay men experience to the experience of black men? Why was I generalizing?
White people usually don’t write about race in a general publication. One reason is that many of us are blissfully unaware of how race and bigotry permeate every aspect of American life. One challenge for white people is in being aware of how race, and the perception of race impact everything. I’ve always hated the term “white privilege”, not because I don’t believe in it, but because I’ve seen the look on a working-poor white guy when he hears the term “privilege” in phrase associated with him. I know many white people who spend no time with African Americans. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 40 percent of white people and 25 percent of nonwhite people have no friends of the opposite race. This separation denies white people the opportunity to witness what happens to black Americans when they enter stores, try to hail a cab, or struggle with a foot in the black community and one in the LGBT community.
Another reason we don’t write about race is that we are afraid. Yes, afraid. Race is the third rail of progressive politics. To advocate for equality means to speak of experience. Few white people I know want to air their well-intentioned opinions on race for fear of being misconstrued. A friend (white) posted an eloquent description of the human condition of comparing the pain of bigotry, of being angry with the person on hand (me) rather than the bigger issue (racial profiling) but deleted the post. Even white friends who have black or brown children, parents who were very vocal in social media about the horror of Trayvon Martin, were silent. This is not to imply that they agreed with what I wrote, but rather, I believe, they didn’t want to wade into the discussion. In fact, my usual critics have been silent. These friends are quick to point out errors in facts and thinking, engage in spirited debate, regardless of their level of involvement in the issue. But not a peep.
Some white people did comment or reach out to me. One writer was condescending in his critique of my condensation. A few invited me for coffee. All good intentioned, but I felt each had the air of your column is not how progressive white people discuss race in public.
So, can white people write about race issues? Such is the sin of slavery and continuing status of minorities that our history is lost or unwritten. Many readers pointed out the things I left out of my column, implying that, by my omission, I didn’t know about Bayard Rustin, the brutality and death caused by bigotry, the poverty and lack of opportunities in the urban community. Or that I had an obligation to pay more attention than I did to history? Does every black or African American columnist note this history with every column? Did writers note the Suffrage movement and Elizabeth Candy Stanton in every story about then Senator Hillary Clinton when she ran for president? No, they didn’t. (And shame on you if you’re wondering what the singer of the hit “Victim” had to do with voting rights.) I assumed my intended audience, progressives of all backgrounds, knew their civil rights history.
I learned a lot this week. Many valuable relationships have been forged. Some of my beliefs, although challenged, remain steadfast. I believe that our shared pain can unite us. I believe that empathy is a plank in our work for social justice. I believe we have more in common than we think. No one can feel exactly what another individual feels, even within a group; but if we seek it we can find commonality.
Are we on the same side? Can we listen to each other with open minds? I hope so. We won’t always agree, but shared goals can be reached by compromise. I don’t share the view of some that equality means assimilation—I believe equality means expansion. I need only to look at my own extended family to see how much better this world is from the world I was born into in 1961—I am a woman who co-owns a business, a single mother to a child of a different race, and a lesbian. None of that was remotely possible in the year of my birth. I hope my daughter, and all of our children, will enjoy a better world too. We have to keep talking.