Privilege Matters

Trivializing gay support for the family of Trayvon Martin as ''bandwagon posturing'' is insulting to LGBT people of all races

By Sean Bugg
Published on April 11, 2012, 2:55pm | Comments

That I've had a lot of experience of casual racism doesn't come as much of a surprise given my rural Southern background. I grew up surrounded by pickup trucks festooned with Confederate flag stickers and ''the South will rise again'' slogans. If, when cruising around town after a Friday night football game, you found yourself sitting alone in the backseat of a car someone would inevitably note that you were ''riding nigger.'' Many years after desegregation, the boundaries between the black neighborhood and everywhere else remained rigid.

I had expected, rather naively in retrospect, that such persistent racism wouldn't be an issue as I embedded myself in Washington's gay community. But while I believe LGBT people are less racist than society at large, racism is still there. Over the years, in my own community, I've heard young black men called ''coons,'' Latinos described as ''beaners,'' and gay Asians dismissed as ''chinky twinks.''

Of course, when I say all this is my experience of racism, that's not quite true. It's my experience of seeing racism directed at others. I'm white. I don't endure the daily small reminders that the color of my skin, or the shape of my eyes, or the accent in my voice mark me as different. I'm not shadowed by store clerks when I shop for my clothes. I have no problems hailing cabs. When I'm on the street at night, I'm not automatically perceived as a threat.

I know bringing up the idea of ''white privilege'' makes a lot of white people squirm, if not outright balk at the concept. After all, we want to believe that our lives are products of our own efforts, not the result of some institutional bias in our favor. Given that the privilege we have is primarily a lack of barriers that exist for others, it can be hard for us to see the importance of what isn't there. And being aware of that privilege isn't an encouragement of ''white guilt,'' that shibboleth of certain white people who believe it's somehow brave to say, ''Yes, I feel threatened by young black men in hoodies.''

And to be clear, I am not perfect. I have said and done things in my life that can fairly be called racist. We all have, because we're all human and we're all fallible. My hope is that as LGBT people who face our own sets of barriers — not the same as those for race, but soul-deadening discrimination all the same — we can make more efforts to understand how racism shapes the lives of people of color.

That's why I was glad to see a coalition of national LGBT organizations come out in support of the family of Trayvon Martin and horrified to see that stance dismissed as ''All aboard the Trayvon bandwagon'' by the editor of the Washington Blade. There are fair points to be made about the appropriateness of progressive coalition-based politics; trivializing and infantilizing the reaction to the shooting death of a black teenager is not one of them. Neither is dismissing Al Sharpton as a ''pot-stirring,'' ''ambulance-chasing zealot'' – the kind of language generally used by racism-deniers who greet any racial incident with cries of ''Tawana Brawley!''

For that matter, when anti-gay activists are pursuing political strategies designed to pit blacks against gays, it would seem this LGBT support would be a positive development, not ''bandwagon posturing.''

It is in many ways a privilege to run an LGBT publication with a national voice, and it's one for which I'm deeply grateful. But it's a privilege that comes with a lot of responsibility, particularly when considering the lives of LGBT people of color who feel marginalized by our community media, and with good historical reason. It's fair for the community to expect better from all of us, and for us to expect better of ourselves.

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