So, here I sit, still basking in the glow of the marriage victory, my Facebook feed liberally sprinkled with rainbow profile pics, and enjoying the unexpected bonus victory of the EEOC declaring employment discrimination against LGBT people to be unlawful. I’m watching the Republican presidential herd genuflect to the anti-gay base, but it feels mostly convictionless since even they know which way the wind is blowing.
Everything’s coming up gay these days. But the glow is starting to fade, as I keep looking at how fast LGBT rights have been won — from a historical perspective, not a personal one — yet we still struggle to acknowledge, much less fix, the embedded racism in our society.
I’ve always liked to think of myself as anti-racist. Of course, even actual racists often like to think of themselves as anti-racists, so it’s not that noble of a thought. But over the past few years I’ve spent a lot more time reading and listening to the history and experience of black Americans, and I’ve realized not just how little I know but how much racist crap had actually sunk into my head over the course of my life.
In his new book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the America white people live in as “the Dream,” the post-racial place where the past is elided and the present ignored: “[A] great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
I was raised by my parents to not be racist. I grew up white in a country that guaranteed racism would worm its way into me. The same as no one ever sat me down and explicitly told me homosexuals were evil yet I still got the message, I got the message about blacks. Black sections of towns were places to be avoided. Young black men were to be feared. Black women were welfare queens. Your black friend? Not like the other blacks.
It’s insidious and corrupting and when you finally realize how much of it is there it’s deeply shameful. Not that I’m asking anyone to feel sorry for me or other white people — we weren’t the black children growing up with those same messages. But it makes me angry to realize I was complacent and complicit, that my culture created a space between us and them, white and black, dreamers and others, an empty space that contradicts every lesson we tell ourselves about our nation, our culture, our history.
Black people — or any people of color — don’t bear the responsibility for finding a solution to racism. That’s something white people should be doing. The fact is that a century and a half after a civil war to end slavery and decades after a civil rights movement to ensure equal treatment under law, we’ve failed. Racism is inherent in the system. To acknowledge that is fundamental to having any hope of progress.
And I hope white LGBT people will step up and be a part of the solution. While our experiences of discrimination aren’t directly analogous to racism, homophobia and the AIDS epidemic have shown us the damage embedded hate can do to individuals and communities. We may have challenges left in our own communities but we have a responsibility to push beyond ourselves. We can’t come this far only to stop and immerse ourselves into a gay version of “the Dream.”
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