Grappling past hesitation to speech on queer whiteness
There’s an essay by the late, great gay historian Allan Berube called “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays” in The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, a collection of essays about white privilege.
There’s a point in the essay where he says:
A few years ago, in San Francisco, a friend invited me to be part of a new political discussion group of HIV-negative gay men. … When I looked around the room, I saw only white men. I knew that many of them had for years been incorporating antiracist work into their gay and AIDS activism, so this seemed like a safe space to bring up the whiteness I saw. I really didn’t want to hijack the purpose of the group by changing its focus from HIV to race, but this was important because I believed that not talking about whiteness was going to hurt our work. Instead of speaking up, I hesitated.
Right there. That’s the moment I want to look at - that moment of silence, when a flood of memories, doubts, and fears rushed into my head. What made me want to say something about our whiteness and what was keeping me silent?
Two things to highlight at the outset.
1. Personal. My “right there” moment has been DK4 as a whole, where rather than speak, I’ve ended up distancing myself from other white gay men on the site. Occasionally, I’ve tried to settle back into gay spaces here, but I feel a block every time I do.
2. General. ”I knew that many of them had for years been incorporating antiracist work into their gay and AIDS activism” and yet he hesitated. What I think that points to is that the delusion of progress gets in the way of seeing recurrent patterns, of seeing backsliding, of seeing where the seduction of white privilege keeps coming back.
There’s a lot I still don’t feel clear about. And, if I’ve learned one thing here, it is that conversations derail quickly without maximum vigilance about clarity. So, I’ve been waiting to find clarity. But two diaries White Feminist Privilege in Organizations and When a Black Woman is Fed Up! have been pushing me out of my comfort zone. So, I’m forcing myself to say something, instead of hesitating.
In my lingering hesitation, I’ve often felt a strong sense of something trying to rise to speech, and when I say trying to rise to speech, I’m talking about an actual physical sensation. And it hit me, that what that sensation of self-silencing bespeaks is the need to come out as white in much the same way that I needed to come out as gay. In both instances, I needed to translate “basic biological facts” into awareness of the social dynamics that create those facts. I won’t speak for other people’s experience, but coming out as a gay person was one of initial exhilaration, followed by a sense of “now what?” That “now what?” was a kind of void, where all the cultural meanings and scripts I depended on to make sense of the world stopped working. Right there was the point at which I realized that coming out is not simply a matter of naming a truth, but of creating a new reality.
What scripts would stop working if I came out as white? What I realize is that much of my hesitancy has to do with the difference between the inevitability of coming out as gay - once I named it, I couldn’t go back - and what feels like a choice in coming out as white. That is, I feel a physical conflict between pushing myself into new racial identity, one that isn’t “natural” or stuck in guilt, but is named as intrinsically related to dynamics of power and privilege, and retreating into what is familiar, and which doesn’t have to go through the exhausting process of being hammered out in social debates.
Certainly, exhaustion is something I fear, because I already experience it too much in my life. But white privilege in this instance is getting to choose whether or not I risk that exhaustion. It is not a once-in-a-lifetime decision. I will face that choice every time I step out the door, or log in here.
In a more general sense, I’ve noticed a related dynamic on the site. On DK3, I was actively involved in both Black Kos and WGLB. I have seen much more explicit taking on of homophobia and heterosexism on Black Kos than I have seen explicit taking on of racism in queer diaries. There have been many queer individuals who have pushed boundaries on race, or have said “no” to explicit or blind racism in the DK queer community. But I have yet to see much explicit community commitment to explicit inclusivity. And, there’s also been explicit toleration of racism - the dynamics on old SistahSpeak diaries is evidence of that. There were white queer people who felt a need to shut down a black voice using tactics that would not have been tolerated for a second in WGLB diaries. That’s some history that I need to see dealt with honestly before I can settle back into the comforting banter of just hanging out with my white gay brothers to shoot the shit and swap pictures of handsome men. That I haven’t felt able to do that has felt like a real loss - but I haven’t felt able to do that.