Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Knowing When to Shut Up

I've been in a lot of spaces and meetings lately that are meant to talk about issues like privilege and queerness and that sort of thing. Inevitably, these gatherings draw a mixed crowd: Queer people, people of color, all kinds of gender identities and occupations and education levels. It's one of the best things about them. But there always seem to be people who have no idea what privilege means, even if they're talking about it.

A few weeks ago, Nic and I went to the TransCon Justice Summit in Miami. I would say that overall it was a good experience, and I met some pretty amazing people there. But there were also some folks who weren't so awesome. For instance, one cis straight-identified woman seemed to want a cookie for being able to be in a space with so many queer people and not freak out. She seemed quite invested in the idea that we'd all love her, but she struck me as disingenuous - as though she cared more that everyone thought she was a hero than about learning from the people around her. At one point, she and I were in a small group with a few other people and she, the only straight person in the group, immediately took it over and started planning our presentation. When other people spoke up, she was quite dismissive. It was gross. She had no idea that she is precisely the type of person who doesn't have to struggle to have her voice heard, in comparison with everyone else in the group, and she deliberately silenced the very people the conference was for.

So when I read this in the Bilerico Project, I was especially excited by this quote:

With a proper amount of decolinization, [sic] these two [straight white men] would have shut the hell up at some point and allowed someone else to speak. We cannot demand that others (Republicans, Tea Party peeps or whoever the "big bad" is this week) treat us with respect and then refuse to look at how race/class/gender privilege derails even the most progressive and well meaning attempts to institute change and determines whose voice gets to be heard.

Yes. This. One thousand times this. I have seen this happen so many times: in a critical pedagogy class this summer, which I helped facilitate and which focused on critical race theory and queer theory, the straight white people were either bent on talking about how they are oppressed, or actually pointed to the queer people and people of color in the room and accused us of oppressing them when we spoke our truths. I have rarely been so angry in an academic setting. Academia encourages this, though, and rewards the straight white people for talking about the experiences of marginalized people through the lens of peer-reviewed articles on oppression, in abstract academic language, and then telling the people who live the experiences that they're wrong, or not thinking about it the right way.

Another example: the head of Save Dade, an LGBTQ rights organization in South Florida, is a cis straight man. I've met him, and he's perfectly lovely. But I am unconvinced that having a straight person as the head of a queer advocacy group is a great idea. While I grasp the concept of straight people who are interested in seeing systematic oppression of queer people end, I'm not sure why any of them would think they have the right to be the head of a group for a community they are not part of.* Furthermore, it contributes to the problem of queer invisibility. We need more, not fewer, opportunities for queer people to be vocal. And it reinforces the idea that queer people are unacceptable to the mainstream and so we need straight people to speak for us. Fuck that. I'm way too radical to go along with that idea (although, to be frank, I don't really care if the mainstream accepts me).

So: Straight people, when you're in a queer space, let the queer people do the talking, okay? And when I, as a white person, am in a place with people of color in which we are talking about racial oppression, I'm not going to speak much unless specifically asked for my opinion. I think that if we can be aware of our own privilege and not wield it over other people in spaces that aren't ours, we'll actually be doing something to resist oppression. This is a step I believe we can take.

* Kyrie is extraordinarily sensitive about this, by the way. I would be interested in reading more about their feelings about these issues if they ever feel like sharing.


  1. Jess, I absolutely understand your feelings about having non-members of a minority group be the representatives for that group. However, maybe the Save Dade guy was the only one willing to hold office? Or perhaps the other members of Save Dade had a good reason to vote him into office?

    Ah, yes, cis straight white people and the endless oppression we suffer. Woe is us. I hear a lot of people use the example of affirmative action to "prove" discrimination of whites.

    If two people of equal grades, activities, socioeconomic status, etc. apply to the same college, why should the black person get in over the white person?

    That would be a valid question...ASSUMING ALL THINGS WERE EQUAL. But were they really equal? My grandfather, a cis straight white male, went to Harvard Law (which his parents paid for) and got a job at his father's law firm when he graduated and eventually became partner. He then provided college educations for his cis straight white daughters, who got jobs right out of college and in turn provided college educations for their children. We didn't need a ton of help to get jobs--everyone is happy to hire the well-mannered WASPy kids with the conservative haircuts and no tattoos.

    How many black grandfathers have a story like this? Wait, not many? Because even if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that means you're still wearing boots, as opposed to polished cordovan oxfords with matching briefcase. It's not merely a matter of money, it's a matter of status in society. If all things were equal, SHOULD we have to pick a black person over a white person? Of course not. And maybe someday, we won't have to, because we really will have equality. But until then, maybe we can give underrepresented groups a friggin' break!

  2. Agreed on the whole affirmative action thing. It also speaks to a sense of white entitlement - "Why did the black guy get MY job/spot at college/whatever?" Well, why was it yours to begin with? It wasn't, is the answer. Those same people are, like, never freaking out about things like legacy admissions, either.

    As to CJ and Save Dade: This is Miami/Wilton Manors/Hollywood/Ft. Lauderdale. There are probably as many openly queer people in that area as in the entire rest of the state. I know about a thousand of them. They could have found a great queer leader just from my own list of personal friends and loved ones, and then there are the thousands of people I haven't met yet. :) So, this wasn't Ocala, you know? There were surely options. He wasn't elected, he was hired. And I'm sure there are good reasons why CJ was selected, I'm just not sure they were good ENOUGH. I don't think he should have even gone for the job, is what I'm saying.

    I have a very good friend who reads this blog sometimes who told me that when he was the faculty adviser of a Gay-Straight Alliance at a high school, the kids voted in a straight kid as president when he was running against a lesbian. My friend wasn't crazy about this development. Maybe I should let him tell the story, though, if he stops by and feels so inclined.

    Anyway. I'm all about straight people advocating for queer people, and even getting paid to work for organizations like Save Dade. What I wish they wouldn't do is be the public face of those organizations, realizing that it's important to have queer people represent themselves (just like I should not be the public face of the NAACP and if I tried to do that everyone's eyebrows would, rightly, shoot through the roof). I am skeptical of anyone who doesn't understand why that's important, especially if that person is involved in queer advocacy. How can they be okay with simultaneously working for and contributing to the invisibility of a community? I'm not into it.

  3. Thanks, Jess. I've been thinking about these issues a lot recently, not just because of our emerging research project but also because of my experiences in a small, fledging "Occupy Fredonia" movement here in WNY (yes!). The group here was started by a group of student activists who had the chance to visit Liberty Plaza during our Fall Break; however, only two weeks in, the group is starting to tilt more heavily toward some of the professors on campus. In some ways that's not surprising as I live in a small town dominated by the small state college where I work and the faculty members here are always going to be more experienced, more politically sophisticated and better public speakers than are the kids. But it's still disappointing. During meetings, I tend to sit back and try to play a supporting role but other academics are starting to dominate when they sense confusion or inaction. This is a problem at a crucial point at which we need to move from the meeting place to the public square. Key meeting on Saturday - I'll let you know how it goes.

    You summarized well my situation as a GSA adviser in my old high school in Jacksonville. I started teaching there in 2003 and was approached by three students during my first semester there to help them start a GSA. We had two really good years in which we participated in big public school events (e.g. Homecoming Parade) and spoke several times to groups of faculty. Then at the end of the 2005/6 SY, the group was consumed by an election for the presidency of the group for the next year - many of the members' senior year at the school. It came down to a contest between an out lesbian ("D") and a straight identified guy ("N"), both of whom had been part of the original founding trio. D. was admittedly a mess that semester, having gone through a lot of family issues, substance abuse and two suicide attempts, whereas N. was in the honors program. D. made a a very moving, emotional appeal in our final meeting for the semester that the group had saved her life but the group voted for N. nonetheless. I had a lot of misgivings about the result but it was the will of the group, no question. Some even argued that the pressure of being president might push D. over the edge. The group went on to do well in the next year and is still up and running at the school; however, I felt that some of the magic was lost and D. was somewhat more inactive that year.

    I came away from the incident feeling as I do now about my own teaching - that I'd rather something be a temporary, relative flop and be controlled from below, capturing the zeitgeist, rather than than try to control it from above. That's key in any movement but it seems especially true for LGBTQ campaigns. My two cents.

  4. Okay, not knowing anything about the Dade group, I was mentally comparing it to my college (a whopping 2,300 people). A straight person started the LGBT club and I think it had three members. Probably because most of the LGBT population were still closeted, probably because if you were an out LGBT person, why the hell would you choose a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of rural Ohio? Obviously the Save Dade situation is NOT the same deal.

  5. Blue Devil: Thanks for weighing in! I really like your final paragraph, especially. I completely agree. Authenticity really matters.

    093etc: I hear you. It's hard to be out on those small campuses (and even on lots of big campuses). It's pretty amazing that the group existed at all.

  6. I think it can be a problem when we expect someone to lead a group in precisely the way that privileged people are socialized to do. We should instead keep an open mind about the forms group organization can take, rather than thinking, "Well, no disabled/queer-identified/female/trans/of-color person has stepped up and started bossing everyone around in the first 0.01 microseconds of this meeting,* clearly _I_ need to do it."

    This applies more to discussion panels and student groups; Dade is big enough that they could find a qualified queer individual to lead Save Dade in any ol' way specified.

    *Or even ever. Do we always need a leader?

  7. "Kyrie is extraordinarily sensitive about this, by the way. I would be interested in reading more about their feelings about these issues if they ever feel like sharing."

    Just to clarify, readers, I try to be sensitive to these issues when I have the privilege of being included in queer spaces/groups. I'm not like, all touchy if someone suggests the straight people should lay low (or even GTFO).

  8. "I think it can be a problem when we expect someone to lead a group in precisely the way that privileged people are socialized to do...", beautifully said Kyrie. Did the group really need/or want a "leader" at all? I'm learning that it is as important to listen to silences/absences in group dynamics as what is said. If we are hoping to create structures that honour all people's sovereignty, then rethinking group organization is key, I can't tell you how many times I die small deaths at the hands of organizational structure, spacial arrangements, and flow. How though, do you grapple with different ontologies/axiologies that might be at play in a room AND get some shit done well.