Rethinking Poverty and Whiteness
What is “wealth?” Money you’ve accumulated over time, right? Well, not necessarily. Nikki Giovanni says that “black love is black wealth,” and this simple statement shines a light not only on how rich the black community is, but also on how fucked up white ideas around wealth and poverty really are.
As white folks, we often think of people of color as “impoverished” because as a group, they don’t have the generational economic wealth that we do. Of course, the reason for this is centuries of racism, genocide, and enslavement, but I’d also argue that the focus on economic wealth is a desperate move on behalf of white folks to cover our own poverty.
When we talk about the poverty of people of color, especially black folks, but also those of all colors in the “developing world,” we use pity as a mask to cover our own longing and poverty. I believe that we constantly need to reaffirm that we are “normal,” that we are on top of the pyramid, because we know in our heart of hearts that we are not–that in fact we are generators of disease, engaging in deeply perverse racist practices, and are as a culture so removed from any ancestral worth that we wouldn’t recognize it if it bit us in the face.
Doing Organizational DEI Work as a White Progressive
So you’re a white person, working in a non-profit or some other kind of organization, and you want to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Obviously, there are plenty of landmines you might hit, and questions you might ask yourself about what your role is in this work. Should I engage full throttle or step back given my privilege? How do I engage without stealing (or stealing the spotlight) from colleagues of color? I’ve compiled a list of five suggestions from my own experience, acknowledging that all of these learnings come from the collective work of many people of color and that I’m in no way an expert on this, but rather a peer looking to partner with other white folks around how we can be accountable for our role in systemic oppression and our privilege within organizations.
Polyamory + Demisexuality = Win?
I may be biased, but I think polyamory and demisexuality go really well together. To review, a demisexual person is someone who only experiences sexual attraction after getting to know someone very well first. Within these close relationships, a demisexual person might experience strong or frequent sexual attraction, or might experience weak or occasional attraction. Personally, I don’t experience sexual attraction with everyone I become close with, or every romantic partner, but do experience it with some people (there is no clear pattern).
Given this, I find polyamory to be super, super handy. For there to be any chance at sexual attraction, I kind of have to spend some time pursuing someone, get to know them in a deep intimate way, and even then I might end up in a great relationship where I don’t experience sexual attraction. This might frustrate the hell out of a monogamous partner, if being found sexually attractive is an important part of a relationship for that person. But being poly, my partners can easily seek that attraction elsewhere if it doesn’t happen for me. It also means that the variable and occasional nature of my desire isn’t a roadblock. I have and have had partners who really like frequent sex and that’s not a problem when they can simply get it elsewhere.
This isn’t to say that two people can’t be in a monogamous relationship when only one is sexually attracted to the other. Of course there are creative ways to work around this, and some allosexual folks wouldn’t be bothered by one-sided attraction, especially if it doesn’t affect sexual activity. But in my experience, polyamory takes a lot of these questions out of the picture.
Trans Surgeries Are Not Cosmetic
I wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.
The Unbiased Journalist Is Inherently Racist
What does “unbiased” actually mean? I’ve been thinking about this when liberals defend the gold standard of mainstream news outlets in the era of “fake news” accusations, and while I obviously think the Trump cronies are full of shit, I also wonder what the staunch defense of traditional news organizations might leave out.
Growing up, I never really questioned the standard that journalists must be objective and unbiased. That seemed like a reasonable enough idea, and I expected it of those working at large news organizations. But in order to be “objective” and “unbiased” according to the definitions of a news organization, you need to have an academic background and specific skills that are especially valued by white folks. You need to reference credible sources–and “credible” sources are often written by white people. You need to have that gold standard “objective” point-of-view that is invisibly white.
I think this expectation of unbiased journalism really means “journalism steeped firmly in white culture.” The idea that anyone could really be “unbiased” is a racist notion, because it relies on the invisibility and supremacy of the white perspective. Everyone has a point of view. Everyone’s perspective is rooted in culture, it’s just that white culture tends to be so pervasive as to go undetected. Rather than expecting objectivity, I think we should acknowledge and embrace the cultural grounding of our journalists, and rely on news sources that come from a range of perspectives.
Internalizing Values of Femme Competition
I curse like a sailor.
Whenever a new person joins my team at work, I always ask whether they’re offended or bothered by cursing, because without censoring myself I have trouble keeping “fuck” out of my vocabulary. Especially as I become friends with my coworkers, it’s just likely to happen. But one word that’s always gotten to me, that I use far less frequently, is “bitch.”
I think “bitch” is uncomfortable to me mainly because of misogyny–it’s a word used mostly for women, or is supposed to be emasculating when used for men. It has a really ugly sound in my ears when used as a quick insult. But I’ve also noticed that I do sometimes use it in certain phrases, i.e. “bitch please.” In that context other words don’t have quite the same impact.
When I do use “bitch” in phrases like this, I’ve realized that the common element is a certain kind of competition or cattiness. This variety of competition is coded as intra-femme or woman-on woman, and I’ve internalized it in such a way that it can actually make me feel better to put a woman or femme down through such language. Think of the triumphant femme archetype in a movie getting into an argument with a femme villain who’s done something particularly vile. “Bitch, you just made it personal.” I have the urge to cheer on my fellow femme, crow with the heroine’s scrappy resilience, but at the same time this triumph is actually about putting another femme down. What does that say about the values I’ve internalized?
Pitting oppressed folks against each other is a tale as old as time. Using media and culture to encourage poor white racism against people of color in the same economic position was an easy tactic for elite white folks to consolidate power. Similarly, I wonder how media that glorifies femme competition might encourage us to frame personal success as being cooler, more fashionable, or wittier than other femmes, rather than working together in collective action. After all, part of the whole point of femme community is to challenge narratives of female competition, but acting in solidarity and avoiding societal messages requires continuous struggle.
What If White Dominant Culture Was Covered in School?
Did your elementary school ever celebrate those “culture days” where kids were encouraged to dress up in some native costume, do traditional dances, sing traditional songs, and eat foods associated with a given culture? Maybe this is a 90s artifact, but I read something recently that mentioned them and cringed remembering my own school days. I used to love learning words of a foreign language and trying new foods, but I was never encouraged to consider the implications of those days that painted other cultures as strange and foreign. It certainly never occurred to me, as a white kid, whether the children who were from those cultures wanted to experience a day where they were so visibly othered, asked questions they might not have known the answers to or might not have wanted to answer for inquisitive white kids and teachers.
What if, instead of these awkward “culture days,” schools actually covered white dominant culture as a topic? Never in my school days was white culture acknowledged with any specificity, it was just background noise. But I now know that there’s plenty that could be covered, if schools wanted to be thorough. I’m not sure that it would necessarily be possible to avoid children of color and immigrant children again feeling othered in this unit, but with training it might be possible for teachers to normalize discussion of whiteness as something to consider, and to frame culture as something we all have. If such a unit were offered alongside history and literature lessons that fully incorporated cultures outside North America and Europe, I’d imagine that white kids would grow up to both be much more conscious of their privilege and much less freaked out when discussing race. And maybe kids of color would get to avoid at least a few of the awkward moments.
Internalized Biphobia: It’s a Thing
I have a confession to make on this Bisexual Visibility Day–I’ve definitely got some internalized biphobia going on. Whenever the topic of biphobia or bisexual invisibility comes up, I totally “rah rah” along in solidarity with bisexual folks, but I also have some kneejerk reactions to bisexuality as an identity that I need to keep interrogating. When I identified as gay, I had the bad grace to think of my own bisexual history as a phase I didn’t want to think too much about, and I definitely made the error of thinking of bisexual people as “less queer.” Now that I identify as queer, I’ve made some progress in understanding bisexuality as a valid identity for other people, but I realize that I’m uncomfortable identifying with bisexuality or seeing the commonalities between bisexuality and my own identity.
Queer in Public vs. Queer in Private
I’m thinking a bit about how queers experience space differently, and I notice that so many of my experiences of being queer are intricately linked with the dichotomy of public vs. private, even now as an out queer adult.
When queer folks talk about growing up and early sexual experiences, it’s often about hiding or trying to find safe space. Few of us had a safe, private place for sexual exploration, though sometimes keeping our identity quiet can grant us such a place. I remember kicking myself for coming out to my mom as a teen when my peers told me about being able to hook up behind closed doors, free from suspicion, because a parent would never suspect a same-sex friend. Similar dynamics can also come up for queer adults, looking for privacy as an alternative to potential violence and/or sexual abuse.