Thursday, September 18, 2008

Homophobia and Racism: Why the political is always personal

By Gregory Esteven

A couple nights ago I had an experience that I've had countless times in my life: talking with people who seem nice - who have great potential to become friends of mine - and then they make some incredibly racist or homophobic remark. These people managed to do both in the same conversation!

You see, I've just moved to a new town, and I've been trying to get to know my neighbors in my apartment complex. I can be a bit shy, so I don't make friends too fast. But I was impressed by the couple next door. The second night I was here they came knocking on my door, offering me beer and asking me to come over for a while. It went well. All my interactions with them since that time have been highly pleasant, until the other night.

When I was hanging out with them the guy, all of the sudden, started not-so-quietly complaining about "those black people downstairs" who were just "so typical...noisy and obnoxious." I was rather taken aback, because I had heard him say only good things about the young African American woman who lives a few doors down. Well, I'm not sure why I was expecting logical consistency when racism itself is utterly irrational.

Then the girl brought up a bad living situation that one of her friends was in once. She was "totally normal," apparently, but had the misfortune of living in an apartment complex "with a bunch of weird people and gays and lesbians."

I left shortly after that without calling them out on their offensive remarks despite the fact that I fancy myself committed to fighting racism and am, myself, openly queer.*

As you can imagine, I feel pretty crappy about myself for dropping the ball. By not challenging their hateful speech, I did what sociologist Alan Johnson calls "following the path of least resistance," which is part of how all of us, in our daily lives, enable systems of power and oppression to operate. Through my silence, I was helping to uphold White supremacy and was even helping to oppress myself as a queer!

I do take a stand on these issues as often as I can. I speak out. But sometimes I feel like I just can't do it. I feel too beaten down, and I think, "No, I can't even defend myself (or other people) now. I can't try to educate this person, it's useless, I'm just trying to get through my day. I want to be left alone. I'm tired, and sick of dealing with it." Especially when it comes to homophobia I have developed an ability to file my negative emotions away really quickly as though they didn't exist. That's the result of growing up in rural Louisiana, where I had to listen to middle school and high school teachers go on about the "immorality of homosexuality," and hear other kids continually make eloquent statements like, "I hate faggots," even as I was discovering my own sexual "abnormality." I felt like a freak among fools, but at least I could toss those emotions away. Maybe in some situations that's the only thing you can do.

All those years I liked to pretend that I was above it all and that bigotry didn't really affect me. Now, I know different. I know that it contributed to my depression and frequent suicidal feelings that I had throughout my teenage years. It helped give me a painfully-negative vision of the world, but it was an education that made me committed to change. It forced me to become aware of oppression in all its hideous varieties, in a way that I might not have otherwise. I'm not saying that as a queer European American, I have a praeternatural insight into the experiences of other oppressed groups, such as African Americans, but by making analogies to our own experiences, we can at least begin on the difficult road to understanding each other, even though analogies can be misleading: In regard to sexism and racism, Trina Grillo and Stephanie M. Wildman have made the point that "The 'analogizer' often believes that her situation is the same as another's. Nothing in the comparison process challenges this belief, and the analogizer may think that she understands the other's situation fully. The analogy makes the analogizer forget the difference and allows her to stay focused on her own situation without grappling with the other person's reality." Thus, the insights of analogy are only a starting point. Learning to listen is the next, and most important, step. It is a continual process of learning and reflexivity.

Individually, we are bound to fail some of the time, just as I did the other night when I took the path of least resistance. I have found that the most important thing is to collaborate with others who are committed to ending exploitation and oppression. This gives us a strength that we couldn't have alone, and keeps us on the path. Every time I feel like I want to give up, I remember the countless people throughout history who have resisted, who are resisting now, and who will resist in the future. No one should feel like they are alone

*Of course I question the modern concept of sexuality as identity, just as I reject race as an ontological category. I take seriously Foucault's historicist interrogation of sexuality as well as arguments that race is socially constructed. I believe that these categories, like the proletariat in Marxism, are the effects of historically-contingent relations of power. What really connects people consigned to oppressed and abject groups are similar experiences in society, not some essence.