Attempting to empathize with people who have done evil is scary. To place oneself into the position of someone we think has done a major injustice is a troubling experience that most people consider unthinkable. Why would anyone want to willingly place themselves in the role of people they believe to have done wrong? Few of us would be able to answer that question because it is so far removed from our experience.
Calling for the end of the wrongdoing that we see others perpetrate is—in most instances—easier, costs less and is more politically and socially acceptable. We can feel justified and safe in our moral high ground. We can write a letter, sign a petition, walk in a march, or attend a rally and then go back to our business as usual. Oftentimes, that is the routine of contemporary activism and allyship.
Recently, LGBTQ organizations authored and signed an open letter entitled From Ferguson to True Freedom. In the letter, the signatories call for “fundamental systemic change that tackles the root causes of racial and economic injustices once and for all” including “political accountability for the deaths of Michael [Brown] and Eric [Garner],” “immediate passage of federal legislation that completely bans racial profiling across this land,” “local police departments [to be] representative and fair arbiters of safety and protection for everyone and who — through their actions — are continually working to earn the trust, confidence and respect of the entire community.” They pledge themselves to “speak louder than words and take more action — to change more hearts and minds and fight even harder for the policies and practices that make statements such as this one obsolete.”
But what about their commitment to taking action in the areas of influence that LGBTQ organizations actually have i.e., their organizational cultures, policies and practices? Those areas closest to home among LGBTQ organizations did not receive any attention. Why? Too much letter writing and not enough mirror looking.
Most LGBTQ organizations have boards of directors, chief executives and senior leadership teams made up of well-meaning white people who fancy themselves liberal if not progressive. They see themselves as considerably different from the officers who have been killing Black people lately and the grand jury members who have chosen not to indict them. They believe this to be the case because they have convinced themselves that their education, worldliness, queerness cultural competency training and/or love of Black cultural and artistic expression has immunized them from the fears, prejudices and biases of the white people in the recent high-profile cases.
None of those things build immunity against the psychic impact of living in the systems of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Many of us have been bathed in and nursed on a diet of anti-blackness and white supremacy since we were born. They were interwoven in the children’s books, toys, educational materials, music, movies and television as well as the subtle and not subtle messages from family and loved ones. Anti-blackness and white supremacy are like air—transparent, omnipresent and essential. We breathe them in and out of our lives without thinking about it.
That is why a police officer who believes s/he is a good person with no racist tendencies can kill an unarmed Black person in the streets. It is why a grand jury member who believes s/he is a good person with no racist tendencies can find no probable cause to indict that police officer to a criminal justice trial to determine her/his guilt or lack of guilt. It is also why everyday in mainstream LGBTQ organizations the lives of Black LGBTQ staff and constituents are devalued, dismissed and marginalized by people who believe themselves to be good persons with no racist tendencies. Anti-blackness and white supremacy are the air we breathe—mindlessly but continually.
While thousands of Black LGBTQ youth experienced increasing rates of homelessness, structural vulnerability, HIV infection rates, violence, bullying and sexual assault, mainstream LGBTQ organizations focused on gay and lesbian marriage equality, acceptance in military service and the ability to march in parades. As the faces of HIV infection turned from white to black and brown, white people have held firmly onto the reins of decision-making in HIV advocacy, research, health care, treatment, and policy—shutting out Black LGBTQ HIV professionals from the leadership of a public health emergency that disproportionately affects their community.
Fear, an investment in comfort and a need to maintain self-concept make the act of looking in the mirror quite difficult for the many well-meaning white LGBTQ liberals and progressives working within mainstream LGBTQ organizations. Racial justice within mainstream LGBTQ organizations would necessitate some well-meaning white LGBTQ folks would lose their jobs, funding opportunities, and influence because in addition to obtaining those things through their hard work and qualifications they possess them as a result of the organizational structures and culture in place within all institutions in the Western society that hold Black people down.
Letter writing and open calls for “everyone, everywhere in our nation [to] do more to end racism and racial injustice…. with the specific mission of delivering lived equality, justice, and freedom for all,” as the From Ferguson to True Freedom letter states, are easier than paying the real price of racial justice, ending racism and fostering equity within mainstream LGBTQ organizations. Voluntarily sacrificing access, privileges, entitlements, and resources is less common and less desirable than empathizing with people others associate with wrongdoing.
Liberal and progressive white LGBTQ folks do not want to imagine that the same feelings toward and beliefs about Black women and men held by the police officer who beat a Black woman repeated in the head in California; another police officer who choked a Black man to death in New York City; a third police officer who shot a twelve-year old Black child to death in Cleveland are held by many liberal and progressive white LGBTQ people working in mainstream LGBTQ politics. Although they have not shot or choked any Black men and women to death, everyday in many LGBTQ organizations around this country they participate in silencing, soul murdering and marginalizing Black LGBTQ people. They do this through their agenda setting, policy decisions, office culture, workplace communication, hiring practices, partnership choices, funding demands, etc.
When the mainstream LGBTQ organization network writes a letter of critical self-reflection and commitment to racial justice to itself, it will gain enormous credibility on that issue. Until then, it will continue to be perceived as disingenuous and playing at allyship by those of us who know better and see the emperors have no clothes—and not in a good way.