Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Putting One Identity Above Another

I often think about this one story LA Girl told me about this black friend she'd made who asked her when they first met whether or not she is feminine first or a lesbian first. I have, I think, all of LA Girl's e-mails to me in my e-mail account still, and sometimes I re-read some of them. The e-mail with this story is one of the ones I look at the most, if not the most. It's one of the examples I can point to of LA Girl coming close to offending me, and not just for one reason.

It's hard to say all the reasons why, but, for one thing, I felt like she was saying, "You're like this girl" without even knowing me. On top of that, she was silently making the girl look bad, in my opinion...i.e. she wasn't directly saying anything was wrong with her behavior or thinking, but she was giving the impression that the girl was wrong for her behavior and the way LA Girl assumed she thought as the "type" of black woman LA Girl perceived her to be. So it was kind of one of those moments where you feel like a white person is implying you're a racist and are inflicting "reverse racism" on him/her.

Well...I mean, I am a racist. I think everyone in the US is racist...we learn to be racist from day one, because race and racism are in everything in this country. Sometimes, we're racist against our own, and I think it's unrealistic to expect groups who experience racism on a regular basis not to be racist, as well. And today's racism is such that racism no longer really means thinking your race is better than others, because that's not exactly how I think. And it now means more than calling other groups derogatory names and just hating everyone from other backgrounds. It's now a lot of subtleties that we all engage in. So, yes, I'd say we're all racist now. I admit it about myself. It's just that this was not one of the times I was being racist, so I really didn't appreciate the implication.

LA Girl was nearly engaging in these subtleties. She wrote about how this girl was "black centered," as if something is wrong with that, and was relaying all kinds of stereotypes to me about black girls like this one she was telling me about. She bragged, basically, about having this black girl pegged before really even speaking to her and how the black girl ended up proving her stereotypes correct. Recall that, all the while, this is whom I'm indirectly being compared to, and this was months before LA Girl and I had formally met each other. Black girls like us don't like white girls, especially white girls like LA Girl. Meanwhile, I'm sitting there with a crush on her--go figure. ;)

Anyway, LA Girl wrote that she answered the question about being a woman or lesbian first by essentially saying she doesn't categorize herself like that...she tries to live authentically and as a whole person. So she was up on this high horse, I gather, when the truth is she is a lesbian "first." I mean, that's how she comes off to me, anyway. She cares more about being a lesbian, and I don't see what's wrong with that.

For me, I would never use the language of being this or that "first" because that's not how I think. But I think it's quite clear that I care way more about being black than being queer or a woman, and I view most gays that I've met as paying more attention to one of their identities than the other. The thing is I don't think we do this consciously--none of us. I think it's normal to focus attention more wherever you think society does and/or on the identity you view as more disadvantaged or what have you. For a white woman who is a lesbian, I would absolutely say her biggest problem in the world is being a lesbian...not being a woman. Most struggles she endures will be because of her sexual orientation, so it'd be nearly impossible to not focus on that or think about that identity more.

It's human nature to view things in relative terms. In psychology, you learn about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. On the very bottom, you have your most basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, and you have safety above that and so on. The idea is you can't really care about things higher up in the hierarchy until you have those things on the bottom. Once you have those things on the bottom, you kind of move on. We all have to be concerned about certain basics (i.e. getting food, shelter, etc), but we're concerned about them to varying degrees. Having food, clothes, shelter, etc, means so much more to people who don't really have these things or have a hard time obtaining them than it does to the rest of us. We take those things for granted and, thus, worry more about things higher up on the hierarchy, such as "self-actualization."

I buy into this idea, and I think it's similar to the idea of putting some identities above others, though definitely not perfectly parallel. In my international law class, we were talking about "the right to food" and how our nation focuses more on political and civil rights than making sure everyone has very basic rights such as food, shelter, etc. The textbook relayed arguments made by some that this is because things like war and torture are a bigger deal or are worse than not having enough to eat or something to that effect. There are just bigger things to focus on than the right to food.

While I don't agree with that, it fits with how, for example, I notice black gay bloggers discussing sexual orientation more than race while I discuss race more than sexual orientation. When they blog, race is a sub-topic of sexual orientation...for me, it's the other way around, or perhaps they are both adequately discussed. There are several black gays who distinguish race and sexual orientation by saying things such as black rights have been legally protected whereas gay rights have not, or that blacks have families to support them whereas gays do not.

But I don't agree with either of these things--I think the laws enacted to protect blacks more or less just sit there and aren't enforced like they should be (part of the problem is it's hard to enforce some of these laws), and that gay people who come out generally maintain their families, even if their families aren't supportive of their sexuality...and for white gays, at least, if they don't maintain their families, then they have friends made in the GLBT community to look to for support and to be "family." Plus, if a white gay person can lose his/her family, so can a black gay person.

And then there's the fact that, for me, the rights that gay people lack are rights that aren't personally important to me. I admit that I am extremely selfish when it comes to homosexuality and gay politics. Whenever I hear reasons for why people should come out, every now and then there's a "you'd be so much happier" or "you're being who you are" or "living authentically"-type arguments. The overwhelming majority of the time, though, it's about the larger cause and/or what you could do for others. Keith Boykin wrote that homophobia would end in the black church if every black GLBT person came out. Why is that? Because at least half of the black church would be gay? If that's the reason--and especially if that's not the reason--why would that really matter? Has being visible worked for black people in ending racism? I mean, it's just naive to think that you can end hatred on a large scale. Changing a person's mind here or there, possibly. Changing everyone's mind, no. Either way, I don't attend church--I've never liked church, and it irks me how blacks have this way of assuming all of us are religious--and so I don't care about homophobia in black churches. There's that selfishness again.

Besides, with everything that I've written about my experiences with and impressions of the gay community, I have yet to see why I should sacrifice myself for these people, the majority of whom can't or won't accept me for whatever reason. Coming out is a personal decision, or it should be. That means it's your decision as to whether or not you want to be part of the politics. So the black gay bloggers who seem more "gay centered," who refuse to say being black is worse than being gay or vice versa--or to even think about that because it's "not helpful"--or who think being gay is their biggest problem...that's their individual experience, their choice or their subconscience.

On Jasmyne Cannick's site, as I write this, she has a quote up that it seems someone has said about her, "Why does everything have to be so gay?" Honestly, I could easily ask the same question, because I have noticed that when I read her blog, Boykin's blog and Pam Spaulding's blog, the discussion does seem more lopsided towards sexual orientation. I think differently about coming out and about being black vs being gay, even though I absolutely think it's important to have blacks out there who are gay and discussing it. But I want to discuss race as a separate issue from homosexuality, as well, because the gay community ignores race in and of itself as a problem just as much as straight non-blacks do.

And I also don't want the straight black community being beaten up by everybody if I can kind of understand where they are coming from and can educate people/help foster understanding and communication by explaining it...which is why I do see utility in expressing my opinion that being black is more problematic than being white and gay. You can't expect a real answer--and thus, a solution--to "why are blacks more homophobic?" without that opinion, or by just saying "blacks aren't" or "what about white people??"

For me, being black is my biggest challenge in the world, and I think that would be true even if I were out to more people. As I said, it's their blogs and their individuality, but I do find myself wondering where are other general racial topics. I'm not saying they totally ignore these things, of course. I wonder how any gay black person could focus more on homosexuality than race or think being gay is more of an obstacle than being black is...but then again, having the exact same identities doesn't mean you have the exact same experiences in America or similar viewpoints on issues.

The topic of race also just happens to be one of my passions. Homosexuality is not. And when I say "passions," I mean it's one of those things I'm interested in from a scholarly standpoint, a career standpoint, as well as a personal standpoint. Why is race more interesting to me than homosexuality? I really couldn't tell you. It's like asking me why I prefer literature to math when I'm good at both. Again, it is not a conscious choice on my part. I just think about race more, and I'm forced into the societal racial dynamics much more so than societal sexual orientation dynamics.

So, for me--to go back to the Maslow hierarchy of needs example--my point is I take things for granted that white women and white gays, for example, don't, because their biggest obstacle is being a woman and/or gay. So they focus more on it. Being a woman or homosexual is down there, equivalent to food for people who have easy access to it, for me, and I'm focused on my current biggest obstacle. White women can point out all kinds of problems women face that I don't even begin to think about. Unlike the example with food, though, it's not because I have more access to women's rights than they do. And it's not like white women can overcome their problems and move on to my problems as a black person--they are still white women. It's just that when you have bigger problems on your hands, other problems become small or imperceptible in relation to those bigger problems.