Friday, March 23, 2007

Reflections On Acceptance

My school is a very gay-friendly school, particularly my program. I'm not saying it's perfect--I doubt many places are. But even The Advocate recognizes my school as one of the best for gays and lesbians (although I don't really think rankings mean much), because it is. On the spur of the moment, as I sat down to write this, I decided to see if I could do some quick research and see if my school is listed as one of the best schools for blacks. A cursory search has not turned up any such list...or, rather, has turned up very short lists that cite black colleges and some of the very top predominantly white schools that we damn-well know couldn't possibly be one of the best schools for blacks, i.e. Duke. But I haven't found a formal list, though I remember seeing some back when I was looking at colleges and when I was enrolled in undergraduate school. I don't ever recall my current school being listed among them.

I want you to check this out:

Many blacks at predominantly white institutions find themselves living outside the mainstream of campus activities, with social options restricted to a relatively small group of fellow African Americans.
"Many blacks find white colleges to be segregated, unreceptive and damaging to their self-confidence," said Suzanne Malveaux, a 1989 Harvard graduate who did her senior thesis on African-American students who had transferred to Howard from white institutions. "They want to be part of a community where they feel comfortable"...there is a different atmosphere at a predominantly white school...
Carter Stewart...graduated from Stanford University but spent a semester at Morehouse. "It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by other black people," he said. "Blacks build defenses in predominantly white environments, and you lose them at a place like Morehouse. You don't have to be on guard all the time."

Obviously, for black people who don't fit in anywhere, it's not the case that you're going to feel better at a black school. I knew that for myself, and that's one of the reasons I rejected my mother's prodding me to apply to Spelman College. All-black would have been too much to handle for me, but all-girl, too? Talk about a nightmare. I know that sounds funny, given that I'm queer (and black). But I grew up being treated better by white people than black people, particularly black women. And black women can be, and oftentimes are, outright brutal. So it would have been a constant "you're not black enough" fest. The way they are about that at predominantly white schools is bad enough, even though the very fact that they are like this at a predominantly white school that they chose at least provides me some comic relief.

But now I'm in environments where the above quoted material rings more true than it used to. It's not so much that my school is unreceptive. We have the best administration that any predominantly white school could probably ever have. But that's them. The non-black students are nice enough. But you're always having to prove yourself. And by that, I don't necessarily mean in terms of intelligence. I mean that I think everyone else is either intimidated by us until we show them why they shouldn't be, until we make the effort to end segregation within a desegregated environment that has been re-segregated by the students themselves...or they just don't care about us one way or the other.

And at a school like mine where everyone is too busy congratulating themselves for being progressive thinkers and fighting for policies that benefit racial minorities, they are failing to realize that they themselves fall into these categories. They don't realize that they are alienating. They argue for affirmative action, and then...well, what's the point if you're not going to incorporate so-called affirmative action beneficiaries into the social environment? Or do they just think that we should have equal access to the education but not equal access to a good quality of life, not realizing that there's a connection between the two?

I don't know if people at black colleges perform better academically, even though that's what I've heard. And this law professor, Richard Sanders, claims that blacks make the lowest grades in law schools, fail the Bar exam at higher rates than others and have trouble succeeding in the legal profession and leave it altogether because they are admitted to law schools for which they are not adequately prepared. And he's quick to discount any other possible reasons for these failures.

But I maintain that, if blacks really are having noticeable difficulty with success in law school and the legal profession, the real culprit is all this silent alienation in all these predominantly white environments. If you don't feel totally welcome somewhere, you're not exactly going to be happy there. And not being happy, not wanting to be in a place or feeling like you don't belong there will inevitably affect performance. And all the racial tensions that exist, whether people acknowledge them or not, will inevitably result in disparate treatment, i.e. my experience with the group I joined for people who are not out...or even the group that LA Girl tried to join for "people of color" as a white person.

To be quite frank, I've come to the conclusion that the legal profession is not really for black people. It's not really even for women. It's for white males. This has nothing to do with ability; it's all about the way the profession works, beginning with law school even. Everything about law school is set up for white males to succeed, from the way the classroom is conducted to the way grades are distributed. It's all about competition and being argumentative for absolutely no reason.

Yes, there are women and minorities who enjoy these things (and there are white males who do not). There are several at my school who get off on back-and-forth debates in class, sharing their opinion on every single question the professor could possibly throw out, showing off their intelligence and the arbitrariness of a curve grading system. I know some of these blacks personally. But overwhelmingly, this is a white male thing. In any law school across the country, you'll see that the majority of the people who are satisfied with the law school classroom methods and who participate in class at nauseating rates are white males, and the practices were invented by white males.

And this is one of the places where I can actually point to a difference between my white best friends and me. Both of them like to participate in class, and both of them are argumentative. They are still women, so they argue in a different way than men do. When my best friend at school and I are disagreeing about something, it's not this increasingly intense intellectual "How could you not think this? You're stupid!" thing that males do where they eventually seem irritated with the other person but are actually loving every second of it. It's more like an "I see what you're saying, but..." discussion in which she validates your opinions and states her opinion as if they're just that, not as if they're absolutely correct. And she knows that there are cultural issues in the legal profession, that it's bent more towards white males. And we've never really sat down to actually have this discussion.

But I get the sense that she doesn't see whiteness and maleness in everything we do here like I do and that it's going to be harder for some of us to conform to that than others. It's obviously going to be easiest for white women, out of all the other non-white male individuals, to make that jump. She's doing a great job, and she's going to go far, as long as she doesn't let her future husband hold her back. She's closer to that white male culture than I am, and that's what law school and the legal profession rewards. Furthermore, they are not even close to trying to adapt law school or the legal profession so that it's more welcoming towards everyone, allowing everyone a relatively equal opportunity to succeed. My minority friends and I talk about these things quite a bit, and you know it's pretty bad when even Asians feel alienated since they are the most accepted minority group in this country.

The really funny thing is the legal profession is, by and large, run by these self-congratulating liberals...the same ones who fight for minorities to enroll at these law schools, yet ignore them on a daily basis and fail to incorporate them into the social environment. They act enlightened about the whiteness and the maleness of the legal profession and lament it, and then they turn around and maintain its status quo and sit around board meetings at law firms asking why they have so many problems with minority retention. That's the one place in which I hope my best friend succeeds where these fake liberals fail, because I see her trying hard even now to succeed here--that is, I hope that when she gets to a law firm, she's the person pushing for minorities to come to work there, to receive opportunities to move up there, to feel comfortable there, etc. Having her anywhere makes me forget about thinking I need to have black people around to be comfortable.

I see a lot of white people here who have the best of intentions. But...they still are looking for us to prove ourselves before they accept us socially. This is something that, in my opinion, they don't do with white gay people, even though I'm sure some white gays at this school feel uncomfortable--in fact, the e-mail I mentioned by LA Girl kind of indicated to me that she feels like straight women can't just accept her as a woman like they are or that they deny a lesbian is among them. I'm not in a position to know anything about that except in relation to race. I don't even know what it means to deny a lesbian exists--does that just mean nobody talked about it? Were they supposed to?

My observation, at least in my program, has been that lesbians are accepted just fine by the heterosexuals here, even the black ones. The black ones just have to be careful to not acknowledge their blackness too much around these people, but it's perfectly fine for them to talk about white people in a negative tone and complain about being black to me and our other black friends. I'm just not willing to pretend like that, and if that means I won't be accepted or will be viewed as a racist, angry black be it.

I was chatting with someone yesterday who reads my blog, and she indirectly brought it to my attention that LA Girl kind of seemed to have these same standards for me. LA Girl was perfectly willing to talk about race, but in that "I'm a knowledgeable white liberal, so I've done nothing wrong" kind of way. Her being a lesbian was another added layer. I honestly can't speak for her--I have no idea what she was thinking. But I do wonder if she was just like every other white person, i.e. liberal up to a certain point, so I wasn't allowed to go certain places in racial discussions. I wasn't supposed to point out her white privilege relative to my blackness because it hurts her feelings. I wasn't allowed to contradict her understanding of black people and what it's like to be black. I wasn't supposed to tell her she's not as enlightened as she thinks. I'm the racist separatist for saying these things.

I think she hoped--maybe even expected--that I put being gay "first," despite her claiming she doesn't do that. I could talk about race as long as I did that and didn't point out how it affects us differently in the world. I'm supposed to focus on our shared identity, not what makes us different, even if I'm just being honest and not doing it as a way to reject her. I was supposed to choose, and I made the "wrong" choice if I was hoping to keep her as a friend. Before, I could never understand what was wrong with my acknowledging our differences. But then I learned that other white gays feel the same way. We're gay now; let's drop the racial divisions and just be gay, especially since being gay is as bad as being black or worse. If only it were that simple. After all, those kinds of sentiments tend to come from people who don't even entirely do as they wish us black gays would.

The funniest thing is that these "liberals" like LA Girl can't even just look around and see that blacks aren't being accepted in the "gay community" any more than blacks are in society in general, or that they are pressuring us to choose gayness over blackness in order to gain their acceptance. In one e-mail to me, she wrote about how she belongs in West Hollywood. Funny--isn't that the place where one of these gay males say blacks aren't welcome? When we met, she told me she doesn't like to go places where minorities aren't welcome. Hmmm, is there something she's missing about West Hollywood, or is she just too busy enjoying white privilege? If you know anything about this, please inform me because CA is a place I want nothing to do with and know nothing about.

I remember this other time when she asked me to go to a bar (or pub or whatever) near our school with her. I didn't know anything about the place because bars/pubs/clubs/etc are not my style. I was working on a paper, so I couldn't go. I ended up going another time during finals because some of my friends and classmates wanted to go there after we finished an exam. When we got there, my Indian friend and I just looked at each other. It was this smokey, drunken, lily white place. So, for those of us who know--drunk, 99.9% white, you're the only black person there. Is that, or is that not, a potentially dangerous combination?? After all, people's true colors show most of all when they're drunk. No PC bs. People get crazy after a few drinks.

I tend to listen to much of what my mother has to say, but one of the best things she has ever told me is to never be the only black person anywhere. And she followed up with stories about black people being killed in such places, and this was not in the 1960s. In addition, I've heard/read enough news articles of my own in the last five years to know that there are just some places black people shouldn't go, even if it's not dangerous. Two stories come to mind.

When I was in college, I read in the newspaper about this black female going to an open house for a "white sorority" at a nearby university--a major university, at that, but I still bet you didn't hear about this. When the white members discussed the girls who applied, they put the black female's application aside and discussed her separately...which I believe was not allowed. Comments to the effect of "why would she come through here" were made in the meeting. One of the white girls told, and the other girls treated her so badly that she wanted to move out of the sorority house. But she wasn't allowed to move out. Her only option for getting away from the mistreatment for doing a good deed was to drop out of school...which is exactly what she did.

The second story happened where I'm originally from just last year and is the perfect example of why you need to have white people in your life who understand basic racial information, such as that black people still aren't "allowed" everywhere they are even today, if you're going to have white friends...and this was all I was trying to convey to LA Girl. You see, this black girl had a white boyfriend whom I think was in this "white fraternity" whose party they attended together. And his fraternity brothers harassed both of them at the party. This was a fraternity that other members of his family had been in, so it was like a family legacy and a big deal for him to be in this fraternity. But things became so bad that it turned into, at least, a big local news story that resulted in protests on Facebook and at the university, as well as this guy leaving the fraternity.

Yes, both of these things happened in the South. But what people don't understand is that racism and not being "allowed" or accepted in places on the basis of race is not a regional thing. And with all of these places, you're accepted in theory. It's not like you can't physically enter. But it can easily become uncomfortable, and that's something I know all too well. Every day, I deal with the fact that I'm not "supposed" to be somewhere on a subtle basis. I'm not "supposed" to be at my law school, you know. Less than 10% of us here are black, and there weren't any blacks in LA Girl's program, last I checked. So I wasn't going to take the risk of walking into a place where I probably was more obviously not supposed to be. I get more than enough of that.

But, of course, I was in the wrong for thinking this way, which I couldn't figure out. This was my way of rejecting LA Girl and putting race ahead of sexual orientation rather than just my way of being practical, I suppose, in her mind. I was just supposed to go because she wanted me to, forget not being racially comfortable or possibly even safe. But, still, this is someone who allegedly "gets" black people because she's a lesbian and has a few black and non-white/non-American friends. To her, the situation was all about my not wanting smokey, sticky hair or just wanting to be around more black people.

The black people at my school, regardless of sexual orientation, who aren't bothered by the structure of law school and the legal profession or anything else I've written about--or maybe aren't as bothered as the rest of us here are--probably see the world only a little more clearly than LA Girl does. I think these are the kind of black people she prefers. The thing about that is those are the kind of people the majority of liberal whites prefer. They want the ones who won't rock the boat, the ones who won't really talk about or think about sum, the ones who won't make white people feel bad about being white, whether that's the goal or not.

Gay or straight, it doesn't make a difference. We often have to be the ones to walk up to white people and show we're "good blacks" and that we don't hold a grudge against white people. LA Girl never would have known I existed, just as the majority of the white people at my school don't, if I hadn't e-mailed her and said I didn't agree with the rest of the group's not wanting white participants. She probably never once looked at me during the whole meeting. And if it's not white people wanting you to be raceless, it's them wanting you to be blacker than you are. They're coming up to you with racial stereotypes, expecting you to conform to them or talking to you about "black" things you know absolutely nothing about. In other words, they like you just because you're black. I used to think this was why LA Girl was interested in me as a friend, but now I'm not so sure.

In my program, every straight person I know has more than one gay friend in our program when the majority of whites don't have any black friends here. Half of our GLBT organization is straight people who are very supportive allies, and it's a very active organization at the law school--probably the most active. Our black organization only has, perhaps, two or three non-blacks in it, and only one of those is a white person. And the only (out) gay people in our organization are the black gays at our school, not white gay supporters of racial issues...which is funny since gay white people often expect black people to understand and support gay rights just based on the fact that they're black and experience racism.

But though blacks get criticized for being homophobic, there are several straight black supporters of gays in our GLBT organization. And you don't have to worry about bringing up homosexuality, gay issues or gay rights and people kind of going into a shell and getting uncomfortable or dropping you as a friend when this is exactly what I deal with when I bring up certain racial issues. Our black organization can advertise events and damn-near beg for any and everyone to come, and only blacks will show up. The GLBT organization simply can advertise events and straight people will show up and be the first ones in all the photos on our GLBT website.

Gays demand equal treatment right now and are outraged, as if they are the only ones not being treated equally in America. But what I see every day is a group of people who are generally already more accepted than a group that's been fighting for equal treatment for over a century. Life is certainly not perfect for gays, but the sentiment I hear more often than not from other gays is that it's not as bad as they thought it was going to be. Well, everything's worse than I thought it was going to be for me, based on race. Absolutely none of my straight friends here would care if I came out to them right now. Hell, they're all in the GLBT organization, except for a few of them. My sisters would care, but they'd accept me right away. My parents would care, but they'd accept me quickly while struggling with the idea of it for a while.

I realize this is just my life--there are a range of coming out experiences. But it still bothers me to know that some part of my identity that I haven't even completely discovered and can hide relatively easy is much less problematic to the world around me than a part I was visibly born with and can do absolutely nothing about.