Hatred is pervasive. Prejudice, bigotry, stereotypes and discrimination can sneak up on you during the most unlikely of times. And this is where we begin. This is not going to be your typical rant about prejudice or oppression, nor will it be an internalized pity-party about the woes of being the “gay black guy” on campus. Instead I hope to offer you an explanation and a bit of a what-not-to-do narrative.
Recently, a new friend received confirmation that I am gay. Immediately after this revelation she insisted that we should go shopping, go to a dance club and be best friends because she has “always wanted to have a gay best friend.” This scene was so familiar that it made my skin crawl and I could have written the script before she finished her list of stereotypes. These types of inscribed stereotypes are so established that I was easily placed inside them. If you are seeking my friendship because of the fact that I am a same-gender-loving man, and you are hoping for some stereotype manifestation, then we have a serious problem. If you knew me, you would know that I am fashion deprived (and that’s putting it nicely) and my idea of a good time is meeting up with friends in an environment that is conducive of conversation… or watching Harry Potter on repeat. What her expectations of my character made me realize were two things: first, that I am not who she expects me to be, and second, that if she has these beliefs about gay men, then she must have others, and some that could be more hurtful or dangerous.
If I am not who she expects me to be, is there something wrong with me? Am I doing “gay” wrong? Surely not. I am actively involved with lesbian and gay advocacy work, and I am involved with LGBTQIA life on campus. So I am doing it right. What is right is doing it in a way that makes me feel comfortable in my identity, not in the expectations of others based on stereotypes. What was more concerning is the other hidden stereotypes that she might have about gay men (or other queer people). These are the stereotypes that RockOUT (the student LGBTQIA organization) and other affinity groups on campus are working very hard to eliminate. We are starting a dialogue with the campus community about how to be more inclusive, welcoming, and accepting of diversity.
As a biracial man I find myself in even more troubling situations. First, my experiences are always minimized to the dichotomy of the black or white paradigm. Except, I am the walking, talking grey area! The situations that infuriate me are when people that I know, even my friends, remind me of when my inner black/white is coming out. They would probably be surprised to know that I only have an “inner-biracial.” I was raised in an interracial household, with an interracial family, with a whole host of experiences that were both culturally black and white, not black or white.
But I cannot just reject the reality of the dichotomy. It is my job, and the job of other social justice advocates, working with the system that we have, to transform it in a way that is more equal and equitable. The current state of our propensity towards racial profiling assumes that I am black and only black, and all of the attributes that come with that identity. For me this isn’t the problem, despite the fact that my entire cultural heritage is being reduced along with all of the richness and complexity that comes with it. The problem surfaces when I am reminded of the injustices that are served to people all over this country because they are black. This is the first solution: We should begin challenging people’s notions of what it means to be black, or what is means to be queer. Fact: What it means to be [insert identity] is unique to the individual, with some shared qualities. And, for the sake of equality, this new way of thinking should be expanded to include all minority and underrepresented people. This is the same challenge that I will offer you.
The challenge looks like this: think about what you are saying. If you think that what you are saying might be offensive, or offensive to someone with any given identity, then reevaluate it. Consider what the underlying message of your statement might be. The reason that racism, sexism, heterosexism, ablism, and all of the other -isms are so pervasive is because they happen on the micro level in our day-to-day social interactions.
I overheard a conversation on campus where one student said, “You know… all of the Kardashian’s are dating black men… I just don’t get it… “ And another student responded, “…they got it from their mother, what do you expect?” What’s to get? What’s the problem? GOT WHAT, FROM WHOM? On the surface this might seem harmless, but these statements are really reflecting a notion of racism that suggests interracial relationships should be frowned upon, or even outlawed (see the Supreme Court Case, Loving v. Virginia, 1967). This is 2015, friends.
To further this point, I’ll offer one final example. A few days after the former incident, another student said, “I love black people music.” In short, if it were “black people music” you wouldn’t be listening to it. The CD or MP4 didn’t come branded with a request for proof of racial identity to listen to the song. (To be clear, my iTunes list includes Eminem, the Frozen Soundtrack, The Fray, Beyoncé, Mumford & Sons and John Legend). Black artists don’t make music for black people; they make music for people.
Now, lets get back to the challenge: Think about what you are saying! Look at the people in your life and determine just how they do not fit into the stereotypes that our social world has created for us. The real challenge will be questioning the language that your friends and family use. It’s easy to stand up to our enemies, but difficult to stand up to friends. (See that, I just paraphrased a Harry Potter quote.) Even just asking “What is it that that you mean when you say ‘that’s so gay’?”
I am challenging each of us (including every race, ethnicity, gender, sex, nationality, religious creed, sexual orientation, ability status, etc.) to start a dialogue about our identities. I am challenging Slippery Rock University to be more inclusive, and not a breeding ground for ignorance. This institution has become, for many of us, a second home. Slippery Rock University is becoming a more diverse community; so let’s talk about it.