By Guest Contributor Chris MacDonald-Dennis, originally posted at The Pink Pink Elephant
“But you all have the same issues we do! I mean, why are we even dividing ourselves, race doesn’t matter—we are all gay.”
Fifteen years ago, a white gay male friend said this to me after I asked him how responsive the LGBT group he ran focused on issues affecting people of color. He truly did not understand that LGBT people of color might have unique needs or that we may have different priorities than the white LGBT community. Since that conversation, I have worked diligently in the LGBT community to help my white brothers and sisters understand the privileges they enjoy as white people.
White privilege is a difficult concept for many whites to understand. As Peggy McIntosh contends in her seminal piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Whites are not taught to recognize how their status as white people confers on them many privileges. Hopefully, this piece will try to break the layers of denial that whites have about their privilege and that work to protect, prevent awareness about, and entrench that privilege.
White privilege is a set of advantages that white people benefit from on a daily basis not afforded to people of color. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country. The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.
White privilege teaches whites that only one’s own standards and opinions are accurate to the exclusion of all other standards and opinions. Because Whites generally view their beliefs and actions as normative and neutral, they fail to identify Whiteness as a racial identity and do not realize they are racialized as well. Though Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, average, and ideal, their perspective is not “objective” or neutral. By not confronting their privilege, Whites as the racially dominant group maintain that dominance.
Whiteness in the LGBT community is everywhere, from what we see, what we experience, and more importantly, what we desire. Media images in television and film promote a monolithic image of the ‘gay community’ as being overwhelmingly upper-middle class if not simply rich, male and white. Even the most cursory glance through gay publications highlights the scarcity of images of people of color. If we are represented, it seems that we only exist to serve the needs of the largely gay white population seeking an ‘authentic’ experience of some kind, either through sex, music or travel. To the white LGBT community, our existence as LGBT people of color, is merely an afterthought, an inconvenient fact that is thought about in the most insignificant and patronizing way.
In the LGBT political world, this shows up as White people thinking that the issues of importance to them are the only ones that matter. Many White LGBT folk do not realize that LGBT people of color have different perspectives and may think we as a community should focus on other issues. White privilege obscures the fact that LGBT people of color may frame a particular issue in a different way. Moreover, people of color who are attracted to the same sex may not even use the terms “gay”, “lesbian” or “bisexual.” However, the white framing of our issues is the only one allowed in our political discourse. The voices of LGBT people of color are generally not included unless the white LGBT group wants to reach out to communities of color. If LGBT people are included, they are often only done so as tokens and only if they agree with the white LGBT narrative.
We must continue to grapple with the ways invisible whiteness and white privilege permeate the LGBT community because they undermine our movement. Recently, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, released a report aimed at gaining a deeper understanding about the complexities at the intersection of race, sexual orientation and gender identity. I applaud HRC for this study and the subsequent blog conversations and online town halls they are holding. I hope, though, that HRC discusses white privilege as a part of this work. If they do not, the work will be incomplete. Paula Rothenberg, a professor who specializes in studying whiteness, reminds us that white privilege is the other side of the racial oppression coin. HRC, and other groups that are attempting to be more inclusive, cannot truly look at why people of color are not involved in the larger movement if they do not examine white privilege. It’s time for white LGBT folk to challenge their own privilege, listen to all voices and take on the issues that matter to all of us.
Racialicious Note: Image taken from the UC Berkeley 4th Annual Queer People of Colour Conference