Whiteness, Space, and the Meaning of Community: A Conversation

Jonathan Mathias Lassiter I LGBTQ Rights I Commentary I April 3rd, 2014

The following is the first part of a conversation that took place on February 23, 2014 at 3:13pm between three queer members of the Hampton Institute: A Working Class Think Tank. The members are Eyad Alkurabi, Director of Projects and Activism; Mike Perry, Chair of the Race & Ethnicity Department, and Jonathan Mathias Lassiter, Chair of the LGBTQ Rights Department.

Eyad : A major problem, particularly in my area, and probably in New York City, and probably everywhere across the States, especially in gay bars that is ridiculous, the racism in gay bars and all that shit! That whole culture itself. What's interesting is I gave an article, I shared an article about kink, and people of color having our own space within the kink culture.

Mike : Kink?

Eyad : Yeah, like S&M and BDSM [Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism] and all that kind of stuff.

Mike : Oh okay.

Eyad : And this typical white guy was like…anger issues. And I was like okay, "so, you just proved why people of color, we need spaces within the kink culture itself." You know, kink culture, BDSM, you would think we wouldn't have that kind of issue - but, no, they do have that kind of issue.

Mike : To be completely honest, I'm not very familiar with kink culture. Can you give me some background information on it? I know the general idea behind it, like S&M. But what exactly are the different nuances of kink culture?

Eyad : (Personally) I'm in to leather kind of stuff. I'm not too wild. I'm not like real hardcore. I do see that there are some issues that people of color dealing with kink and all that stuff. Whips and chains and all that shit. But what I'm thinking, more or less, is that when we get our own spaces, we get attacked for it and I don't understand why. Why do you two think that we get attacked when we suggest speaking for ourselves?

Jonathan : One of the reasons I think that happens is because of the same reason that happens when heterosexual people of color try to advocate for their own spaces. I think it's because…a classic example is around Black History Month. When people ask, "why don't we have a white history month?" I think it's this sort of narcissistic worldview-a very white-centric worldview-where everything revolves around whiteness and white culture, which is in and of itself is invisible. White culture is especially good at erasing itself. Through its erasure of itself it can normalize its power effectively. Something that is invisible is hard to deconstruct and fight against. So with this invisible white-centric world view, one can say, "this isn't white BDSM or anything like that, this is just BDSM. So now why do you want to separate from BDSM?" When the actual separation is already in place; however, it is not highlighted, it is erased. Then you get that backlash like, "why do you want to be separate? Nothing is ever going to change if everyone wants to be separate."…And I think it's a narcissistic, white-centric worldview that as people of color we're really coming up against. And part of me thinks…and this isn't necessarily politically correct or scientific, but I think part of it is just this "I can't believe I'm not the center of the world. What do you mean you don't want to be a part of this, a part of me? What do you mean you don't care about what I think as this white person? You should be in awe of my whiteness. You should want my whiteness. What do you mean you don't want my whiteness?" I think it has something to do with that.

Mike : I couldn't have said it better myself. I agree with Jonathan on all points. Because there definitely is this sense of self importance that I think is pervasive throughout so-called white culture, especially gay white culture. I think gay white men are not necessarily separate from dominant heterosexist white culture. A lot of gay white men mimic a lot of the things that happen in heterosexist white culture. It's a struggle to separate themselves from that. Even though they exist in a minority group they still adhere to these social norms and these values that exist in heterosexist society.

Eyad : I think that's true. Just because a person's gay doesn't mean that they don't have privilege….When I had that conversation about that BDSM thing about dividing and separating. I responded to that person, "listen. We're not dividing. We're not separating. You have the whole universe, white person. I just want this little space. You can't handle me having my own little space so we can talk about things that affect BDSM culture, kink culture, hardcore culture, sex….It's really interesting. More or less, it's a native problem in our community and we need to find a way to do things about it.

Mike : I agree. I think I'm kind of split down the middle on this one. On the one hand I feel like we need to address these so called issues in society. But at the same time I also feel like by doing that are we giving power to white supremacy by saying that we need to be incorporated into the larger gay white society.

Jonathan : …But I don't think that's what Eddie's saying. Right, Eddie? I think you're saying you're advocating for distinctive spaces for people of color, right? Not incorporation?

Eyad : I don't want to be at their table. I want to smash their table. (Chuckle) But Mike carry out your point though.

Mike : I was just saying that I'm just wondering what the fight is. Is the fight that we are just trying to be recognized as a separate space and for other people, the larger gay white culture, society to be okay with that? That's what I'm trying to understand.

Eyad : I think we should have our own space and be unapologetic about it. Yeah, we're still in the queer community but there are times we need our own spaces like when microaggressions get thrown around at conferences. Like when we're on calls and people make jokes. It's like, "no, people of color need to meet up and talk about shit and discuss stuff while we're angry." We need to face this feeling. I don't think we should ask, we should be respected, demand respect. I'm going to fight for those in that community and I'm going to be a leader in that community. I'm will advocate community on a whole. You know what? Me as a person, as an organizer, I should be respected like that. You know? Get the fuck out of here with this bullshit! You know, Mike? You know, Jon? What the fuck?!

Jonathan : I think it's important to ask the question: respected by whom? Because my thing is, the more I live life, the less I care about being respected by certain folks. I think as queer people of color we can definitely-and we do, and history bares this out-have been able to form our own communities and we have been able to create family in a sociological sense within those communities and have various levels of support. So, I think we're already doing it and I don't think we need anyone else's permission nor respect nor acceptance nor any type of seal of approval. I think when you're talking about creating spaces I think it should be as that old FUBU slogan went: for us, by us. I would add, forget everyone else who's not involved. So when you talk about respect, we should ask, "respect by whom?"

Mike : Exactly. I feel that it's not necessary. Why would you want to seek respect from someone who inherently doesn't respect you in the first place? Someone who doesn't see you as an equal? You know what I mean? I have no real interest in being a part of the larger gay white society culture who does not already see me as an equal. Even if I'm establishing my own space, or queer people of color establishing their own spaces outside of the larger dominant gay community, I don't think queer people of color should be looking for respect or approval from anyone except themselves to be quite honest.

Eyad : Yeah.

Jonathan : And I think, Mike and Eddie, that is the larger issue. I think when we talk about issues like gay racism and things like this, I think it really has to do with gay internalized racism. A lot of times, and not everyone, but in my opinion anecdotally speaking, I would say that the majority of folks that are like "this white guy is discriminating on me because of this and this and this." It's like, well it only matters because you care about that white guy's opinion. It only matters because you want to have sex with that white guy. If you weren't trying to have sex with that white guy none of this would matter.

Mike : Exactly.

Jonathan : So that's my whole point. Now, mind you, full disclosure: my boyfriend is a white Jewish guy. However, he's not with me because I'm black and I'm not with him because he's white. And when I was on the dating scene, I wasn't carrying the rallying call. There are plenty of reasons why people don't want to sleep with me. I mean, I'm short, I'm skinny, I'm not a thug. There are plenty of reasons why people don't want to sleep with me. Now, when you talk about creating spaces I don't think people should be hindered from renting spaces or getting business licenses to be able to create spaces. You're getting into a whole other legal issue in that respect. But when you're talking about gaining approval from the larger quote-unquote community…I would put that word in quotes because when I look at the quote-unquote white community, I don't see much community there either within white folks. So I'm really not interested in that. I think we should ask those questions. Why is this approval so important for us to have? To be recognized by whiteness?

Mike : I agree completely.

Eyad : I think you're right, Jonathan. I agree with a lot of what you said. As you were talking earlier I'm wondering is there really a LGBTQ community? Are we really a community or are we just people who ally ourselves together because we have worked together…Are we really a LGBTQ community? That's a tough question.

Mike : I wouldn't say that we are not a community because I don't think that's true. I would say that we are a group of people who are labeled as such based on our sexual or gender identity. I think that there is a lot more that goes into community and I feel that the LGBTQ…There is also fragmentation within that, obviously, because we all have different experiences and different issues based on how we identify within that group.

Eyad : I think within the margins we do have a LGBTQ community. But I do think that there are a lot of people in this community who are in the mainstream, particularly gay, white, cisgender, wanna-be straight guys who happen to have jobs on Wall Street. Within the margins, we have a community. But in the mainstream, I don't know. We have these people who gladly get out of the glass ceiling and put it on the rest of us. Do you know what I mean?

Jonathan : As I sit here and hear you two talk, I'm thinking: community, community. What does community mean? I always try to think about definitions and who's defining this and who's defining that. I look at other examples of other quote-unquote communities and I think that if you're talking about a group of people…when you look at…I always go back to the black community because I am an African American man. But if you look at the black community, most black people would call themselves a community or communities. But even within that there has always been, as you said Eddie, the mainstream. If you go back to the Civil Rights Movement there were the mainstream folks, the heterosexual folks, the men, the cisgender heterosexual black men. And then there were the black women and then think about Bayard Rustin and the countless others queer black folk that were relegated to the margins. So you have a set of issues that were germane to mainstream within that community that surfaced and rose to the top while the set of issues that might have been important to the people at the margins got pushed out. However, overall, there was a general issue of racial equality. So if we take that example and then look at queer folk, I guess you have the same thing. In that sense there is a community. There is the mainstream that is pushing this marriage equality, which in my mind has always been about economic sustainability and success and this aping of heterosexual norms. If you think about it in that way, that has come to the forefront. And issues of education, housing, and workplace discrimination, which has always been concentrated among people of lower socioeconomic classes and people of color. Those things, those people who are facing those things are pushed out and edged to the margins. So you see that type of pattern where an oppressed community is trying to infiltrate or become accepted or assimilate into the mainstream. So in that sense, yeah, there is a community. But when I think of the word community, I think about a sense of common goals and camaraderie and support. And when I look around, I don't' feel that from the quote-unquote queer community as a whole. I have never felt like my interests are these people's interests or they care about me. I feel that on a smaller scale. Eddie, you said that there is a community at the margins. I do feel that on a smaller level but at a larger level I don't feel that community in that second sense that I talked about.