Pam Spaulding

The difficult discussions people don't want to have

Filed By Pam Spaulding | October 04, 2007 8:51 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: ENDA, Facebook, LGBT civil rights, Louisiana, lynching, make an apology, Michael Richards, race, racism, transgender

I started out intending to do a short piece on this ridiculous incident in Louisiana about college students who thought it was knee-slapping funny to roll in the mud and play blackface on video depicting the Jena 6.

As I typed this out (again another wee hours of the AM post), it occurred to me the there are some interesting parallels that can be drawn about our difficulties discussing race and in the case of ENDA, transgender issues. Read on and see if you can make the connection.

White Louisiana students re-enact 'Jena 6' in blackface

From The Smoking Gun. The fact that these people thought it was hysterically funny to do this is all the evidence one needs to confirm that an honest discussion about the third rail topic of race is sorely needed.

A group of white Louisiana college students dressed in blackface and reenacted the "Jena 6" assault while a friend snapped photos and videotaped the staged attack, images that were later posted to a participant's Facebook page. The photos, which you'll find on the following pages, were taken late last month on the bank of the Red River, where students from the University of Louisiana at Monroe giddily acted out the racial attack. The photos (and the short video clip at right) were posted to the Facebook page of Kristy Smith, a freshman nursing student. The album of images was entitled "The Jena 6 on the River." In the video, three students with mud smeared across their bodies stomp on a fourth student, while two of the participants are heard to say, "Jena 6." One man can also be heard saying, "Niggers put the noose on."

The images were taken down, but not before other students snared the video. In subsequent Facebook postings, Smith said:

"We were just playin n the mud and it got out of hand. I promise i'm not racist. i have just as many black friends as i do white. And i love them to death," she wrote. She added in a later message that her friends "were drinking" and things "got a lil out of hand."

The Smoking Gun also points to similar racially charged images placed on Facebook by college students in Texas, Connecticut, and South Carolina.

***

The bottom line is that the first order of business was for Smith to declare she's not racist. That label is clearly radioactive to most people, so much so that they can simply cannot own the fact that they engaged in racist behavior. In their minds they rationalize away such incidents because a real racist burns a cross on someone's lawn, or ties a black man to the back of a truck and drags him until his limbs fall off.

The matter isn't helped when professional self-appointed Leaders of the Black CommunityTM (Jesse Jackson comes to mind first) tosses out the "racist" card way too often, explicitly because they know the label is radioactive.

Generally speaking, we can't get very far if people cannot even admit that racism is still part of our culture, and that one can engage in negative race-based thinking or behavior without putting a Klan hood on. Look at Michael Richards. One of the striking things about his unhinged apology on Letterman last year, after appearing onstage at a comedy club and going on an unhinged rant because of black heckler in the audience was that he felt compelled to say he wasn't racist.

"I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this," Richards said, his tone becoming angry and frustrated as he defended himself.

How is this not racist:

"Shut up! Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f---ing fork up your ass...Throw his ass out. He's a nigger! He's a nigger! He's a nigger! A nigger, look, there's a nigger!"

Those comments obviously indicate that Richards either must have been possessed by a racist demon or he was just "playing one" onstage that night, right?

The real problem is that Richards was more concerned about being labeled racist because contemporary society has deemed that label the sign of a fringe element, a social pariah.

Had he been more self-reflective he might have something more sane, such as "I realize that I am a product of a culture steeped in a toxic history regarding race, and my outburst -- and the response to it -- is a teachable moment. It's important to think about how we feel about race and how our internal views about race play out in our daily lives. I intend to do so, because there was no excuse for what I said on stage."

Instead, his advisers felt it was necessary for him to ring up Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to beg for mercy. That isn't productive.

***

This whole mess about ENDA, particularly the dialogue that has resulted in perceived anti-trans opinion to bubble up to the surface is quite similar to discussing race.

It appears some people are reluctant to publicly broach the subject of transfolk in LGBT movement and the effect on or strategy of the passage of anti-discrimination legislation lest they be labeled with the equally radioactive word "bigot." Nothing shuts down the conversation or draws a line in the sand faster.

If people want to make the case that Ts shouldn't be attached to LGB, then that's a discussion that reveals a serious difference in opinion and philosophy about the definition of our movement. It needs to be aired out honestly and openly. It's relevant to know how many hold this view and why. It's the first step toward admitting a problem we all must face to move forward.

It's one matter to make a case that the trans protections should be dropped from ENDA as a matter of strategy and pragmatism, it's a completely different matter to hold the view that Ts aren't really part of the movement at all and use the former as PC cover for belief in the latter.

Is this view due to lack of direct engagement with transfolk on the issue, a lack of education on the history of the movement, or is it because of some other factor that is worthy of open discussion that may inform those on the other side of the issue that may shed new light on the topic?

It really is identical to the problem our country has with race -- we'll never know if people aren't willing to express their fears without getting their heads bitten off. By the same token, no rational discussion about sensitive topics can take place if that expression is not really about engaging tactfully or diplomatically, but unloading frustrations in a way that is hurtful and shuts down conversation. That's what happens when people leave these discussions buried -- they come out in all the wrong ways, resulting flashpoints at the completely wrong time.

I don't have a solution, of course, it's a matter of observing human nature and how difficult we often make things for one another when we talk all around the real problem -- the lack of ability to communicate effectively.

Related:
* Slipping off of the ENDA tightrope


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Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | October 4, 2007 10:17 AM

This is an incredibly thought provoking post Pam. It raises some of the questions that John Aravosis raises in a post on Americablog.

There are no easy answers here. I have seen people raise similar and get smacked down, called a bigot and targeted by trans activists as being against transgender people.

I have also had the personal experience of returning a call from trans woman a few years ago about a conference that she was planning. In the conversation, such as it was, she told me that she did not want her conference associated with GLB groups because they were normal heterosexual people.

There is very little discussion of political strategy, movement history and the need for education about gender identity and expression. Anyone who raise the complexities are yelled at as being against transgender people and dismissed.

Its easy to see that the work to secure congressional support for a trans inclusive has not been done to the degree that it is needed. If the level of energy and passion that is going towards criticizing HRC had instead been put into an educational campaign focused on on members of Congress, we would be in a better position.

Having said that I expect that comments questioning my commitment to LGBT equality will be thrown my way. That's in a small way similar to what Aravosis says in his post about people being afraid to raise questions for fear of others screaming that they are bigots.

And so it goes....


Pam,

Thank you so much for your thoughts. Your post is one of the most necessary and thought provoking ones ive read in awhile, on any site, and it hits home with me in regards to the importance of educating people about our differences and where we come together. I feel truly lucky to have met the transpeople I have met who have taught me more about the importance of being who you are and fighting for that right than any other experience in my life. In regards to the offensive Jena 6 mockery, I think it shows a complete lack of cultural awareness and probably even a stronger will not to know. I feel lucky to have the experiences I have and the ability to keep learning...

thank you again.

Michael,
i am curious if you would trade equality for all for a political strategy that would benefit you and your group? If you would then how would you rationalize that decision considering it was the Gays and Lesbians that invited transfolk aboard the fight for rights for all.

Take care
Susan Robins

Pam;

As usual when I read your postings, the first thought that comes to my mind is that I wish I could write like that. My lack of journalistic skills and my heated passion are much more suited for a Queer Nation or ACT UP newletter.

I would like to pose this quesiton to you. If you had spent your lifetime marching, protesting and writing about the rights of GLBTQ folks and then when it comes to a vote, they decided to leave out the L word, how would you feel?

I find it incredible that it is even up for debate. It shows the weakness in our leadership and is further proof that Joe Solomese should be replaced.

Jack Jett

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | October 4, 2007 12:15 PM

Susan,

I am not sure that I understand your question. I think that what we have to do is continue to build a political strategy that moves us towards equality for LGBT people while strengthening our organizations.

The question is simple.

let me re word it in more blunt terms.

would you sell out part of the GLBT civil rights movement if it meant you as a gay man could have your right to not be discriminated against in employment.

What is there to understand?

Too many "GLB activists" are too willing to adopt the doctrine of situational ethics.
"The end justifies the means"

That is cheap and shallow.
and is the benchmark that separates those who truly believe what they are fighting for from everyone else in a movement.


Take care
Susan Robins

As usual when I read your postings, the first thought that comes to my mind is that I wish I could write like that.

Amen to that, Jack. Pam has definitely given us all something to think about with this piece. I'd say it's some of her best writing.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | October 4, 2007 5:52 PM

Aw, heck...lots of gay people aren't part of the movement, either. Doesn't mean we don't have one, though, nor that it would be right to include a requirement for them to take a gay 101 loyalty oath before gay rights laws apply to them -- or a tax to those who fought for their rights as well as ours even with sometimes their active opposition, much less their too typical non-support.

Great post Pam!

Just as many people with racist thoughts are quick to declare "I'm not a racist," many homophobes are quick to declare "I'm not homophobic, but....[insert argument against marriage equality/hate crimes laws].

People are more worried about appearing bigoted than they are about actually being bigoted.

Thank you, Pam.