Confronting privilege, racism as a white LGBTQ+ person

This week in Louisville, Lexington, and in cities all across the state and country, protesters are organizing to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the innumerable victims of black genocide at the hands of law enforcement. Participating in these protests, most of which have been met with unnecessary force by the police, has been an eye-opening reminder of the privilege I have as a white queer.

As a white person I have the luxury to choose to participate in the protests, thus putting myself voluntarily in harm’s way, or to “stay home and stay safe.” My black friends might have the choice to stay home, but staying home doesn’t guarantee they stay safe. Just ask Breonna Taylor’s family. As a white person I have the luxury to decide whether I pay attention to what’s going on, or tune it out to preserve my energy and mental health. My black friends might have the option to turn off the news and delete their Facebook account—but they can’t turn off their imaginations, delete their memories, or resurrect their dead.   

On Sunday May 31, police fired rubber bullets at a group of protesters that I was marching with. Protesters fled in all directions, and as my friend and I made (what we thought was) our escape, several large vans full of uniformed men turned the corner, slowing when they saw our black masks and goggles, and pointing. We held our breaths and continued walking as casually as we could as they passed us. As we would later learn from our friends who were out that night, other groups, namely those containing black people, were not let off the hook so easily. 

I have zero doubts that my maleness, my “passing” privilege (the fact that I read as cis despite being trans), and above all my whiteness is the reason those state-sanctioned terrorists decided to look past us, and pursue other defenseless victims instead. Groups of two and three and even individuals fleeing the scene alone were chased, taunted, and terrorized with military weapons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. One of my friends, a white woman who was attending the protest with a black woman, was chased all the way to her car by several policemen, with guns pointed at her as they yelled “run you fat c-nt” and “protest pussy.” The black woman sought refuge in some bushes in a yard, until the homeowner, a white person, came outside and told her she couldn’t hide there.  

But my privilege has been made most glaringly apparent in my option of choosing to ignore casual racism. As white people we have the luxury of sweeping racist comments under the rug, because the presence of racism in the world has no negative bearing on us. In fact, we benefit from it. Though the demonstrations in Louisville have highlighted how expressions of overt racism, such as police brutality (e.g., use of rubber bullets in Highlands protests but real bullets in the West End), is alive and well, we white people are often less cognizant of the more covert ways in which we contribute to racism subconsciously. 

Nothing brings out a person’s true colors—our blind spots, biases, and beliefs—like civil unrest in the name of social justice. Right now even the whitest neighborhoods are filled with racial tension, and even conversations between white people are racially charged. Everyone is talking about race—if not directly, then by implication. This means that white people are finding even more opportunities than usual to be racist—and to turn a blind eye to these offenses. I’ll be the first to admit: the increase in racial tension in common discourse—in conversations at work, on social media, at the checkout counter—has made me uncomfortably aware that I need to get better at calling out racial microaggressions when I witness them. And I am getting better at it. Amazing, how something gets easier when you practice it. 

Microaggression is defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” The term came about after the Civil Rights era, when overt and violent expressions of racism went out of fashion (i.e., became controversial) and were replaced by subtler expressions. Now the term has itself become controversial, and seen by some (cough boomers cough) as out-of-control political correctness. The funny thing about this argument is that itself is a microaggression. It ignores the lived experiences of marginalized groups, suggesting that they are wrong about the nature or severity of the offense. But white people don’t get to decide what counts as racist, just like men don’t get to decide what’s sexist, cis folks don’t get to decide what’s transphobic, etc. 

Common microaggressions my black friends have reported hearing a lot lately, include: 

-“I have black friends” (…and therefore my opinion isn’t problematic or racist, even though you, a black person, are telling me that it is from your own lived experience)

-The assumption that one black person can speak for all black people (i.e. failure to acknowledge diversity within black experience, particularly at the intersection of race and class, gender, sexuality, gender identity

-The expectation that black people should be emotionally available to explain, correct, or educate (i.e., failure to do our due diligence to research and think critically before demanding or requesting a black person’s emotional labor)

The reason that microaggressions are so tricky to address, is that they are often nuanced, subtle, and even well-intended. In my opinion it’s not very hard to shut down overt racism. It’s harder to tell someone that a comment is racist when it seems to stem from ignorance, rather than maliciousness. It’s so much easier to laugh nervously, or pretend you didn’t hear the remark, and rationalize our silence on grounds such as “I don’t know enough” or “I’m not articulate” or “I don’t like confrontation” or “they’re a good person—they meant well.” But the uncomfortable truth is that these reasons are just excuses, excuses to do the easy thing instead of the right thing.

We don’t have to be public speakers or walking encyclopedias to be allies. Saying literally anything, even simply expressing distaste or discomfort with the racist remark is better than saying nothing. At minimum it shows the speaker that their view is not universally accepted by white people. If we say nothing, the bias goes unchecked, and the speaker goes on inflicting harm—whether intentional or unintentional—against people of color. 

As the war against racism and police brutality rages on, it’s our job as white LGBTQ+ people to do anything we can to hasten the liberation of black people. There are so many ways we can do this, not limited to protesting on the front lines. One thing we can do, and must do every day until that liberation is achieved, is look our privilege dead in the eye, search out and demolish our fears and excuses, and commit to using our privilege for good at every opportunity—even, and perhaps especially, when it’s easy to rationalize not doing so.