Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Somewhere in America or Young Black Gay Men Need Idols, Too

Credit Sports Illustrated

While I recognize the point that is being made that a number of lesbians who are professional athletes are coming out of the closet, I think something is getting lost in the 'yeah, yeah, Jason Collins but...' chorus and it is this: somewhere in America, right this moment, there is a young black man around the age of 15. Maybe he lives in the suburbs and he knows he's just a little bit different from the other boys. Like a lot of middle class black kids, his parents take him to church and likely he has heard at least one sermon in his life about 'the gays'. It is a near certainty that he has heard negative comments about 'fags' or 'punks' or some other slur. If he plays a sport either in school or an outside league that rises to an absolute certainty. Maybe he lives in a rural Louisiana town. Maybe he lives in Chicago or New York or Oakland or Los Angeles. He could be anywhere. He may not have realized that he could *be* anyone.

Yesterday that young man's life got better. Much better. Suddenly, that young man knows not only that he is not alone but that he can be *anything* and be a strong black man who gets to go home to the man that he loves. He knows it in a way he likely didn't know the day before yesterday. Certainly he's aware that there are gay people. He's very likely aware that there are black gay people. He may even know Bayard Rustin was gay and that Samuel Delaney was bisexual. Maybe. But Bayard Rustin and Samuel Delaney are dead and so occupy the realm of history, a country that we, as Americans, have only the vaguest sense of. Yes, Martina Navratilova did it first. Yes, a number of women did it before them. One of the women who has done so most recently is black, Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury. If I were that 15 year old boy's sister, and I were a lesbian Brittney Griner would be the light of my world right now. I could have used a Brittney Griner 30 years ago.

I know it's silly and it shows my naiveté but I was an adult and only a year away from my coming out myself before I knew that there were black lesbians. I remember listening to Tracy Chapman's first album, hearing her sing "For My Lover" and I knew I wasn't alone. That *I*, too, could become somebody. Black lesbian and all and go home to the woman I hoped to love (and have been lucky enough to find). She meant the world to me but might have meant next to nothing to a young black gay man coming out at the same time. Maybe in a 'good for her' sense but not in a "I could be that one day" sense.

I'm not Tracy Chapman but when I had no place else to turn to look for someone else who loves women who looked something like me, Tracy Chapman was there. Later I found Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich found out that Lorraine Hansberry was bisexual. I learned that I was nowhere near as alone as I thought. But Tracy Chapman and her first two albums, will always hold a special place in my heart because she, in that strange psychological interaction between a star and those who idolize her, made it okay for me to be a lesbian. Somewhere in America, there's a young black man who feels a little less alone. That may not mean a lot to middle-class white lesbians but it means a hell of a lot to some young black gay men. Hell, as a middle class black lesbian it means something to me. Not as much as Brittney Griner would have or Tracy Chapman did. But something special nevertheless. I'd like to think that those of us who had 'that day' when Martina Navratilova came out would let Jason Collins and his fans have theirs.

Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Maybe it should be that anyone can look up to anyone else and to some degree that is true. My heroes and intellectual ancestors range over time and culture and ethnicity and place. But you know, if Alan Turing had been, say, Alana Turing that would have made his remarkable life all that more meaningful for me. Imagine being able to say, ‘there was this black woman who broke the Germans ENIGMA code and if any one person contributed singularly to the victory of the allies in WW II, it was her. She was a lesbian and…’ I love being able to say that about a white gay man from England. If I’d known about a black, lesbian codebreaker who is considered one of the singular minds of the last century and mother of the modern computer, it would have had a deep and profound impact on her. One of the uber-nerds of the last century a black lesbian? Oh the heaven to read about her in a history book! These things matter in some non-trivial psychological manner. I still look up to Turing. He had a hell of a mind and I’m glad we queer people get to claim him as one of ours.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Something has been bothering me about the reaction to the Brad Paisley song "Accidental Racist".  The reaction appears to be grounded in the observation that Paisley's lyrics are not in the language of the social justice warrior.  One criticism I read before I got on the train today was that Paisley does not acknowledge his white male privilege.  I can imagine that if I were to look for it, I could find a critique that dings him for not once using the term 'system of white supremacist hegemony'.  Whatever might commend the use of that phrase that it rolls lyrically off the tongue isn't one of those things. 

It seems to me that people are criticizing the song not because of what it tries to do but because who it is written for.  It's not written for us where 'us' means those who do use terms like 'system of white supremacist hegemony' in casual company.  We don't need that song.  We simply don't because we're already aware of white privilege and can talk long into the night on how it manifests.  We are not Paisley's audience.  This can be seen by the number of times people have made statements on the order of, "I'd never heard of Brad Paisley and now I wish I hadn't ever heard of him."  Paisley is writing for people who do know who he is. He's writing for white Southerners like him. 

Many have criticized him for not recognizing that the Confederate flag is racist but is that really so remarkable?  I am five years older than Paisley (1967 and 1972 respectively) and so he also grew up watching the change happen.  He likely spent most of his life around people who genuinely believe that slavery was incidental to the Civil War and that the civil rights movement was a bunch of troublemakers.  He's likely not had many conversations where terms like 'white privilege' and 'system of white supremacist hegemony' fall like rain in Oregon.  Most of the people listening to his music whether they bought the album or they hear the song on country stations have likely not participated in a lot of those conversations either.  He likely doesn't read Tim Wise and it's a safe bet that most of his fans don't either. 

Now that means two things both important for a rational discussion of the song:  the first is that we have to ask whether its more important for him to sing to his audience in a language they can understand or for him to sing in a language that will pass muster with those of us who were never going to buy a Brad Paisley album under any circumstances.  The second is we have to ask whether we want his fans on our side on any reasonable terms or if we will only accept them on our side on our terms.

I've participated in a number of discussions both in the hard world and on the Internet regarding race in America.  I've observed numerous times white people who are genuinely opposed to racism balk at the suggestion that the mere fact of they're being white means they are racist in the dictionary since of the term.  They blanch even more at the suggestion that whether they know it or not, no matter what they do and almost no matter what they say they are bolstering up a system of white supremacism again using the dictionary definition of that term.  The people who buy Brad Paisley albums, who go to see his concerts, are not going to listen to anything calling on them to question their attitudes about race if it is couched in language that boils down to them being racist no matter what they say or do.  They will tune out any philosophy that says that even if they adopt all the language of anti-racism and social justice they are still actively or passively trying to ensure that the system of white supremacist hegemony stays in place.  People don't like 'heads I win, tails you lose'. 

I bring that up to ask this question; would it be better if Paisley never tried to write a song that asked southern whites to question themselves and their assumptions about race?  Would we prefer that?  Because it is likely that not only would he write a song that would pass muster with social justice warriors on the coasts but it is very likely that such a song is not possible to write and would be an aesthetic train wreck if it did.  This is, remember, a four to five minute song not a hour long Tim Wise lecture.

This leads to the second question which is on what terms are we willing to accept Paisley and his fans on our side.  Are they on our side only if they speak in the language of the social justice warrior?  Have they shown sufficient commitment only when they speak like Tim Wise?  I suspect that the truth is pretty close to the preceding. 

Perhaps some of my skepticism of how this song has been received by people who are, again,  not fans of country music in the aggregate has to do with how racism and, particularly, white supremacy has been defined downward.  We do not draw a distinction between the man who shouts the n-word at a black woman and the woman who clutches her purse when a black man passes by on the street.  Both are irredeemably racist and are both equally racist even though in the latter case the woman may not even be aware that she's clutching her purse.  Is it racist? Yes, but it is not the same kind of racism. 

White supremacy has been defined even further downward.  Growing up white supremacist was reserved for the Nazi and the Klansman.  They were virulent racists. These are people  proud of their racism and ideologically committed to it.  These are people who would happily kill and maim (but not be killed or beaten, which shows their moral cowardice) in the name of their ideology.  Your garden variety white person who might let slip some stupid statement wasn't a white supremacist.  They might be racist or they might just be grossly uninformed but of goodwill. 

It is this unwillingness to grant Paisley the goodwill of his attempt that I find most disturbing from an ethical standpoint.  It strikes me as grossly unfair and based on framework that most of us would not want applied to us.  Like I said, most people don't like 'heads I win, tails you lose'. 

Up to this point I've been silent about LL Cool J's participation in this project.  He has come in for his own opprobrium for his part of the lyrical proceedings.  He shows willing to meet Paisley halfway and for that he has become a 'joke' or worse.  Yet, I think that he and Paisley are doing something courageous.  They are trying to bridge a gulf and, perhaps, turn the volume down on a racial discussion that has reached a level of fever pitch that I haven't seen in close to forty years.  For these two men, different as they are, to reach out and say "I'll meet you partway" is progress.  Yet, they are being excoriated for this effort and the root of that criticism is that it doesn't sound like an academic paper written for a Race and Society class. 

Instead of seeing the song as a sign of winning, we have interpreted it as a sign of Paisley trying to shore up white supremacy.  Paisley's father would likely not have been bothered at all by wearing a tee-shirt with a Confederate flag on it and would not stop to ask himself how the black guy behind the counter at the coffee shop might see it. His grandfather would likely have found the mere question as, at best, morally obtuse.  That within the space of two generations we went from a place where a white southern man would think "so what if the black guy is bothered, he should be bothered by it" to "oh my god, I never thought about what this might mean to someone not like myself" is as unambiguous a sign of serious cultural progress as I can think of based upon present observations.