by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell
The tragedy of Orlando continues to reverberate in many ways. Jonathan and I shared in very powerful worship on Sunday at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington (MCCDC) focused on those lost and how we need to respond in ways that promote love. In that service, Rev. Dwayne Johnson mentioned several times that many of the dead were Puerto Rican.
I had already been thinking about how little was being said in the mainstream media about the loss of so many Latino/a (or Latinx to be gender neutral) people. In conversation with Malachi, he said “If Pulse had been a “straight” club, would not more have been made of the attack on Latinx people?” Would not the headlines have referenced an attack on a Hispanic club (or Hispanics at a dance club) rather than a gay club? What if it had been mostly a group of African Americans, or “African night” at the gay club? Are we incapable to dealing with all the layers of this tragedy? I hope not.
This got Malachi and me thinking, as “white” people (or as people who consider ourselves white, as Ta-Nehisi Coates helpfully puts it in Between the World and Me, or people of European descent as others say), about our own relationships with the bodies of people of color. We are intensely aware that as writers we have some serious limitations based on our social locations, and specifically in this blog by the social construction of our bodies—despite being gay, transgender, old, younger, male-centered (me with stereotypically male body parts, and Malachi with a different configuration as well as experience as a girl/woman) and the off-centeredness, non-normal social locations those characteristics set up, neither of us can claim experience as non-white bodies, bodies with the attributes of color as our society defines that.
We are wanting people who can speak from “locations of color” to write here for this blog (note: if you are interested in posting with us, please contact us at the emails listed above our respective pictures on the right).
But we also know that it is imperative for us to do some decentering of our whiteness by talking about our interactions with those who are not colored as we are (let’s get clear right off that although in the pigment spectrum, white is defined as the absence of color, in the social realm in this country and world, white is most definitely a color, the default body color for social and personal power). At the same time, we recognize that in writing about this, we also are re-centering ourselves—it is a complicated business for white people to decenter ourselves, because the very act can at the same time draw attention to us.
Okay. What about me?
I have a relatively long history of anti-racism commitments and activities stemming from an unexpected learning experience. It was 1978 when I paid my first visit to the Oakland County Jail (the county in southeast Michigan directly north of Wayne County and Detroit). I was an elected County Commissioner and had been challenged by an advisor to do a jail inspection (something the Sheriff and others did not encourage).
I was stunned by the fact that at least 75% of the male inmates were Black—this in a county that was 90% or so white. That was the beginning of really personal awareness of how Black people, Black bodies, are viewed, and treated, since my childhood when parents admonished me to treat our weekly cleaning lady, Mrs. Kendrick, with the respect due all adults.
As a teenager in the 1960s, I had been an admirer of Dr. King and civil rights leaders and supported the cause, but that was my liberal political self, not much related to actual people and their bodies. The experience in the jail, and my subsequent work as a volunteer with Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), a group dedicated to helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives after incarceration, caused me to begin asking questions and learning more about racism, and all this was a key factor leading me to seminary in 1981. My subsequent writing about race and racism and other activities over 30 years really, in important ways, stem from those first learnings in Michigan. I had a similar experience of a disproportionate number of Black bodies at the Deer Island Correctional Center in Boston harbor in the summer of 1984, during a seminary internship.
But what strikes me now is how unaware I, as a gay man, was over the years of the effect of racism and white privilege in selecting sexual partners, and even in building male friendships. It never occurred to me to ask myself, especially when living as a single gay man in the racial mix of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 1990s, why I rarely seemed to encounter Black men in social situations that might lead to more than a smile and a handshake, and when I did why I did not create more connection.
It is not that I did not associate with Black men—a dear friend who became a mentor in my doctoral program, Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé, was a leading African American Queer academic and activist, and I hung out a lot with him in Washington, D.C. (and he visited me in New York) and some of his friends, also Black and gay, in Washington and New York. Ibrahim, and several of his friends, were very attractive, but they showed no sexual interest in me, and I feared I might lose their friendship if I “came on” to them (today, I wonder if this was really true, or whether it was my way of avoiding dealing with feelings of “otherness”). I went to a few gatherings of the New York Jacks, a “jerk-off” club, where the racial mix was rich, but my memory is of connecting only with white men.
As I write all of this, I realize that although my mind and my heart, my ethics and ideology, have long celebrated African American culture, and I have been an advocate for racial justice, for undoing white privilege in its subtle and still powerful forms, and fighting white supremacy in its virulent forms, I do not have a completely easy relationship with Black male bodies (and with Latinx people and Asians—and it will be important at another time and context to raise these questions in relation to women in my life).
This is not easy to say, because of course I want to be seen as totally liberated. That is impossible for any white person in our culture—white privilege/supremacy/racism is the air we breathe from the moment we cry out in the delivery room until the day we die—but still I find it difficult to admit how little progress in disrupting it I have made in some areas of my life.
I agree with psychologist Marilyn Suchet, and many others, who claims that “whiteness is more about a hierarchal position of power in relation to another than color.” (“Unraveling Whiteness,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, vol. 17, no. 6, 2007) No matter how much we want to stop being white, it is hard to give up the privileged place, the power, and much of it is so ingrained it is hard to know when I have and use the power because I don’t even see it. This may be especially true in terms of embodied relationships.
I am in a beautiful, monogamous relationship with my white, Jewish husband of more than 18 years, so I am not seeking sex with Black men, or other men of color, or anyone else for that matter. But I want to learn to make myself more vulnerable, to open up to men of color more than I have. My friend/mentor Ibrahim and I drifted apart (I need to look at that, too), and then just this year he died at the age of 56 and I have lost contact with his friends (at least one has died). I don’t know if I can find them, but there are other men in my life now.
The church where I worship and serve as volunteer clergy is probably more than one-half Black every Sunday, and there are many wonderful Black men among them (and other men of color and white men, too). I need to remove my clergy collar, and more to the point my sense of entitlement and authority for being white (I really need to see this, and it probably will need to be pointed out to me in many instances, so I can practice letting go), and be open to engaging different realities, different relationships, on a first-hand, first-person, intimately friendly, basis. This is undoubtedly true of my relationships with men in general.
I surely don’t mean to fetishize a desire for better relationships with men of color, or to fetishize any group of men, but I know that my deep commitment to disrupting white supremacy and privilege must be intimate and embodied and vulnerable, to be true to the call of God on my soul.
This is perhaps one of the harder pieces for me to write because it feels so multifaceted and interpersonal. In the past two weeks, I have had five different black women who live near me comment that I have gained weight- several of them have made the comment that I’m getting “thick,” and one had me turn in a circle to inspect whether my butt had gotten bigger (she pronounced that it has).
I have incredibly complicated and mixed feelings about these interactions. As a person with a history of an eating disorder, who has struggled with addiction to diet pills, and constantly obsesses about their weight, my first response was shame and indignation. Gaining weight is a negative thing, and I want to fix it. And why do so many people feel as though they have the right to comment on the physical attributes of another person?
It was so easy to feel shame and (what felt like) righteous indignation. I’ve been around and supported many different kinds of body positivity movements, and my health and healing involved struggling with my disease and addiction. The more I think about these interactions, however, I’m forced to deal with the ugly manifestation of my own racism.
Gaining weight is negative. It’s a bad thing; it means that we are unhealthy and unattractive. At least, that is the message that we are inundated with from mainstream media. We are also surrounded by the concept of the quintessential archetype of beauty- the attributes of which are primarily white-centered.
Bodies that tend to carry more weight. Bodies with substantial curves, including hips and butts. Smaller breasts. Not only are these body types that are not readily displayed as “beautiful” in our dominant culture, these are also body types that are appreciated in different cultures, particularly within non-white cultures.
The reality is, being called thick was intended in a complimentary way. It was an acceptance of a body type- my body- that is appreciated within black culture, but not necessarily in white culture. It was a comment on my gaining weight, yes- but this was not seen as negative.
Do I think that it’s appropriate for people to make unsolicited comments about someone else’s body? Not particularly, but context is relevant. I had different levels of interactions with these women throughout the past year- they are my neighbors- and one in particular (the one who told me to spin around) is someone I sit and talk with frequently. In the context of the culture of this neighborhood, it is appropriate to make such comments.
There is the part of me that takes it personally because of my history. And I think that piece of it is important and shouldn’t be erased. But I think it’s also important to recognize that my “ideal” is based- almost entirely- on very white concepts.
I began to think about how I felt, and realized that, at its core, my feelings were a sense of panic that I was no longer “attractive enough” (even though I was being complimented on my appearance). But it’s not that I’m not attractive enough… it’s that I don’t have the correct type of body to meet white standards of beauty for men or women. It made me wonder how it feels to live in a body that is constantly told by society that they are “not enough” or maybe too much.
This article briefly discusses eating disorders among women of color, stating that “the dominant standards of beauty are internalized and women from minority groups adhere to standards similar to those of white women.” This is one of many blatant examples of systematic racist ideology in the United States: women of color are at risk of developing eating disorders because whiteness=beauty, and white bodies=standard of beauty.
In these interactions with neighbors, I had to come face-to-face with my own racism. I had to be willing to understand that I did not want to accept these compliments because thickness is not something that is celebrated in white culture. I wanted to distance myself. I wanted to blame it on my own history. In some ways, I still want to. But choosing to act as an ally to people of color, I must make a conscious effort to constantly untangle myself from the racist ideology that is rampant in dominant US cultural discourse.
In the midst of all these things, I am still thinking about Orlando. And I am still thinking about the fact that the bodies were not, by and large, white bodies. I keep thinking that before they went to that nightclub, before they were part of the symbol of an attack on queer culture in the United States, many were Latinx (a gender-neutral term from Latino or Latina). I can’t help thinking about the loud pronouncements that “these were Americans that died! This was an attack on Americans!” were vocalized by many of the same people who, on a different day, would have questioned whether the deceased were in this country illegally.
The bodies of people of color in this country are constantly under attack. Whether it’s beauty standards or manner of speaking or physical appearance or assumed religious practices, we as white Americans are constantly policing people of color. We feel threatened when we see a young black man because we associate that image with gangs. We use terms like “ghetto” in reference to poor, urban areas that are likewise associated with people of color- as well as a lack of education. We see someone who appears to be from the Middle East and assume terrorist. We make assumptions about how women of Asian descent are expected to behave.
The reality is, we live in a white-dominated culture, and expect other cultures to assimilate to us. We are the standard that everyone else is supposed to meet, and the stereotypes we associate with different cultural or ethnic groups are rarely positive. It’s not only with our words or our actions- like when we lock the door because we think we are in a bad part of town, and try not to think about the fact that we are in a bad part of town because every face outside the car is a dark face.
It’s about the internal standards we hold ourselves to without thinking. It’s about realizing that we need to check our own ideas about race and beauty because someone complimented something that, in white culture, is not appreciated. It’s realizing that the words we are using further propagate stereotypes… and from those stereotypes, we are then able to justify using violence.
We do not have to look hard to find evidence of institutional racism in this culture. We do, however, have to do the work to identify the ways in which racism manifests in our own personal, intimate thoughts, actions, responses, and ideologies. It can be incredibly difficult to identify these things when they are not pointed out (I was lucky that I was given the opportunity to examine both my thoughts around beauty and my own history with eating disorders and addiction), yet we must find ways to examine our perspectives and continue to grow.
My body felt inadequate because I as made aware of the ways in which my body does not adhere to white standards. I experienced complicated feelings about it but the truth is, I have a white body and I can walk away from those feelings of discomfort. I can blame them on history and feel indignant about people commenting on other people’s bodies… or I can choose to examine where those feelings are coming from and take this opportunity to examine my relationship with my own whiteness.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think? Is Orlando causing you to think about racism? How do you understand white privilege, in your life if you are a white person or in our society if you are a person of color? Do you carry unreasonable standards of beauty in your body? Are your relationships with people in other racial/ethnic groups as strong and intimate as you want them to be? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.