Last year, during my recovery from surgery, I met an insightful fellow named Carl, and mentioned him in this blog post. Now, in response to my most recent post, he engaged me in an intriguing conversation, leading to his reflection below.
I thank Desmond for providing me the space to print this essay, with the hopes that it helps in all of our efforts to bring to reality the Dream that Martin Luther King shared with America so many years ago. At times, I have felt that we may never get there, not just because of the persistence of racism and bigotry, and the robbery of dignity and justice which they bring. No, it is the polarization into combative camps, and the cycle of wounding and scarring by all kinds of folk, even when there is good intention.
When I was growing up, in the wake of the era of Civil Rights, people of all backgrounds were cautioned to avoid stereotypes of each other, even good ones. We were to be seen as human beings instead of as categories, and while this did not mean we were to ignore skin color or gender or other differences, we were not to link them prejudicially. Not all Blacks are lazy, not all women are bad with math and science, not all gays are flamboyant, and so on and so forth. Human beings, individuals, embracing differences both between and within our diverse communities.
Now we're seeing this reversed, and it upsets me, not least of which because I've been guilty myself of this change. I heard other Black folk talk in generalizations about Whites, or other GLBTQ folk talking negatively about straights as a group, and I've found myself nodding and responding to the call, even when I know plenty of whites and straights who don't fit what they're saying. Meanwhile, as a man, I am tempted to respond to negative categorizations of men by women, yet trying my best to understand what is being said in those messages, just as those similar messages about whites and straights have resonated within me as someone proudly Black and gay.
"Not all men … "
"Not all Whites … "
"Not all heterosexuals … "
My thoughts here, however, are as much about the responses to these responses, and the assumptions behind them. Those who voice a "Not all … " find themselves accused of "taking it personally," or of "derailing the conversation," and silenced just as women, Blacks, GLBTQ folk and others were often silenced. But is it always about that? Could it be about what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, where progressive-minded folk who have learned not to stereotype and categorize then hear what seems like sweeping stereotyping and categorizing of them, and, just as they would argue against it for anyone else, feel compelled to do so for the group to which they identify? I do not mean to deride the impact of sexism, racism, homophobia and other oppressions on our collective soul, but to question the language that is used in trying to bring those truths to light, language which seems as a proud sister once cautioned to be "using the master's tools to dismantle the master’s house."
As a counselor and educator, working for conflict resolution, I have thusly endeavored in my own choice of words to avoid attaching traits to distinct groups, not so much to avoid offending, but to better speak truth to power, to illuminate that oppression entraps us all, and to encourage all of us to finds ways to escape that trap towards more justice. Our culture and social structure teaches those in privileged groups to talk about, think about, and act towards those "outside" in certain ways, and even those with good intentions will repeat unconsciously those patterns. How do we break the cycle, instead of merely reflecting it back on one another?
I am sure there are folk who will argue that we must "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." By the same token, I would argue that each of us are all afflicted to some degree, and enjoy some degree of comfort. As a gay person of color, I am daily afflicted by racism and homophobia; as a cisgender man, I am comforted by the privilege of my gender in relation to women and transfolk. Shall we sit and compare notes to see who is more oppressed than whom? Or shall we work together to remove those shackles, however long it takes?
Thank you, Carl.