Monday, June 22, 2015

Ending White Terror

By Kelly Cogswell

Last week, a young white terrorist massacred nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina where the Confederate flag still flies over the state house. It's time to pull it down. Not as a quick fix, but as one more step in the fight against racism.

Racism. What an inadequate word to explain these murders, and the seemingly daily shootings of young black men (and women) at the hands of mostly white cops, our refusal to treat immigrants like humans, and the continuation of our policies treating Native Americans like the foreigners they aren't.

White supremacy comes closer, a system enforced with constant propaganda and underlined with just enough good old fashioned terrorism to drive home the point that white folks are on top, everybody else is on the bottom, and you'll stay there and like it if you don't want to end up in a pool of your own blood.

But consequences are often not as visible as these deaths. And the cause is more complicated and rarely so conveniently displayed as the Confederate flag. Which begs the question, what do we do after it's gone? Banned in public, will it become even more powerful in private spaces, fetishized by people like Dylann Storm Roof who will still have guns in their hands, and still be vulnerable to messages of hate and resentment which are easy enough to inscribe on their blank, ignorant lives?

Even if the symbol is removed, the worldview that kept it hanging there for so many years won't go without a fight. Especially since the wolf managed to convince so many of us that it was nothing more than a lamb. The flag was a general symbol of rebellion. Slavery itself is increasingly portrayed as what? An inconvenience, really, for the slave.

Growing up in the parallel universe of white Kentucky, I didn't even notice the stars and bars. You'd see it seasonally on the tee-shirts and rusting cars of young white men who were just asserting their redneck class and independence, Don't Tread on Me.

I remember drawing it with pleasure in red and blue crayons. If I had remained in Kentucky, and not ventured out of my family circle, I might be one of those lamenting the loss of my heritage and clinging as tightly as I could to that ugly relic.

It never occurred to me that the flag had anything to do with defending slavery, or a willingness to recreate that system with violence and terror. All that seemed done and dusted, far from my tiny life trundling back and forth between my church and the school. Nobody even talked about racism. Black History hadn't got its month yet, declaring falsely that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Or maybe, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Equality was in the fact that black kids sat wherever they wanted in the lunchroom, no matter that there were only two or three among the thirty kids in the college prep courses I took. And all of us, I think, have been surprised to find out just how cleverly white supremacy could retrench itself in every aspect of our lives from housing policy to health care.

At college I saw the confederate flag hanging out the windows of the KA fraternity, and still thought of Dukes of Hazard, not the KKK. When the frat boys dressed up in their rebel grays, greeting their sorority girlfriends decked out themselves in the dresses of Southern belles, I just thought they were all assholes. Not racists getting trained up to exercise their ideology behind closed doors, though that's what it amounts to.

I had the leisure to forgot all about it, until I read, "A Black Girl's History with Southern Frat Racism," an essay by Tracy Clayton, one of the few black students at Transy that put an end to the public display there of the Confederate flag. Despite being trained up by my years in New York, getting crash courses in race and tracking the violence in my own LGBT community, it was a kind of shock, an awakening to how blind I was then, and where ignorance could have taken me, but didn't.

"Growing up in the hood, you assume that living where white folks live means safer streets and unlocked doors. But I never feared for my safety more than I did at Transylvania University. Those flags were often the first things I saw in the morning and the last things I saw at night, smugly watching me scurry to class, snickering, mocking. Well, I do declare! Look at that uppity coon, making like she belongs here, like she’s one of us. This is what happens when you teach ‘em to read. Hope that nigger makes it home before the sun goes down. "

For all those that didn't make it in Charleston-- #saytheirnames

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Confronting the Great, White HRC

By Kelly Cogswell

When Buzzfeed broke the news last week that the Human Rights Campaign had a diversity problem , the response among many activists was a great big, "Duh." The only surprise was that the HRC folks had commissioned the report themselves, and having decided to look in the mirror, actually admitted that staring back was the face of a privileged white gay male.

So kudos to HRC for bringing in outside consultants to respond to complaints of what the report called the "White Boys Club." More importantly, congrats on taking steps to make the organization less homogenous.

The only question is just how far HRC is willing to go. It's easy enough to create gender neutral bathrooms. And they'll probably even make some progress in respecting people's gender identities. It's not that hard, after all. If somebody that you thought was a woman asks you to refer to them with male pronouns, you just drop the "s" and start using "he."

Maybe HRC will even start seeing every new hire, every promotion as a chance to look around the table and ask, "Who's not here?" And to hire fresh talent who may happen to be women, racial minorities, or trans people.

But once they're there, will they actually have access to power or a chance to exercise their abilities? There's no shortage of women at HRC right now, just not in managerial positions. In fact, according to the report, the atmosphere is hostile to women and feminine men, with straight women privileged over bi women and dykes, not to mention trans women. And while some racial and gender minorities are represented, they're also not at the top. Which means it's not particularly reassuring to find that eighty percent of HRC employees apparently believe diversity is important since the other twenty percent seem to be running the show.

Entrenched as these gay, white males are, what on earth would persuade them to share power? Especially now, when they have so much juice that they even turn up on TV as Washington powerbrokers, waltzing in and out of Madame Secretary's outer office?

I have no idea. Especially since so much of their power comes from their huge war chest which they can use to lobby politicians or mobilize huge numbers of voters. And funders rarely like change. They want what they've bought and paid for. And if there's any handshaking to do, it better not be with anybody new. Besides, they're all part of the same informal network. Paul only wrote the check to Bob in the first place because they were both in the same dorm at Yale.

So if HRC leadership are tempted to integrate the boardroom, or even start new programs, I can imagine their fear. Donations may slip. Then their power. We queers are no better than the rest of society. We cling to the little we have. And the closer we get to the center of power, the more conservative we become, and the more we reflect its whiteness, its cis gendered, exclusionary maleness.

Still, what does it cost us activists to quit snickering and believe HRC can change, or even see that belief as a strategic necessity? How else can we push them towards it? Remind them of their goals, and demand action?

The organization is more complex than the greying monolithic beast we usually imagine. I was unexpectedly invited to HRC a year ago to talk about the Lesbian Avengers, and was surprised to see how many young lesbians were there in the audience, and how eager they were to talk about street activism and the limits of institutional power. I was prepared to do a big spiel defending my right to exist, but I didn't need to. Not to that crowd anyway. The young women were attracted to HRC, not for the meager salary, but because they thought HRC could make a difference. And because there weren't many alternatives. Increasingly they are speaking up.

It would be nice if we saw them as an integral part of HRC, not as a token appendage. Especially since this report seems to betray an inner fight for the soul of HRC and maybe the soul of the entire LGBT movement, which has never done a good job supporting our entire community. Now, as the marriage equality fight winds down, we should seize the opportunity to renew ourselves, and reconsider diversity as more than a pleasing balance of skin tones and genitalia, or even a question of abstract fairness.

Diversity is an asset. A pool of perspectives, imagination and experience. And if we are to solve our most intransigent problems, or even identify or articulate them, we need more than usual suspects on the job. Not just at HRC. But in any queer organization that wants to be fresh, relevant, and effective.

Read Internal Report: Major Diversity, Organizational Problems At Human Rights Campaign