What you don't know CAN hurt you

Today, I was reading the Advocate interview with Sen. Obama. There wasn't much there to surprise me (slow and steady wins the race, we-don't-have-the-votes, etc.), but then I hit this paragraph:
Somebody else who influenced me, I actually had a professor at Occidental -- now, this is embarrassing because I might screw up his last name -- Lawrence Golden, I think it was. He was a wonderful guy. He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues. (emp. mine)
I was simultaneously stunned and felt as if a gear had clicked into place.

I haven't been happy with any of the Democratic front-runners on LGBTQ issues, and I must admit that my cynic has usually emerged when they have spoken to, or about, my community ("They're only talking like that because they need us now, blah, blah, blah . . . " goes the the Scorpio-rising voice in my brain).

However, the statement above meshed perfectly with a vague uneasiness I've had whenever Obama would speak about LGBTQ issues -- a sense that somehow, he doesn't really "get it" -- that he is not, in fact, comfortable with queers. I tried to dismiss this feeling as his supporters insisted that his inclusion of a known homophobe on his campaign tour was simply a way to create dialogue between the two sides (a meme that Obama echoes in the Advocate article), but found that I wasn't successful in quelling this nagging feeling.

To read Obama's direct invocation of one of the most ridiculous and fear-mongering homophobic stereotypes (you know how we queers "proselytize" all the time) demonstrates, to me, that he is completely out of touch with his own internalized homophobia.

The word proselytize is unambiguous in its meaning:
1 : to induce someone to convert to one's faith
: to recruit someone to join one's party, institution, or cause
transitive verb : to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause ~ Merriam-Webster
I've spoken in the past about how the "queers proselytize" myth is a huge projection on the part of Christians who are homophobic. I won't cover that ground again here -- go read the other post if you want my views on it.

But now I will surprise you -- this post is not about Barack Obama.

It's about privilege, and language, and unconsciousness.

I took issue yesterday with what I considered to be a sexist framing of Clinton's campaign choices with regard to the use of the word "sin", and what was, in my opinion, a hyperbolic comparison which demonstrated sexist double-standards. In the comment thread, my protest (and the protest of others) was characterized as a "claxon" (another sexist framing commonly used when women strongly protest sexism -- you know -- shrill/harping/loud/mouthy? ). Some people said that they "couldn't see it".

A while back, I argued that "shuck and jive" was racist framing of Obama's campaign. Some people said that they "couldn't see it".

Just last week, Randi Rhodes called Clinton a "fucking whore", and the rank misogyny of this was discussed with some disgust here. Some people said that they "couldn't see it".

See, the problem with your own internalized bigotry is: You can't see it.

No doubt Sen. Obama thought that he was paying Mr. (I-Think-His-Name-Is) Golden a compliment by congratulating him on NOT proselytizing. Just like Biden was congratulating Obama by saying he was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean . . . . I mean, that's a storybook, man".

Biden issued a statement saying that he regretted any offense that his remark might have caused anyone. That it was not his intent to offend. In truth, I think that it probably wasn't his intent to offend.

I'm guessing, though, that Biden didn't really take a moment to examine the underlying white-privilege and racist assumptions that exist within him that would give rise to such an asinine statement in the first place. I'm guessing that Obama will not examine the underlying straight-privilege and homophobic assumptions which fueled his statement either, no matter how many queers take umbrage at it.

But this examination is what is required, if we are going to actually progress in the eradication of homophobia, racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc..

We have to start seeing what we can't see, because our eyes are blinkered by our own privilege.

How do we do that? How do we see what we are literally blind to?

Well, first of all, we have to understand what levels of privilege we possess, and we have to understand that our privilege is usually completely invisible to us, but is usually glaringly obvious to someone who does not have it.

Second, we have to be willing to stop using that privilege as a trump-card in any discussion with someone who has less privilege than we do. ("Well, the majority of people agree with me, blah, blah, blah . . . . " -- well, of COURSE they do -- the majority of people who have the same privilege that you do, anyway.)

And finally, we need help in the form of "outside eyes". Which means that we have to interact with other people who do not share our privilege.

We have to interact intimately enough that we know whether we think that person's views are generally well-reasoned and consistent within their own espoused principles and ethics. We have to interact intimately enough to establish a platform of mutual-respect and trust. With those with whom we haven't established this platform, we have to cultivate a willingness to be curious about them until we know more, even (and maybe especially) if they are a person who doesn't share our viewpoint.

We have to be willing to examine -- every single time -- whether our disagreement with someone who calls us out on our privilege is simply a scramble to defend and maintain that privilege, rather than a well-reasoned argument that is consistent with, and supportive of, our desire to move forward with progressive values and attitudes.

I've often been shocked to hear people talk, in comments, about how "patient" I've been with someone, especially during a contentious discussion. I'm shocked because I don't generally feel patient when I'm commenting. I do however, recognize that in most of the discussions that draw me, I am either a) a person of privilege having a discussion with someone of less privilege, or b) a person without privilege having a discussion with someone of more privilege. These are generally the places where I find myself in "argument" mode.

In the case of a) I try to exercise the practices that I've described above in terms of stepping off of, and examining, my privilege. I consider that this person might be my "eyes out".

In the case of b) I try to consider that my voice, coming from an un-privileged place, might offer the other person an opportunity to step off of, and examine, their privilege. I consider that I may be this person's "eyes out".

One of the reasons that I love and value Shakesville (the contributors and the commenting community) is that, over time, I've been able to form relationships with other people, and to observe their styles of commentary and thought. There are certain contributors and commenters whose style, and approach, and expressed values, carried out in action and speech, are so consistent that I've developed a certain level of respect for them, even when we don't agree.

Those people also provide an "eyes-out" function for me, because if I say/write something, and I hear those people saying "Wait a minute, Portly", I generally tend to perk up my ears and think: "Hmmm. They've been right on this shit so many times. Why would I disregard their opinions now? I had better take another look." I value their confrontation, and their willingness to engage with me in ways that help me remain conscious about what I'm doing.

It's not an accident that early civil rights/feminist/gay-rights activists used the phrase "consciousness-raising" so often that many became sick of it. I believe that until we become consciously aware of our underlying bigotries, biases, and prejudices, we are helpless to change them.

I want to say "Thank You" to all of you here who have helped me to raise my consciousness.

(And to Senator Barack Obama, I'd like to suggest a "Homophobia 101" class.)

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