Ferguson & the Gay Rights Movement

This Black gays for justiceweek Ruth Bader Ginsberg drew an important distinction between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement – and she’s not been alone in her assessment.  The gay rights movement, which gained dramatic momentum following the protest at The Stonewall Inn in 1969, has had notable success.  It is less than 40 years later and people who couldn’t even say the word ‘gay’ back then now support legal gay marriage.  Everyone says it’s just a matter of time  before everyone will be able to legally marry.  National organizations and LGBT organizations across the country are scrambling to figure out what the next major gay rights cause will be – a new mission and purpose.  I use “gay rights” here on purpose because transgender rights are still woefully hard to find and certainly have not enjoyed the success that gay rights have enjoyed.

They say slavery ended nearly 150 years ago, yet this country still imprisons 30% of young black men.  Black and brown people are several times more likely to live in communities riddled by poverty with no access to opportunity.  They are more likely to drop out of their under-performing school, and be arrested or stopped by police – often landing them in jail.  As we have seen in Ferguson (and in many other cases), young men like Michael Brown are more likely to be killed.

The reason the gay rights movement has moved ahead so quickly is because gay and lesbian people live in families all across the country.  In every city, in every town, in every suburb.  Every time someone comes out, it forces the entire extension of people in that person’s family and friend network to question their assumptions about gay people.

People who have been at odds with “the gays”, found them sick, wrong, unqualified parents and undeserving spouses now have children that fall into that category.  And their personal knowledge of their son, their daughter, brother, sister, aunt, best friend, their relationship with that person, conflicts with the societally-driven stereotype they have always known.  It forces them to confront their biases in a very personal way.  And love is winning out.  People are renouncing their bias.  As people know someone who is gay, they become supportive of gay rights.  This is backed by ample research.

Research also shows that lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of color are at greatest risk for poverty, unemployment, incarceration, HIV/AIDS infection, and premature death – whether due to health access issues, suicide, violence or racial profiling.   LGBT people of color are not benefiting from the gay rights movement the way that white gay and lesbian people have.

People in the LGBT movement have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that all of our brothers and sisters are protected – especially those who are most abused by our system – our brothers and sisters of color.   If you’re white – you can take a hint from the gay rights movement.  Make some new friends.  Expand your family.  Get to know your existing friends and family who are people of color – ask them about their experiences.  This call extends to the transgender community. If you’re gay or lesbian, make some friends in the transgender community.  The killing of the Michael Brown is personal and it should be personal for all of us.  Including those of us who have white skin and are cisgender.

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Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012Kathleen LaTosch is a diversity and inclusion consultant specializing strategic planning for organizational change at nonprofit organizations. She works in Michigan and nationally, assisting organizations in making systemic and lasting change.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.
 

Lessons from the Mayor of Ferguson for White Leaders

Mayor-Ferguson James Knowles

The images and stories emerging from Ferguson have been shocking.  What is also shocking is to hear the Mayor of Ferguson confidently proclaim that his city does not have a racial divide, and further, that nearly all of the residents of Ferguson, 67% of whom are African American, agree with him.  In reality, proclamations like Mayor Knowles’ are repeated every day – people in the dominant culture simply don’t see or recognize problems related to race and they minimize issues that arise.  The Mayor’s interview with MSNBC reporter Tamron Hall is a perfect example of these phenomena.  The old adage, “you see what you want to see,”  applies here.

On Monday, the Pew Research Center released results from a poll that found 80% of blacks said Ferguson events raised important racial issues.  Only 37% whites said the same.  Three out of four blacks found the police response to be over the top.  Just one third of whites said the same.

Each group has a completely different take on the same situation, and each group believe that they are in the right.  Sadly, the battle over determining absolute truth becomes the goal, instead of learning about the variance in perspective, instead of focusing on expanding knowledge and awareness, and instead of coming together as a community.

Let’s take a closer look at the Mayor of Ferguson’s behavior and remarks in his recent interview.  Qualities of the interview included bold statements of denial, defensiveness, and assurances that no problems exist – in the face of days of strife and turmoil within the city of Ferguson.  Denial, defensiveness and assurances that there are no problems (or fewer problems than others have pointed out) are a common response to allegations of racial disparity.  However, as long as leadership maintains that defensive mode, there will be no path to learning, no attempts to gather valid information about the situation, and no movement to explore change options.

Here’s what Mayor Knowles said when asked about racial issues in his city:

  • “There’s not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson.”
  • “That’s the perspective of all residents in our city, absolutely… most African Americans are happy in Ferguson.” [referencing above quote]
  • “This has affected about a half-mile strip of street in our community.”

The statements above first reflect denial; perhaps personal denial and definitely public denial.  Then the Mayor circles the wagons and attempts to show how his view has support – stating that he is not alone in this belief and that there are many others – strength in numbers.  He also makes a very common assertion – that the current complainers are a small vocal subset of the larger group affected: “Most African Americans are happy…”  Lastly, he minimizes the geographic impact the current crisis is having.  All of these statements reflect denial and minimization; none reflect an openness to learning about the problem, gathering more information and moving towards a collective resolution.

Let’s take a step back now.  This is actually not unusual behavior in situations involving race.  What’s happening in Ferguson right now is an extreme example of something that happens every minute of every day in smaller ways.   Perhaps you have a Mayor Knowles in your organization, business or community.  Perhaps it’s even closer to home; perhaps you are the Mayor Knowles in your sphere.  Perhaps you have been told that your community, business or organization has an issue with race and you don’t see it or don’t believe it.  You may be doing much the same thing as Mayor Knowles.  It’s quite common and you may be the person who needs to read this.

When a person of color has stated that he or she has been mistreated based on his/her race within your organization, do you think or say any of the following:

  • “That can’t be true – we don’t have a race problem here.” [denial]
  • “I’m sure the person of color misinterpreted the situation. Whatever happened wasn’t intended that way; they’re just being over-sensitive.” [blame the victim]
  • “That guy is a little rough around the edges, but he’s like that with everyone, not just people of color. It’s not a race-thing.” [denial]
  • “It’s just one instance. I’m sure it’s an isolated occasion.  None of the other people of color have a problem here.” [minimization]

In the case of Mayor Knowles, his claims are so outrageous that his assertions have lost any sense of credibility.  But in most cases, the response to allegations of racism is much more subtle and understated.   And they are so commonplace, that their use has become normal and comfortable.  They can feel true to the white person in a leadership role.  They are also often based on our own lived experiences.

We all live different lives based on our personal identities (which include race, gender and many other characteristics).  All of the ways in which we make sense of the world – ways we determine what is true in a given set of circumstances – are shaped by the experiences we have as we walk through this world in our skin.  We all have lived truths.

I don’t doubt that a white person could genuinely have a difficult time believing that someone they view as a “fine upstanding citizen” could treat another person, a person of color, in a racist way.  That white person hasn’t had a negative experience with the person in question.  That “fine upstanding citizen” may even have received awards for good deeds.  When asked about the situation, that “fine upstanding citizen” claims they were put in a bad position; they had no choice; that the other person was actually in the wrong.  Who are you likely to believe?

The truth is, white people won’t have the same experience that a person of color does.  In order to bring about real change, we need to try to understand those experiences that are different from ours.  The real work begins when we seek to understand the experiences and truths of others, our impact on them, and the ways in which we can work together to grow caring, connected communities.

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Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012Kathleen LaTosch is a diversity and inclusion consultant specializing strategic planning for organizational change at nonprofit organizations. She works in Michigan and nationally, assisting organizations in making systemic and lasting change.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.
 

The “R” Word: Racist

On Thursday (May 17, 2012), the U.S. Census Bureau reported that for the first time in American History the majority of babies born in the U.S. were to parents of color.  Twenty-six percent of those babies were Latino, 15 percent were African American, and 4 percent Asian.  Researchers estimate that by the year 2050, there will be more people of color alive in the U.S. than whites, making it the first time ever that whites have not held a majority population since arriving on American soil hundreds of years ago.

My question is What Will The Whites Do About This?  What will you do about this?  I did a quick facebook search of groups, searching for “whites against racism” and what I found was not what I was looking for.  In that one small search, I did not find any groups for whites who support anti-racism efforts.  Instead, I found five groups titled, W.A.R.R. (Whites Against Reverse Racism), Racism Against “Whites” Is Still Racism, Racism Against Whites, and again Racism Against Whites.  Granted, not a very creative grouping of titles, except perhaps the first which raises serious concerns of its own.

That seems to answer, at least briefly, my What Will The Whites Do About This query.  The more important question here is what are you going to do about it?  In my experience, the progressive white voice typically falls into one of three camps: 1) the annoyed person who doesn’t get what all the fuss is about and is sick and tired of talking about race; 2) the “bleeding heart liberal” who almost wishes he/she were born a person of color; and 3) the silent and largely uncomfortable majority.  I acknowledge here that there is always a portion of that silent majority who remains quiet in deference and respect for the voices of color and experiences they speak to.  However, I believe quite a few of them are silent out of fear and/or a lack of education on issues of race and culture.

In fact, I believe most whites remain silent out of fear of being called the dreaded “R” word.  I remember being silent many times when the issue of race would come up in a group.  I was fearful I would say the wrong thing – use the wrong words, say something that someone would take offense to – fearful that someone would say or think I was a racist.  The dreaded “R” word.  It’s the name that strikes fear into the heart of many a white person.

By many definitions, I am a racist.  Can I really escape being a racist if my actions or inactions benefit me simply because of the color of my skin or the way I speak?  The way I look wholesome to shop owners, never suspicious.  The way I get smiled at because I look conventional, even conservative to some – with my medium blonde hair, blue eyes, clear and slightly pinkish Germanic-descended skin tone.  The way I can go joy-riding in a stolen car at the age of 15 and never see a jail cell, have my mom pick me up at the station crying and then send me back to the same family whose car I “borrowed” while babysitting, to apologize.  It’s called white privilege because if I had a different skin tone, I’d have a record, a mugshot and fingerprints on file;  I certainly wouldn’t have been treated so sweetly by the police or that family – I never even wore handcuffs that night.

If I take advantage of that privilege, some might call that racism.   There’s not a single white person in America who has not benefited from this kind of privilege and taken advantage of it.  There’s not a single white person who’s not racist in some way or another.  Still, white people are so afraid of that “R” word that we remain locked in our own fear, unwilling to engage in the conversation.

But now is a good time to end that.  When I do a search on “whites against racism” I don’t want to see WAR shout back at me.  I want to see white people speaking up and out in support of our entire community – and denouncing inequality wherever it hides, saying something as simple as, “hey, that’s not right!”

White mens restroomIn his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote “Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.” It was in reference to asking white Birmingham business owners to take down the signs of segregation from their storefronts.  Encouraged by the nodding heads, it was indeed bewildering when the following week he found the signs still proudly posted in the front windows of the shops, “whites only.”

I appeal to the silent majority to end your silence.  Don’t nod your head.  Speak up and take part in the conversation.  Risk being called the “R” word.   I don’t know a single person of color who has the luxury of choosing whether or not they get insulted.

Re-posted December 5, 2014.

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