Friday, November 14, 2008

On the Twoness of Being

Back in January, as the Democratic Primary heated up in an epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, there was a lot of what I would categorize as "silly talk" pitting women's issues against those of African Americans. I can't claim to have been untouched by that strain in our leftward attempts at coalition though. There were charges from both sides that were deeply painful and only occasionally a real discussion about how these systems of hierarchy and oppression are very much alive in our culture.

I remember that during those days, I found solace and guidance in the words of the one group who felt this tension deep in their souls...African American women. I traveled around the nets to find and listen to their voices and wrote an essay that attempted to capture some of it. At the time, these women were busy reacting to an op-ed by Gloria Steinem. But its these words that I remember most.

After reading Steinem's Op-Ed I felt invisible...as if black and woman can't exist in the same body. I felt undocumented...as if the history of blacks and the history of women have nothing to do with the history of black women.


Look, I'm not going to go head to head with Steinem and argue what is most pressing for womyn in America - race or gender. What I do know is that as a US womyn of color living in this country is that the two are so inexplicably interlaced that I resist ANY individual that pits once against the other.


Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women, Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender.


You may wonder why I am re-visiting these particular battles today. My answer is that I think with the election of Obama and the passage of prop 8 happening simultaneously, we are witnessing and feeling some of the same tensions now about the issues facing African Americans and the GLBT community.

I'm not sure we can make those tensions just disappear, it will take some work. But I think one of the places to look for that is to seek out the voices of African American GLBT folks. Perhaps the best in blogland can be found at The Republic of T. Here's how Terrance describes the same kind of experience I quoted from the women above.

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just last week, I saw something that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and felt like I was witnessing it for all my ancestors who didn’t live to see a hope fulfilled. But — with a “twoness of being” that DuBois probably didn’t imagine when he coined the term — it was a deeply conflicted moment.

As a Black man, in that moment I felt like more of an American than I ever had before, like a barrier to full citizenship and belonging had been raised. As a gay man with a husband and a family, however, I ended up feeling like less of an American than I ever had before; divorced from the celebrating and even the historic significance of the moment by a barrier to citizenship and belonging that fell more firmly into place even as another one was lifted.

My response to the events of the past week have been informed by that “twoness of being,” and a conflict that demands I prioritize one part of my identity over another.


We know things are still f'd up in this country when people like Terrance feel the need to prioritize one part of their identity over another. Perhaps it we worked a little harder at seeing things through his eyes, we could start to see the whole.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, Leonard Pitts, went a long way in that direction with a piece titled Coming Out of the Closet to Declare My Humanity. Its a response to one of his readers who assumes that because he writes about gay rights, he must be gay.

The most concise answer I can give is cribbed from what a white kid said 40 or so years ago, as white college students were risking their lives to travel South and register black people to vote. Somebody asked why. He said he acted from an understanding that his freedom was bound up with the freedom of every other man...

See, I have yet to learn how to segregate my moral concerns. It seems to me if I abhor intolerance, discrimination and hatred when they affect people who look like me, I must also abhor them when they affect people who do not. For that matter, I must abhor them even when they benefit me. Otherwise, what I claim as moral authority is really just self-interest in disguise.

Among the things we seem to have lost in the years since that white kid made his stand is the ability, the imagination, the willingness to put ourselves into the skin of those who are not like us...

I believe in moral coherence. And Rule No. 1 is, you cannot assert your own humanity, then turn right around and deny someone else's.

If that makes me gay, fine.

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