a multi-part series of posts about what straight allies can learn from Critical Whiteness Studies
You know, I’m taking this summer course called Critical Perspectives on Whiteness. (If the field of Whiteness Studies is a new concept for you, I’ve got some resources! Here’s a Washington Post piece about proponents and opponents of Whiteness Studies courses in universities. Here’s sociologist Dalton Conley talking about race, Whiteness, and class. Here’s Peter Kolchin’s article on the field of Whiteness Studies.) It’s a good course. A fantastic course. Maybe the most important education course I’ve ever taken.
It’s also an incredibly difficult course, because the topic is unbelievably personal. How can anti-racist White educational researchers best support a smashing of Whiteness? How am I complicit in a system that confers onto me certain unearned “rights” and “privileges” that are denied to others?
In addition to helping me start working through my own relationship to White privilege, Whiteness, and racism, this course is helping me think more deeply about the role of Straight privilege, Straightness, and heterosexism. Because I’m conditioned not to recognize so much of the privilege I receive as a white person, I’ve been finding it helpful to use my experiences as a gaylady and outsider to Straight privilege as a tool for trying to see White privilege. And that, in turn, helps me to think better about Straightness and Straight privilege.
Using Derek Hook’s 2011 article “Retrieving Biko: a Black Consciousness critique of whiteness,” I’m going to talk through some of the issues that he argues white antiracists face in coming to terms with their own complicity in racism. Then I’m going to connect these issues to what I see as similar challenges for Straight anti-heterosexists. I hope to start a dialogue! About what it means to be a straight ally! Because we need allies, and we need allies whose behaviors, attitudes, words, and actions are pointed in a productive direction!
fetishizing Martin Luther King / fetishizing “straight” queers
Lacanian psychologist Derek Hook argues that anti-racist White folks are prone to holding up and identifying with a single Black figure–he gives the example of Martin Luther King, Jr.–as a hero while simultaneously removing anything threatening or scary about that person. Hook calls this “fetishizing,” which psychoanalysis defines as
a great investment in a certain object or person taken out of a disturbing context, and that is then memorialised, instituted in a way that enables us to forget, in a manner that protects us from a far more threatening situation. We can treat the ‘I have a dream’ refrain, much like Martin Luther King Day itself, as a fetish. That is, they are a way of proving that something is not so. They are a way of proving for white America that it is somehow not racist, that a line has been drawn between itself and its racist past.
Hook explains how we have scrubbed Martin Luther King and his famous speech clean of risk and threat:
King of course is responsible for some of the most famous words in US history: ‘I have a dream … ‘.The third Monday of each January in the USA is, furthermore, Martin Luther King Day, an extraordinary mark of commemoration. These remembrances of King stand in stark contrast to his declining popularity at the time of his death, to the oft-neglected fact of his radicalism in attacking the exploitative nature of racialised capitalism. What is my point here? In many instances the institutionalisation of such a heroic figure occurs as part of a strategy of amnesia. This is a memorialisation which works as a means of forgetting. We have a selective focusing in on an isolated element which enables a wiping-out of a far more disconcerting ensemble of surrounding elements. After all, as Slavoj Zizek (2009) asks, recounting the comments of Henry Taylor: how many people can recall what followed on in Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, what came after the words ‘I have a dream’ … ?
I’m not all that fond of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, but I think Hook’s point is valid. It seems to me that fetishizing an iconic figure is a common–and often quite effective–way to simultaneously prove one’s tolerance for a non-dominant group and to refuse to deal with the aspects of that group that are scary, threatening, or dangerous. At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Ryan White became the face of HIV/AIDS in America. Why? Because he was a white boy from suburban Indiana who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, not through intravenous drug use or unprotected sex. His story taught America that you can’t catch HIV by hugging an HIV+ person, or by petting a cat that an HIV+ person has petted, or by shaking hands with an HIV+ person. His story taught America that HIV/AIDS is not–as much as people would like to think it is–confined to gay men and drug addicts.
Which is super. But all this learning America was doing thanks to Ryan White didn’t change–maybe it even exacerbated–cultural attitudes and policies that put non-dominant (nonwhite, nonstraight, poor, undereducated) people at greater risk of contracting and dying from HIV/AIDS. Because, see, Ryan White was safe because it wasn’t his fault that he caught AIDS. Whereas those gay dudes, those black girls, those drug addicts–well, if they catch AIDS they were asking for it. Right? Right?
The current Big Issue of the gay civil rights movement is the issue of gay marriage. It is, no doubt, an important issue–but the fact that it has become the emblematic issue of gay rights is problematic, and the way it has been taking up by straight allies has a tendency to make me uncomfortable. The subtext of the rhetoric is dangerously close to “gay people should be allowed to marry because they fall in love just like we do. Do you ever see a transgendered person or couple being tossed up as the face of gay marriage? What about polyamorous queer couples? No? That’s because that’s an aspect of queerness that’s a little too threatening for many straight allies and potential allies.
The risk, of course, is that this gay marriage rhetoric may result in the legalization of gay marriage without actually serving the interests of the gay rights movement. Insofar as queers are judged by how well they align with the values of Straightness–monogamy, gender conformity, social and economic productivity, and so on–queers will never be able to fully measure up.
The second part of this three-part series of posts will be published on Saturday, June 4. The third part will be published on Sunday, June 5.