There are times when I wish being legally blind would keep me from seeing anything. In 1996, I visited Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace (a city-owned museum) in Tuscumbia, Ala. Then, I’d have given anything not to have been able to see the Confederate flag flying over the home where Keller was born. Keller, an early supporter of the NAACP, would have shared my horror. Racism, she said, “should bring a blush of shame to the face of every true American.” (Three years ago, the Confederate flag was removed from Ivy Green and placed in the museum’s history room.) The daughter of a Confederate Army captain, Keller knew that no one, sighted or blind, can be blind to racism.
This is especially true today, after a hate-filled white gunman killed nine people at a church last month just because they were black. The Center for Black Equity, a D.C.-based LGBT group, received a telephone death threat just hours after the Charleston shootings, as reported in the Blade. It’s especially true in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and after Ferguson.
For centuries, we who are white have been a part of the spectrum of overt and subtle racism – ranging from lynchings to economic and social inequality. In the wake of continued racial violence and inequity, none of us, no matter how old or young; rich or poor; hetero or LGBT, can avert our eyes from our own racism.
Once, a reader, commenting on a piece I wrote for the Blade, called me a “self-hating white person.” Respectfully, I differ with this characterization. I respect myself, but despise racism. Like many people of good will, I’d like to believe that only gun-toting, hate-speech spewing bigots are anti-Semitic, homophobic or racist.
On July 10, along with many Americans, I watched with relief as the Confederate flag was taken down from the South Carolina State House grounds. Though deeply sad that the Charleston massacre was the tipping point for its removal, I was happy to see the red and blue symbol of slavery and Jim Crow lowered. Yet, at this moment, as is the case so often, I had to check my privilege – stifle my feelings of smug superiority and look in the mirror. Southern white people aren’t the only racists, I reminded myself. Many Southerners are good people. Racism is alive and well in the North. From a sharp scream to a low hum – it’s there, conscious and unconscious, in many of us.
The death threat that the Center for Black Equity received was “a trifecta of hatred, racism and homophobia,” the group’s president, Earl Fowlkes, said in a statement on the organization’s website. “The phone message was a tirade filled with homophobic, anti-Semitic and downright racist references – including the suspect’s urgency to institute the mass killings of Blacks, Jews and LGBTQ citizens.” Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Many of us in the LGBT community have experienced homophobia. Some of us — or our families in the queer community — have experienced anti-Semitism. Yet, even so, how can we who are white begin to comprehend what it’s like to experience racism as a person of color? Or anti-Semitism or homophobia as a person of color? Take my (late) Dad, a veterinarian who was Jewish. As he drove to the hospital in our small South Jersey town where my Mom lay dying, a cop stopped him on a bogus speeding charge. “You Jew doctor!” the cop hissed, “I’m gonna get your ass.” The charges were dropped and the cop was fired. I can’t help but think: if my Dad had been black and the cop had called him the “N-word,” that the outcome would have been far different.
“The gay world is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society,” James Baldwin said. Post-Charleston, it’s time for us to start the long, hard work of preparation.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.