Tag Archive: civil rights


Micro-Aggressions

On my way to the north woods of Wisconsin for a much needed spring break, I heard a new term on the radio: micro-aggressions. The term refers to the many little ways that people, in particular white people, most often privileged white men, continue the legacy of racism with snide side comments and little asides thrown out carelessly, denigrating African-Americans and their accomplishments. It’s almost as though these insecure people seek to cement a privileged position and are afraid, on some level, that giving another race equal treatment under the law will somehow take away from their rights.

There’s that famous cigarette ad saying from Virginia Slims: “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and when it comes to civil rights we have indeed come a long way in the last fifty years, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have much work to do. Racism is no longer socially acceptable so I find people making derogatory remarks under their breath, usually among peers who don’t dare confront them or disagree.

At the same time, we have the dilemma of the well-meaning heterosexual white man who has inherited a position of privilege, and may indeed feel guilty about having certain birth rights, but doesn’t know how to start or continue a conversation about race and racism. I’m thinking in particular about a friend named James, Gentle James of a previous post, who doesn’t feel comfortable making much of any comment on race and racism for fear of speaking out of turn, or God forbid, not being forward-thinking enough.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, recently tried something radical in having his baristas, also known as partners, write on random coffee cups the term, “Race together.” I think theoretically it’s a great idea to try and start a national conversation on race relations, and indeed the coffee community would seem like a great place to start, but I’m not certain that the average Starbucks customer wants to have any kind of meaningful interaction at 7am while waiting for that first cup of coffee. Perhaps if Starbucks had framed the conversation, saying that on Sunday afternoons, baristas will be approaching people to talk about racism, the whole project might have had better parameters. The way it played out, as I was driving out of town, one of the Starbucks employees who is a casual friend of mine named Dominique, waved at me through the drive-thru and asked about my weekend plans, while another employee, a black man named Marquise who I really don’t know all that well, rushed to the window, seemingly in the effort to raise the profile of the African-American community. Is it really fair to put the onus on all the minority employees to insure that they are noticed and appreciated? How does Howard Schultz contend that his employees respond to someone who might very well react in a racist fashion? Is it enough to say, “We don’t need the business of close-minded people?” So I guess my point is, I give Starbucks an A for effort in its attempt to redress the wrongs of recent racist flare-ups, but only a B minus for the way the company has executed its “race together” campaign.

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A Moment In Time

“He was our Moses,” claimed a civil rights activist this morning. Today marks 50 years to the day since Martin Luther King, Jr made his immortal, “I have a dream” speech. Interestingly, he almost didn’t even speak those powerful, enduring words. According to the Today show this morning, he had a prepared, scripted speech that didn’t include that phrase, but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out to him, “Tell them about the dream.” He must have heard her, and extemporized, making for a moment in time that won’t be repeated.

While acknowledging how much work is left to be done, I am reminded of the Virginia Slims cigarette commercial, “We’ve come a long way baby.”

I like to think that I wouldn’t have been prejudiced in the 1960’s, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have used the “N” word, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t all nevertheless a product of our time. I imagine that I probably would have been the kind of person who didn’t look a black man in the eye, not fully seeing him as an equal. I would have walked around with my head down, looking at the ground. Rather than make a stand, I bet I wouldn’t have looked either blacks or whites in the eye, a sin by omission, taking the easy way out, and missing out on seeing the world in all its glory or difficulties. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have thought deeply or meaningfully about what it means to hold ingrained prejudices. I wouldn’t have considered dating a black person. Though I’m nearly certain I would have been polite, and it might even have bothered me to see whites on the main floor of a movie theater while blacks were relegated to the upper balcony, I wouldn’t have said anything or complained about the status quo. I would have accepted that these were just the way things are, and as a gay man, that makes me ashamed. I myself fight to be seen fully as a person of equal worth. It’s ironic that when something doesn’t affect you directly, you’re often hesitant to, as the proverbial saying goes, “put your oar in the water.” Without stretching the point too far (and perhaps this is reaching), I think of how the Holocaust happened in World War II when people near and far and institutions like the Catholic Church said nothing, never intervening to speak up and be heard.

Now we have a much different world. One point that hasn’t been discussed much is how the civil rights leaders were hounded, scrutinized, their homes and phones bugged, depicted as radical communists. Besides the FBI files on well known leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, lesser known African-Americans like Roy Wilkens, Dr. Robert Haley, Jesse Jackson Jr., and perhaps even Rosa Parks were all under surveillance, their every move monitored and documented. What we have with the Obama administration, however, smacks of the same sort of dangerous violation of civil rights. Recent stories abound with ordinary citizens being tracked and monitored; Big Brother is once again watching. Perhaps this problem has existed for some time and is only now coming to light. The point, however, is that we have made progress on so many fronts, and it’s time we make progress when it comes to the rights of ordinary citizens to live their lives without feeling paranoid that they are being watched, that they are not free to express their opinions and protest peacefully.

I am glad, though, that I can look my fellow man in the eye, and see others as equals, not as different.

Legalize Love

Despite the superfluity of recent conversations, conflicts, and contentions, I had not intended to blog on the topic of gay marriage, but with the president stating his revised opinion, I felt I might as well weigh in with my thoughts.

My father, when I first came out as a gay man, worried about being shamed by my sexual orientation, and told me when I was nineteen, “Just don’t ever embarrass us.”  I think he had seen what he deemed radicals stumping for the cause of gay rights.

Homosexuality itself was included in the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) of abnormalities until 1973.  Being gay used to be considered a mental disorder.  These disorders were traditionally diagnosed when symptoms substantially interfere with daily functioning.  This was eventually shown not to be the case for gay individuals.

After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay rights activists focused on educating people that being gay is an orientation, not a “alternative lifestyle choice” made by “maladjusted individuals.”  These activists also put civil rights for gay men and women on the fast track to being afforded to all, not just heterosexuals.  I’m reminded of the Virginia Slim’s ad for cigarettes:  “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

My father has come a long way in not only accepting me, but also being proud of who I am.  Still, he supports civil unions, but not gay marriage.   Many heterosexuals balk at allowing the word marriage to refer to a union between a man and a man or a woman and woman.  To me, it is a matter of semantics, and I’m constantly amazed how one little word can inflame the passions of a fair number of heterosexuals.

Several states now allow gay marriage, including,  New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, the District of Columbia, and even Mitt Romney’s home state of Massachusetts.  In May, 2004, Massachusetts became the very first state to issue same-sex marriage licenses.  (Comment on that, Mitt, especially when you are accused of being out-of-touch with the will of the people since you don’t even support the will of your own state’s constituency).

Other states, including Illinois (my home state), now allow civil unions.  (I personally have never really figured out the qualitative difference between civil unions and gay marriage, but that’s only one aspect of the issue).  Romney has commented recently, saying, “My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that’s my own preference.”

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg struck back in saying, “No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people, and I have no doubt that this will be no exception.”

Jesse Jackson also had his say:  “If the states had to vote on slavery, we would have lost the vote.  If we had to vote on the right (for black men and women) to vote, we would have lost that vote.”

Many black people distance themselves from the issue of gay rights and civil legislation to protect the rights of what can sometimes be considered “an invisible minority.”  They don’t seem to want comparisons between the rights of African-Americans and the rights of gay people, which makes it all that much more meaningful that Jesse Jackson stood up to be counted, making sure his voice was heard as a supporter of the inalienable rights of every individual.

Change comes slowly, incrementally.  If you don’t want gay marriage, don’t marry one of us.

In the meantime, let’s legalize love.