On Racism and Competitiveness in Queer Spaces

Updated May 13, 2016 8:06pm PDT
Yay 12946666 Digital

White people are often unconcerned about “the other” until they start to perceive us as threatening: one of the most reliable generators of racialised fear and hatred is competition, whether it’s over jobs, money, or intimate roles within the hearts of the people who are “rightfully theirs”—politicians, celebrities, even fictional characters.

A few years ago, I auditioned for a very minor college production of a scene from an adaptation of The Seagull, landing the role of ingénue. I had the most stage time and the most lines, and was, in general, the most focused-upon character in that mini-play. A white woman who had also auditioned, who had wanted the ingénue role, was cast as my mother. We hadn't met before that time, and were both freshmen with nebulous drama-related ambitions who enjoyed acting.

I repeatedly attempted to approach and make conversation with her, but received, at best, monosyllabic replies; she also made no secret of thinking that she’d have better filled the role. The force of this judgement was, of course, compounded by the fact that this is a society in which the ingénue–the lead pretty young woman–of any story is inevitably white, and can be envisioned as someone who looks and thinks like her, but never as someone who looks, thinks, and behaves like me.

White actresses, by playing these ingenues onscreen, also come to be the iconic ingenues offscreen. They are the modern day princess fantasies; women emulate their fashion, their hairstyles, and track the intimate details of their lives—they try, in short, to slip into their stories, and white beauty and white femininity are the prerequisites for claiming that princesshood.

From Betty Grable to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield to Scarlet Johannson, the melanin-deficient torch burns bright, and persistent. 

The role of the ingenue, then, in life and in the movies that represent life, is safely White Territory. When I claim the role of the ingenue, I contest and inhibit the white monopoly over desirable, spotlighted femininity, over being the romantic lead, over being the woman with her own story, as opposed to merely a participant in someone else’s story—a supporting character.

I’ve lost count of the times that I have found myself in the presence of a white woman who has been attracted to my (white) partner, and discovered that I am, to her, beneath acknowledgement. Once, at a pride event, my partner and I met up with a white woman whom she knew, and who was attracted to her; I smiled, introduced myself, and proffered my hand, and the white woman in response glanced at my outstretched hand, turned to my partner, and started speaking to her as though I had said nothing. 

On another occasion, an ex-girlfriend of my partner, whom I had met recently at a party (and who had studiously avoided me then as well) walked past a bus stop bench that I was waiting at. I recognised her, smiled broadly, and exclaimed a loud and very friendly greeting. This white woman glanced at me from the distance of approximately half a foot, glanced away again, and proceeded on her way. The snub was so overt that it left me winded.

I have heard numerous anecdotes from other women of colour about similar treatment from white women who held themselves in competition with these women of colour in one way or another, but almost none of my white women friends have experienced this particular expression of contempt from would-be competitors.

I have begun to recognise that this is a specifically racialised phenomenon that is especially prevalent in communities of queer women.

In response to being ignored, I find myself getting more and more exaggerated, louder and louder, more and more emphatic around these women, until I finally succeed in forcing them to acknowledge me—when that happens, I am inevitably treated as (and accused outright of being) aggressive. I don’t know a single white woman, including those that I have been close to, who hasn’t called me “scary” or “intimidating.”

When I am “nice,” I am not listened to. I have learned to be precise, driven, and forceful in my interactions with white women to accomplish the simple feat of being heard; pleasantness is a luxury I cannot afford. This forcefulness that I have trained myself into, however, is ultimately self-defeating because it inevitably, in white women’s eyes, turns me into the aggressive, threatening lesbian woman of colour they have been trained to understand me as, and, in turn, places them in the role of the victim—the ingenue.

I’m left with a choice: being invisible or being the aggressive stereotype. In the presence of queer white women and even other queer women of colour, I often have few other options of how to be—certainly the role of the vulnerable, delicate ingenue is out of reach. 

I am forced, in short, into an unacceptable version of queerness.

We live in a society where white versions of queerness are the acceptable, recognised, legitimate versions of queerness. Not only are the acceptable modes of interaction white modes of interaction, but the iconic queer fashion is white queer fashion; iconic queer music is almost always by white artists; the history behind the language that has arisen to describe ways of being queer, even the slurs, is culturally white—words such as “queer”, “dyke”, “butch”, “femme”, and even “gay” have evolved their multidimensional meanings through, and are inextricable from, white history.

When white women police which women of colour get to occupy these queer spaces, by choosing not to acknowledge the presence of women of colour that they resent as competition, these white women also hold hostage women of colour’s access to white queer validation.

To be a femme in a relationship with any white woman in the context of this white monopoly over queerness is to be her leading lady, her ingenue—to inhabit a role established to belong to white femmes. My taking of this role is seen as usurping of that rightful white femme position, like my usurping of the ingenue role onstage. White femmes’ response to that is to reinforce the invalidity of my existence in this role by refusing to acknowledge me as they would a “legitimate” contender, another white femme.

By denying my existence, these white women literally refuse me space. They thus create a situation where only the "good women of colour"–the women of colour who don’t challenge the interests of white women in any way–are allowed to be seen and heard, are allowed to exist in their community; they make it very clear that this “privilege” is based entirely on our not inconveniencing them or getting in their way. 

To be part of that elite crew, to be one of the few (the proud, the brave) “friends of colour” that these white women have, a woman of colour has to be willing to uphold the hierarchy of the white queer space that she and other women of colour are at the base of, and this often involves reassuring white queer women that they’re not racist: she has to be willing to be the token “person of colour friend” whose existence acts like inoculation against accusations of racism, thereby keeping other women of colour down through her participation in the space, but who also will not "get above her station" to expect more than a literally supporting role.

This eerily echoes how an immigrant’s perceived right to exist in a country is contingent upon their not “stealing” anybody’s job. “Good” immigrants are the ones that do not draw on social services— on “Americans’ tax money”—and quietly accept their lesser rights and privileges than the rest of society, and never acknowledge how immigration allows America to suck talent from other countries and use this talent to keep these countries down.

This seems like an unrewarding role for a woman of colour to covet, but being contempted by women who hold social capital that we do not, by women who are considered valid, worthy, and desirable where we are not, of course pushes some of us into seeking their validation, because those who are objectively more worthy and desirable than us, are also those who have the power to confer worth and desirability upon us.

This is one of the reasons that I and other (self-hating) queer women of colour find ourselves seeking the desire, recognition, and admiration of white women, especially those who spurn us; they have denied us that humanity, and only they may restore it.

We find ourselves seeking to become one of those few friends of colour, islands among white women, who are included in the white social network, upon whom lies some reflected white glory: the habits, the speech patterns, the places to hang out. There arises, of course, a fierce competition between women of colour, especially those of us who do not have secure communities of queer people of colour, to land these coveted positions in which queer women of colour are validated by queer white women; white women’s refusal to let many of us into these spaces translates, for us, into a scarcity, a notion that there isn’t room for many of us to belong, and therefore we must cut each other down to succeed.

Upsettingly, this prompts a replication in the queer woman of colour community of the poisonous dynamics between white women and the women of colour that they feel competitive toward: just as white women feel that they are competing with me for the right to be another white woman’s princess, I and other women of colour are forced into competition for the role of “woman of colour friend”.

This toxic constant undermining of each other naturally inhibits genuine solidarity within community, which is incontestably the foundation of feminism. It begs the question: what are we achieving through, and for, this deliberate community, of queer women of colour, and, on a broader level, of queer women, if such a major mode of our interactions with each other is destructive rather than supportive?

The threatened white women who push us out of the roles that they so jealously guard and, in the process, out of the full range of personhood and into caricatures of aggression, no doubt merely consider themselves to be “defending their turf”—racial majorities defense of their turf has a long and unsavoury history. If you'll permit me to take the point to its predictable conclusion: fear of “the other" accumulating jobs and wealth was a driving force of Hitler’s campaign against Jewish people, and, in America today, one of the biggest reasons for the strength of anti-immigration conservative sentiment embodied by Donald Trump.

These examples are thought so severe as to be beyond the intent of those who beget acceptably racist behavior in "alternative", "progressive", or "queer" spaces, but those who live this aggression and exclusion day-to-day are actively aware of these politics, where they've led us in the past, and where they might lead us again.

Fear of "the other" presenting competition in more intimate, personal roles sinisterly, if subtly, echoes that same vein of racism.

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Lace Dagger is always on the hunt for baby elephant gifs and new ways to phrase "I hate everything."