By: Jeff Baker, Guest Writer, Co-edited by Darryl Antonio Johnson
Dear Queer Black Activists,
As of late, the desirability politics among a lot of same-gender-loving (SGL) and queer Black men in my social network, many of whom happen to contribute some of society’s most groundbreaking racial justice work, has felt inescapable, and as a result, my mental health has suffered. I have wanted to speak up about it for a while now, but it has never felt like the right moment to do so. Part of the problem is that the typical frame for conversations about this subject, especially with regard to internalized racism, almost always focuses on commiserating about the tendency for problematic white gay men to either fetishize or scorn us. While this grievance is valid, an honest dialogue about us is long overdue. The fact that many SGL and queer Black men have felt objectified by one another is often the pink elephant in the room.
To be clear, this is not a self-righteous indictment of SGL and queer Black men. My intention is neither to assign blame to anyone in particular, nor to overgeneralize my experiences to each and every individual in our community. My aim is to encourage others to embrace the healing and transformation that self-reflection offers, as opposed to the short-lived ego-boosts that call-out culture and woke performances afford us.
Day in and day out, I observe the same archetypal “thirst traps” glorified: the light-skinned, racially ambiguous, or non-Black, “pretty boy”, who looks young and fit (or sometimes thick, but rarely plus-sized); or the “trade”, who is typically darker-skinned, muscular, tall, and bearded, with ostensibly more passing privilege. These aesthetics seem to infatuate a lot of us. And by “us”, I am referring to many of the queer Black people—particularly men—who demonstrate a commendable dedication to racial justice.
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Day in and day out, I witness otherwise vociferous and opinionated public intellectuals, scholar-activists, organizers, and creatives, turn a blind eye to the problematic actions of folx with these aforementioned body types, for no other reason than colorism, effemiphobia, and sizism. Yet a double standard applies to community members who do not emulate the mystique of modelesque guys on Instagram. Folx who typically have less luck converting their perceived desirability into social capital, such as Black and/or fat femmes, do not get humanized after missteps. Instead, they usually get dragged unforgivingly. It takes little to nothing for these folx to get their intelligence underestimated; or their character attacked; or their confidence mocked.
Such observations upset me, because what I witness is immense potential for solidarity being squandered, and a communal lack of radical self-love impeding our momentum for liberation. I am dissecting the politics of the consciousness-raisers among us, especially those who do public work on large platforms, for this reason. I am critiquing some of us, from a place of love, for not always helping one another work through the low self-esteem borne from our oppression, and for sometimes all to eagerly preying upon one another out of insecurity and peer pressure. I am taking some of us to task, from a place of love, for deflecting from the bitter truth that it is not just white men who belittle and erase us, based on our perceived sexual capital. I am calling out some of us, from a place of love, for downplaying the fact that “the personal”—who we choose to DM, hook up with, date, and even whose work we respect and take seriously (as an example, possibly my writing and this letter)—is often political.
Make no mistake, I do not underestimate the complexity of unlearning internalized racial oppression. There is no shortcut around decolonizing one’s own desire; and, frankly, it can be a shameful process, especially for those who dwell in ivory towers and can intellectualize systemic racism with admirable sophistication. But before we take on our work, it is imperative that we embody the values we espouse. Or else we will never get free.
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African American psychologist Dee Watts-Jones, who studies the emotional underpinnings of internalized racism, has written extensively about two layers of shame that can inhibit Black folx from discussing internalized racism openly. Firstly, there is a core shame that is directly related to anti-Black oppression itself, and secondly, there is a shame about feeling that shame. It is the latter that often leads us to grapple with the cognitive dissonance of our pro-Blackness and our self-loathing, in silence. The taboo surrounding our intracommunity desirability politics—from denial about the nearly ubiquitous preference for Eurocentric features, to the tacit association of certain skin tones and body sizes with “tops” and “bottoms”—is a testament to the fact that deeply conditioned internalized racism, particularly internalized misogynoir, needs to be acknowledged and addressed candidly.
Our queerness and our Blackness already relegate us to the margins of the margins of society; if we further marginalize ourselves, there will be no where to go. From here on out, it is imperative that we renew our commitment to solidarity by prioritizing our self-awareness, just as much as our fluency in deconstructing white supremacy. Introspection is one of the sharpest tools we can use to dismantle the hegemonic systems around us. Moreover, each and every one of us, especially those who struggle to walk the walk as much as they talk the talk, must hold ourselves accountable for complicity, for each other’s sake; and, more importantly, for the generations to come. They need not inherit the world as it is now.
With love and solidarity,
Jeff Baker (he/him/his) is a Los Angeles-based mental health counselor and an equity & inclusion advocate in the education and public health sectors. He holds a M.Phil.Ed. in Professional Counseling from the University of Pennsylvania, and recently earned his Ed.M. in Human Development & Psychology from Harvard University. You can connect with him at email@example.com, facebook.com/jeb9466, or @fight4theyouth on Twitter.[Feature Image: A black and white image of a black man sitting nude with his back to the camera and hair in a bun of locs. By: #Blackmendream, 2014, Film Still. Courtesy of the artist, Shikeith.]