Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Heart of Straightness

In his book The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege, Robert Jensen writes:
In any struggle to end a system of oppression, those on the bottom of the hierarchy have an obvious motivation to resist the system: to remove from their lives the source of the oppression. But what of those who in some way benefit from the oppression? What of those of us on top of the hierarchy? ... What might motivate us to act for social change?

There is always an argument from justice, the simple plea for human lives for everyone. If we see someone being hurt, we know we should help. When we see someone being brutalized, we know it is wrong. When these things happen systematically, it is just as obvious that we should act, though it typically is more difficult to know for sure what actions can change the system. Resisting oppressive systems that cause injuries and deprive others of their rights is the appropriate thing to do if one takes seriously the ethical or religious principles by which most of us claim to live. But however powerful that argument from justice, we can observe that it does not always motivate people with unearned privilege to work to change the system that gave them the privilege. We can observe that privileged people's commitment to social change tends to be stronger and more reliable when it is grounded in an acknowledgment of their own interests.
Although Jensen is referring to the privilege and power White people have just because they happen to be born with fairer skin, he may as well be talking about heterosexual people and the privilege and power they enjoy because they happen to be born straight (or for some, choose to live straight). Just as with White individuals, straight men and women who are serious about their commitment to equity, fairness and social change have to face, acknowledge and own their place and rule over lesbians, gays and transgendered individuals. Such honesty and integrity can but prod them to act against and upend personal and institutional homophobia. They will move beyond seeing an injustice, they will move beyond feeling some sympathy, and actually do something.

How many of us have heard family members and friends say "look, you'll always be my sister but must we talk about your 'lifestyle'?" or "you and John are buddies, but I'm not supporting gay marriage since the majority is clearly not ready of it" or "you'll always be our child, but that is how the world is sweetheart?"

How many politicians have promised a place at the table for the gays and sworn that they believe in equal rights for all Americans but unabashedly support equal but separate treatment for a minority?

If these people who protest that they are friends, who assure their love for us and who pledge change are serious about their principles, affections and campaign promises, then they need to admit to their complicity in the oppression and brutalization of their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, friends and fellow citizens. Of their fellow human beings.

They need own up, speak up, and act up.

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