For Steve Harper, the question of, “When did you first realize you were White?” is only the beginning.
Recently I was on a call with some of my Good Men Project colleagues and I was smacked in the face with a profound awareness about race. The conversation, which editor Lisa Hickey moderates every Friday, always covers a range of topics and this one veered toward racial awareness and identity toward the end of the call. That’s when I got smacked.
Like everyone, I’m multi-dimensional. I’m a gay Black man, a writer, an actor, a creativity coach. And at the end of this call, Wilson Jordan asked the participants on the line to consider this question: “When did you first realize you were White?”
It’s a great question, of course, and several people chimed in as their minds were blown by the concept. Most of the White people, it seemed, didn’t have to think about race, and some were hard pressed to identify a moment when that awareness of Whiteness hit them. Some admitted they realized it when they were around non-White people for the first time.
The fact that people can go unconscious about their racial identity is a mark of privilege. It isn’t surprising to me, but it was, and is, maddening because I don’t get that luxury.
While the White people on the call searched for a moment when they first realized they were White, I’m reminded I’m Black and gay every day. Yes, there was a first moment, which I’ll never forget, and there are also continual reminders. Consider the complexity of the combination of race and sexuality on this topic and you may get a glimpse at my perspective.
This is one of the complicated things about being “other” in America. I may move through private moments (in my house for example) just being me, but when I step outside, I realize I’m Black and gay over and over again. When I pass a police car, or step into a convenience store, when I see a straight couple holding hands – it resonates: “I’m the different one.”
That doesn’t mean I’m alone in all this. There are other people like me, but we are not the majority. As I walk through the world I feel the reverberations everywhere.
That constancy is a profound difference between my life and what I imagine a White / straight person’s life is like. There is no “set it and forget it” version of being who I am. I get reminders almost every step of the way.
At times I lean into it. As a writer in the entertainment industry, I now come out as gay at almost every opportunity (the Black part is, of course, obvious.) Since it’s part of who I am, it’s part of my artistic and creative perspective. The Black/gay combo is, on some level, a brand I’d be foolish not to use.
There are blessings that come with who I am, for sure, and complications. A better series of questions for me about race would reference different areas of my life: “When did you realize as a writer you were Black? As a voter? As an actor? As a gay person? As a church-goer?”
Part of me wishes I could set and forget it. But I don’t have the privilege of being unconscious.
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