What a Difference a Dash Makes
Dan Vera & Bo Young
Bo: So. We’ve been planning this issue for what...four years? five years?
Dan: Easily that. We didn’t want to do it till we felt we were ready for it and until we thought we could get people who could approach it in a new way.
Bo: And here we are, a few weeks away from the nomination of the first Black candidate for President of the United States...who’d a thunk it? Though, I will go on record here as saying that I’m not sure the U.S. is capable of it. Sadly.
Dan: I hope it is. I’m sure there were those that said the same thing about Kennedy and his Catholicism when he ran in 1960.
Bo: True...but anti-Catholicism is a tad milder than the racism at the core of this country
Dan: I don’t think we remember how pronounced the opposition once was. Susan Jacoby in her book Freethinkers, which I reviewed for this issue, goes into amazing detail about the anti-Catholic animus and vitriol that greeted Al Smith in 1928 when he ran as the first Catholic candidate for president.
Bo: True. I’m actually hoping that the youth vote trumps the racist vote and elects a young man over an old man, white or otherwise.
Dan: I like to think that the last 8 years fiasco on one extreme, with our Hooverian sitting president, may be just the thing to advance a great leap forward — ala FDR.
Bo: Perhaps...but this morning I heard a 10 year old boy interviewed on NPR at a science fair...and he was saying he supported Hillary Clinton and that Obama couldn’t make a good president because he was the “wrong religion.” The interviewer asked him what religion that was and the little boy said “African American.”
Dan: Wow. So, perhaps the most fitting comment about the timeliness of this issue isn’t Obama’s candidacy but the way in which his candidacy has revealed the real depths of ignorance. I have to say I’ve been very pleased with the narrative strength of this issue with a lot of people writing from personal perspective. Much less theoretical, head-talk and more felt experience.
Bo: We were looking for some new conversation on the topic and I think we got what we were looking for. It only took us five years to find it!
Dan: Well, it’s been tough. White Crane has never been as racially or culturally diverse in its voices as we’d like and the hope with this issue was that it would crack us open to a greater spectrum. It’s a tall order but one that I think we succeeded at.
Bo: Do you really think we’ve been un-diverse?
Dan: Well, no less then most Gay media, but sure. If you went by percentages, we haven’t been representative of the general public’s diversity. We live in a country whose population, according to the last Census eight years ago, is a quarter “non-White” (and I know that’s a complicated designation in itself). Now I don’t think you could say that most media has a quarter of its pieces by “people of color” or whatever term you’d choose. It still seems very white dominant and we don’t notice because most of the Gay community still hasn’t wrapped its head around the change in demographics. Neither has the larger culture. Hell, I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around it.
Bo: Is this just a matter of everyone is in their own little world, and never the twain shall meet?
Dan: I really don’t think so. I think it’s just a matter of being in a period of adjustment. When I was doing diversity workshops for mostly white congregations it was always a great process of breaking through the misconceptions. I’d always start by drawing a circle on a chalkboard and asking them to guess a pie-chart of the U.S. population. They ALWAYS got it wrong. They always guessed it was like 6% or something POC. I’d get the same response from mixed groups. I just think that as a society we haven’t really grokked to the fact that we are living, now, not in the future, in a society where one in four people are not what historically has been the dominant white society. I always loved doing that demo, because it had people breaking apart their worldviews, about the country they live in. And then, I would throw a grenade into the very myth of “whiteness.” That was my second favorite exercise. About the genocide of ethnic imagination and how the conferring of “whiteness” came with the giving up of history, culture, and a lot of the good stuff that comes with ethnicity. That’s why I love Michael Carosone’s piece in this issue about Italian-American identity. He talks about the real desire to honor his ethnicity and culture. Not as a schtick but as a real ground for understanding.
Bo: What do you think it would take to actually get a real conversation about race going in this country? I was struck this week, actually, with how conservation seems to have suddenly reached the threshold...advertisers are busily flogging their “greenness.” When do you think that will happen with “race?”
Dan: Well, but there’s a real emptiness to the commercial conservative greenness. Talking about race is still thorny because it comes fraught with real history and the repercussions. Race gets thorny because we never really talk about it. And when we do we’re either included, excluded, or doing role plays instead of having the real conversations. We start from a lot of ignorance, as evidenced by that kid you mentioned who thought Obama’s African-American status was a religion.
Bo: I think most white people don’t really know what to do about racism and, like Obama tried to say, get tired of being made to feel guilty for something they don’t think they’ve had a hand in, don’t do, and don’t know what to do about it. And as a result, it never gets talked about.
Dan: Senator Obama was attempting to start the conversation in Philadelphia with that talk. But it was really about Black/White splits and history. We’re a very immature culture when it comes to identity. And the Gay community isn’t immune to that. And I have to say that as a Latino I always roll my eyes at the dualistic simplicity of the American race conversation. It’s a ridiculous binary exchange that leaves a lot of us out of the conversation. Frankly I find it boring or infuriating and for my health and sanity I refuse to take part in those conversations until everyone is named and everyone is included. And in my experiences I’ve found communities of color just as ignorant of each other’s history and culture as White people are of other cultures.
Bo: Right. I’ve never quite bought the idea that only white people are capable of racism that it is solely based in power. I think that’s true only insofar as “power” is involved in every interpersonal relationship (which is not to say that there isn’t institutional racism, to be sure)
Dan: But I think it’s helpful to understand a few dynamics at play. On the one hand you have people who have and experience on a day-to-day level a sense of ethnic or racial culture and on the other hand you have people who have sort of come through the meat grinder of assimilation and have lost their culture or identity. The history of communities of distinction in this country is much more complex and frankly, more interesting. But for huge chunks of population, and these are mostly White people, it’s absolutely missing. So nationalism become identity and culture. I do believe many White people have an unspoken woundedness at having lost or having given away, or not having the permission to celebrate their ethnic identity.
Bo: Yes. I saw that with all the Native American stuff...white European people who had lost all connection with their roots, their traditions...desperate to embrace something with a little earthiness to it... a little “grit.”
Dan: I’m not sure that as a culture we’ve really come to grips with the fact that to be called “white” which has no clear cultural understanding — which is a cultural erasure — is to lose identity and history. So that you ask someone about their culture and they say, I’m a mutt. I’m Irish, German, something or other.
Bo: My mother always said we were “Heinz 57.” A little of this, a little of that, 57 varieties of genetics.
Dan: I think about that as a light-complected Latino. My first language was Spanish. My food, culture, and identity is very different. It’s also a blending of my geographic roots. But I’m not sure where I fit in this most days. I feel very much at home and in diaspora. It becomes even more complicated as a Gay man who will not have progeny, who struggles to figure out what to pass on. As Gay men become experts in heterosexual culture and “pass.” I became an expert in the cultures around me growing up that were not my own. Mexican-American/Chicano and White Anglo culture.
Bo: I thought for sure we were going to get some piece on being hyphenated.
Dan: I seriously don’t mind the hyphen. I mean, yeah, on one level it gets confusing. But the truth is that our identities are very much confusing. I say we hyphenate everything that speaks to our complex life. I’m with the poet Gloria Anzaldua on this. I think the only place we meet each other are on the borderlands of or mixed backgrounds — race, geography, sexuality, gender. All these things. It’s the people who think they live in a walled preserve, whose identities have no permeability--- those are the truly dangerous ones. Our experiential roots as Gay people--that is, our experience of coming into a world that didn’t “get us,” that didn’t know what to do with us, and finding a way to move beyond and claim our trueness — those roots should put us clearly in the camp of embracing all of our complexity. Bring it all in. It’s the most honest posture to take on race and identity.
Bo: I do think the sense of how we as queer people bring something new to the conversation has come through in what we got.
Dan: Well, hopefully we stimulate a discussion. I certainly wouldn’t want White readers, so identified, to read this issue and think it doesn’t speak to them. I think our work as individuals is to discover the richness in our lives. And rich things are complex. We are living roux in a way. It takes time to understand it. To really get all the complex interaction of our own personal stories.
Bo: And one of our archetypal roles is “culture carrier.” And another is “culture changer.” We’re supposed to be expert at being “in between” or is that “in-between?”
Bo: What a difference a little dash makes.
This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane. We are a reader-supported journal and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going. So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!
Bo Young and Dan Vera are editorials mid-wives and co-conspirators in creating each issue of White Crane. Bo lives in Brooklyn, NY a few blocks from a museum and Dan lives in Washington, DC a few blocks from a Shrine. Bo is the author of First Touch: A Passion for Men and Day Trilogy and Other Poems. Dan is the author of two chapbooks of poetry. Visit him at www.danvera.com
If they sometimes seem interchangeable in the minds of White Crane readers it’s because they talk on the phone each day and bask under the shade of the same growing tree, the watering of which they consider their contribution to the continued flowering of gaiety.
You can write them at firstname.lastname@example.org