While sitting in a restaurant waiting for a friend recently, I overheard an animated conversation about racism and homophobia between two middle-aged white men sitting at the table next to me. I almost snorted when one of them declared that he didn't think about the issue of race when his daughter became involved in an interracial relationship, and how shocked he was by the racist remarks made by some of his friends and acquaintances. "After all," he said, "these are educated, refined people, not trailer park trash."
Then they talked about several heinous hate crimes: the black man who was murdered by being dragged behind a truck; the college student who was beaten to a pulp and left to die on a fence and the young soldier who was bludgeoned with a baseball bat, both murdered because they were perceived to be gay. They focused on the class and education of the men who committed these crimes, obviously taking comfort that they were not members of the middle class. By the time my dinner date arrived the men were declaring that it was "those people" who were to blame for racism and homophobia.
Later I thought about how often folks pass the buck and how frequently the class card gets played. Back in the day when the Ku Klux Klan routinely sheeted up and things got ugly, middle-class and affluent southerners distanced themselves by blaming "rednecks," and white northerners pointed their fingers south. These days everybody has someone else to label as racist or homophobic, sexist, or anti-Semitic--the cops, fringe groups like the Aryans, or the militia movement, men, anti-choicers, the Christian right, gangs, the ignorant, the uneducated, the folks who live in trailer parks. It's never us, or our crowd.
Maybe we aren't the folks who scream the epithets, do the violence. But can we assume that because we are feminists, or because we are black, Latina, Korean or Jewish, lesbians or bisexuals, or have crossed the color line in our personal relationships, or have friends or family who are lesbian or gay, that the finger doesn't point our way? Since that night I've been doing a lot of soul searching. Thought about the times when someone has hinted at the "lesbian conspiracy," or vented on Jews or Arabs, and I let it pass because I didn't feel like getting into an argument. I have taken pride in the diversity of the Ms. staff and contributors, and in the mix of articles we publish. But we have only scratched the surface. Recently, a letter to the editor chastised us for failing to include lesbian relationships in our issue on sex. My initial response was defensive, but the fact is, we blew an opportunity to be proactive. No matter that the staff includes lesbians if we fail to make lesbians visible in our pages. The same is true with race and culture. In this issue Barbara Renaud Gonzalez argues that the progressive press, Ms. included, has failed to acknowledge Latina activists and not given voice to the opinions and experiences of her sisters. The shoe fits and it hurts. We've been guilty of the same sins of omission about other communities.
No, much as I'd like to think that I am not a part of the problem, I'm not always walking the talk. I needed to overhear that conversation, read that letter and that essay. The last thing I can afford to be is smug. So please keep pinching and pushing me and all of us at Ms.