By Vivienne Louise
(As published in Lesbian Ethics Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1988)
Dear White Lesbian Separatists:
Why donít white lesbians have a genuine desire to learn from lesbians of African descent?(1)
By genuine desire I donít mean probing curiosity that fuels distanced study. Nor do I mean a form of cultural acquisition that leads to stealing values, art, etc. and owning them through lies and misrepresentation. I am also not addressing that certain "kindness" that white lesbians give to African descent lesbians which inevitably leads to a power-over relationship, e.g., teacher/student, mentor/protégé. Genuine desire doesnít include that special brand of liberal chauvinism that allows white lesbians to accept, indeed expect, inappropriate behavior on the part of African descent lesbians.(2)
What I am addressing is a relationship of equals where it is recognized that each has something to bring to the relationship. Where the differences are truly welcomed and not just given lip service. And where growth and lesbian cultural development is acknowledged as coming from many places within and around us.
I have been a member of some form of womenís/lesbian/lesbian-separatist community for 10 years. In those years I have heard these values espoused without genuine desire backing them up. What I donít understand is why.
I have observed a certain degree of contentedness white lesbians feel among themselves; they feel at home and quite comfortable with little or no racial diversity in their communities. Of course, I never really see this contentedness in its true state as my presence always changes the dynamic. I wonder why they donít realize that they are missing something. Why donít they see that their view of the world is limited and that by accepting those limitations they are accepting the mandate of their white fathers?
It is true that some white lesbians do recognize the absence of African descent lesbians. Too often, however, this recognition comes from guilt or an attempt at political correctness. Most acts that are performed out of guilt are experienced by the actor as forced and contrived. She is neither convinced of the value of the act nor clear that it will have any intrinsic worth for her. This attitude will never properly facilitate the development of a genuine desire to learn from each other. It will only promote a missionary/convert posture, an obvious power-over dynamic.
I know that most of us agree that racism is a form of collaboration with the patriarchy and that the false divisions created by patriarchy work to weaken us individually and as a community.(3) However, these divisions still manage to run rampant in our communities.
African descent lesbians have called white lesbians on their racist acts and attitudes, in many ways and in many arenas. Indeed some progress has been made, in that white lesbians may not engage in some of the commonly criticized forms of overt racism. However, the racism eventually manifests itself in other ways. If white lesbians address the "exclusion" of lesbians of African descent, then they usually turn around and force their cultural values on those "included" African descent lesbians. For example, the format and language used at a meeting will reflect white cultural values, alienating those not educated or skilled in these arenas.(4)
Although many white lesbians have good hearts and sincere intentions they still appear infected with racist attitudes and actions. Even when they care deeply for African descent lesbians in their lives, they still appear unable to keep racism from poisoning these relationships. Examples are emotional withdrawal when an African descent lover desires or seeks the company of other African descent lesbians, or deliberately coming between two African descent lesbians creating an either/or situationóeither white lover or African descent friend. Encouraging isolation of an African descent lesbian from her cultural and ethnic roots is an act of genocide, as the African descent lesbian is only weakened thereby. I just want to know: Why?
Given that I am not a white lesbian, I can only extrapolate from an outside perspective. I note that I have encountered a great deal of fear from white lesbians when they are congregating and a few lesbians of African descent enter the situation. I experience this fear as a cold wall made of impenetrable stone screaming, "KEEP OUT, KEEP AWAY." In nature fear has a particular smell which animals recognize. To me, fear is a passive aggressive force keeping the numbers of African descent lesbians to a minimum. Only the most determined and stout-hearted of us would be able to withstand the freezing temperatures of this pervasive fear.
I assume that this fear is a culturally learned attitude. What cultural contract is being respected by radical white lesbians? Possibly the cultural fear is of annihilation. If not, then what is the fear or, even more basically, what is the systemic root of this racism?
As an African descent lesbian I experience racism as a poison gas. I cannot allow myself to be exposed to poison gas too often or I will end up debilitated and weakened. This, therefore, limits my contact with white lesbian separatists, as I have long ago become weary of tracking the latest racist manifestation.
I believe that some of you have thought about this and even discussed it among yourselves. If so, I hope you will have the courage to bring your discussion into a more open forum. If not, I hope that my comments here can take the discussion of racism into a deeper arena, one that allows the systemic reasons to be named, examined and eradicated.
I have written this letter from a place of genuine desire to come together as a real and whole community. I have my doubts concerning the possibility, but this letter is my attempt to bridge some of the differences, with honesty rather than perfunctory gestures. I hope that it is heard from those places of genuine desire present, though possibly dormant, in most lesbians.
1. I donít use the popular term of color because I believe that this encompassing reference to Brown and Black peoples around the world renders the cultural differences among us invisible. See my "Of color: Whatís in a Name," Bay Area Womenís News, Jan/Feb 1988. As an African-American I only address the issues from my perspective. I donít pretend to understand or address the myriad racist attitudes that are exhibited towards other Brown and Black lesbians. By "African descent" lesbians I mean those lesbians commonly designated as "Black" in the USA today. African descent as a cultural identification goes beyond skin color. However, this larger meaning does NOT include the anthropological theory that all life sprang from Africa and therefore we are all of African descent.
2. A friend (an African-American lesbian) is convinced that white lesbians help Black lesbians stay "sick" by maintaining a double standard of behavior expectations. The white double standard allows African-American lesbians to act in ways that would not be tolerated by other African-American lesbians. The African-American lesbians are never pushed to change unacceptable habits.
3. Classism, ageism, physicalism, anti-semitism, etc., are just some of the other divisions imposed by patriarchal values. This paper addresses only racism.
4. I use the term white cultural values to denote the cultural values of middle class U.S. WASPs. Many "white" lesbians of working or poor classes, descendants of darker European countries, and Jews find a certain amount of alienation in these circles also.