Like many, I am trying to make sense of the tragedy in Orlando. But I confess, as I talk to people and listen to different perspectives, I am embarrassed and ashamed. Well meaning, kind, caring people are inadvertently being callous and insensitive. I am going to speak from my own perspective — a 58-year-old, white, middle-class, straight male. What I find deeply distressing and disturbing are so many of the attempts at empathetic solidarity extended by middle-class white (straight) America, including my own. Last weekend 49 people at a gay nightclub, a significant number from the Hispanic/Latino working class, were gunned down, and dozens were injured — even more terrified and terrorized. There are few words to describe how despicable and hateful this violence was and is.
Yet, I have been listening to straight, white people from Wisconsin (I am one of them now) talk about how sad they are, how angry they are, how deeply this has affected them. I don’t deny an impact, but what is making me so uncomfortable is the way we conceptualize an act of violence against a specific group of people and usurp it by make it an abstraction. This isn’t about “us” — when the us is middle-class, white, straight Midwesterners. This didn’t happen to US — it happened to real men and women. It was an attack against LGBTQ community. It was a racial assault against Hispanic/Latino individuals. These people aren’t abstractions. They aren’t part of an ubiquitous, amorphous “all of us.” I’ll put this in personal terms. I have never been gay. I have never been Hispanic/Latino. I have not been part of an immigrant population. I have never suffered the indignities of racism. I have never suffered the hateful attack of repressed (and too often “Christian”) culture. I cannot empathize. I can sympathize. But it would be a serious injustice for me to make what happened in Orlando be about me.
It is like the ignorant, misguided response to “Black Lives Matter” — usually from middle-class, white America — that “ALL lives matter.” First of all, no one ever said all lives don’t matter. But our American culture has certainly sent a loud and clear message that the lives of young black men are expendable. We don’t have to defend that “all lives matter” because we don’t have our legal social structures killing “all people.” What we do have is an outrageous and horrifying reality that it is fundamentally unsafe to be a young black man in America. We need to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter,” because there is overwhelming evidence that dominant power structures don’t think it is true. Responding that “all lives matter” is a sad, ignorant, and blatant form of racism.
So here is what I have been thinking post-Orlando. It doesn’t matter how sad I am. It matters how LGBTQ people are feeling. It doesn’t matter that I think — I need to find out what working fringe Hispanics and Latinos are thinking. It doesn’t matter what I feel should be done in response to such devastating hate and violence. It matters what Hispanics and Latinos and gays and lesbians and transgender/bi-sexual/queer feel needs to happen. Instead of making this about an “issue” we need to let this be about real people, and we who were not the targeted victims need to shut up and stand up with those people whom this is truly all about.
Why is it so difficult for privileged white citizens to admit that minority oppression is built into the fabric of our U.S. cultural reality. I am not implying universal failure, but I am stating we live in a “critical chain” paradigm: the culture is only as strong as its weakest link. Not all people are racist, but racism is still prevalent and virulent (Trump). Not all people are xenophobic and distrustful of other faith traditions, but unfounded fear and ignorance are widespread and prominent (Trump). Not all people are sexist, but inequities and good-old-boy biases abound (Trump). Not everyone is homophobic, but antagonism and hostile prejudice is embarrassingly rife (Trump). So long as there is a tolerance for and an apathy toward racism, sexism, homophobia, and anxiety about “those people” America will be weak, dangerous, fear-driven, and vulnerable. The time is long overdue that we who feel bad FOR those who are oppressed and attacked be willing to stand WITH the very people we feel bad about, and that we work with them to make sure Orlando won’t happen again.