how being ‘black first’ continues failing those who come second

May 3, 2019
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“Your silence will not protect you.” Audre Lorde

The pressure live at the intersection of Blackness and “other” has reached the boiling point. Since the death by suicide of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby, I’ve woken up heavy. Heavy with the pain of not being able to protect a young Black boy from a society not accepting of his lived experience. Angry, that our blackness as queer people are not respected enough to not make us disposable. Most of all, angry at the silence from all parts of community.

There is a common phrase that is used amongst queer to speak about this truth. You will often hear Black queer folks say, “I was called a faggot before I was ever called a nigger.” Now let’s parse this out some. This does not mean that Black queer folks are saying their queer oppression is greater than that of their Black oppression. Better said, it is the realization that many Black queer people primarily or only operate in Black spaces. That their Blackness is not questioned or criticized by white folks in these spaces, but more so reduced by their queerness.

It is not the disowning of Blackness, nor the understanding that queer-antagonism is a symptom of white supremacy and colonization, nor is it disregarding that everything is anti-Black and set up against us too. It is more so the recognition that queer antagonism is a very overt and real oppression faced by many who live and navigate in Black community absent the overt racism, which they know they are also fighting against. As my good friend Mason put it, “It’s never really Black first, it’s Black and then the fine print.”

When I wrote the piece “Fear of my state, fear of my home: Being Black and Queer in America” it was with thoughts like this in mind. Situations where we see the violence that is faced by Black trans people, specifically Black and brown trans women that rarely get coverage—coverage that is often littered with mis-gendering. It is also the lack of support or praise our community gets in our joyous moments. There is no conversation of “black excellence” when the excellence is centered in queerness—look no further than the critically acclaimed POSE being snubbed by the NAACP Image Awards.

People who are Black and “other” are often asked to operate from a space of being Black first at all times. I want to be clear when I say, that this request is killing us. This request is also an attempt to not do the work in unlearning principles that create violence and discrimination based in homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, and everything that intersects Black people.

It also must be said that folks who are Black and other know that we are Black while fighting for our “other.” Black queer men can also go on record saying we know that we are Black men, while also fighting for our queerness. See how that works?

The problem comes when we try to use this “Black first” approach when all of us are in Black community. It makes sense that when tackling issues of police brutality, mass incarceration, the wealth gap, school-to-prison pipeline, or any other system of oppression that we all connect as Black folk to fight it. But when we are in community space and we are all Black, it is our “other” that is separating us and is the conversation we must have. Homophobia, misogyny, transphobia are all issues that people use to reduce our blackness.

Look no further than the recent death of Kawaski Trawick in the Bronx NY. There is likely a reason you have never heard of him. He was recently killed by two NYPD officers. He fits the narrative of another Black man lost at the hands of over policing and brutality and yet, here we are a week from this happening with silence all around. Trawick also identified as a gay man.

Once again, a moment that should be rallied behind by our community won’t be, and we all know the reason why. It’s the same reason there hasn’t been enough support for the 2 Black men found dead in the home of Ed Buck. The reason that young Nigel Shelby completed suicide and many (not all) in heterosexual community have remained silent. Why is it never “Black first” when the life has an additional label?

A lot of us are broken. Broken by society. Broken by white supremacy. Broken by upholding patriarchal standards in Black community that continue to silence and harm our own. We cannot allow our children to continue being poisoned by our poor standards. There is no reason a Black child should be completing suicide because of bullying from his peers, often learned by those who are raising them. It is time that broken men, both straight and queer get healed. A process that can only happen if Black first removes the fine print that continues getting those with additional identifiers killed.

Writer and author, George Johnson is bringing our viral conversations to real life situations.