Dear Queer White People

Dr. Sami Schalk kicks off a new series of columns that aim to address some of the pressing and oftentimes thornier questions about the intersection of race and queerness in America.

I am a black queer woman who is tired of answering questions at the bar, at parties, or on the dance floor, so I’m starting a series of short essays addressing some of the issues my QTPOC friends and I most often encounter in our interactions and conversations with white queer people. For this first piece, let’s cover some basic questions:

What is “QTPOC?”  

QTPOC stands for queer and trans people (or person) of color. Queer and trans are both used as umbrella terms here so this includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, intersex, non-binary, and genderqueer people of color as well. 

People of color refers to non-white individuals, mainly Black, Native/Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latinx (a gender neutral term for people of Latin American or Hispanic descent), and Middle Eastern people. The term people of color is adapted from the term women of color which was coined by non-white feminists in the 1970s. The term is meant to signal strategic coalition and solidarity across races for those who face related though different forms of racism. QTPOC builds on this term as a way to signal the specific experiences of non-white LBGTQ+ people.

Won’t more labels just divide rather than unite us?  

The term QTPOC unites queer and trans people of color by allowing us to connect across these specific lines of identity and experience, but it does not divide us from white queer and trans people or straight people of color. Further, naming these experiences as QTPOC simply illuminates existing differences in order to address our particular experiences of homophobia, cissexism, and racism, both within and outside of the queer community. In other words, queer and trans people of color already experience life differently, and our gender, sexuality, and racial identities are often some of the most salient ways we are read and treated in this world (along with disability status, class, and body size). This label just identifies and gives language to these particular intersectional experiences.

Why “White Queer People”? Isn’t that racist/homophobic?  

Calling you white and queer is no different than calling myself black and queer. It is a statement of fact. White people are not used to having their whiteness identified or marked publicly because whiteness is the norm. For example, when scheduling to meet a new person over e-mail I often tell them I’m a fat black woman with glasses, but white people never reply to me identifying themselves as white—they don’t think about it any more than I would think to tell someone I’m human. Just as I take my humanness for granted, white folks often take their whiteness for granted as unremarkable and unimportant when it actually shapes so much of how they/you are permitted to operate in the world. Additionally, neutrally stating a person’s race when race is relevant to your remarks is not racist. I am targeting my comments here to white queer people. I am naming a group as I name QTPOC.

The reason I am writing what I hope will be a series of open letters to white queer people is because this summer, in the wake of OutReach’s decision to rescind permissions for the Sheriff and Madison Police departments to march armed and in uniform in the Pride Parade, I attended a listening session between the Madison PD and the local LGBTQ community. At this listening session of about 100 people, I was one of perhaps a dozen people of color. I spoke about my own fears and anxiety around police and why it’s important for more privileged members of our community (cisgender, white, nondisabled, wealthy, etc.) to listen to the voices of marginalized people and to center their needs first and foremost. I spoke about the different between harm and feelings of disappointment or sadness. I don’t think I convinced everyone in the room, but I’ve heard I changed a few minds. 

Afterward, dozens of white strangers tried to talk to me or friend me on Facebook or contact me via e-mail. They wanted to thank me or ask me more questions or take me out for dinner to pick my brain about something they are afraid to ask their non-white friends. It was…a lot. I can’t talk to every one of you. These interactions take a lot of time, energy, and emotion from me and other people of color; they create tension in my body, and leave me thinking for days afterward how I could have phrased something better or responded more firmly. So when Emily Mills of Our Lives asked me if I wanted to start writing for the Intersections column, I viewed it as an opportunity to reach a larger number of white queers in Madison and perhaps provide a resource for other QTPOCs who are tired of answering the same questions, too.

So what now?  

Now, I answer your questions. I address things my QTPOC friends have said they want white people to know and understand. I try my best to help white queer folks learn, grow, and change to become better allies so that we can address racism within the queer community and beyond. And yes, there is racism in our LBGTQ+ communities in Madison and folks are already hard at work trying to address it. Johanna Heineman-Pieper and Shawna Lutzow have been leading discussions about racism in queer spaces at OutReach for over a year now. The Queer Pressure collective explicitly bans harassing and discriminatory behavior at events and often have an entrance sign which reads: “As a community we acknowledge past and present racism, colonialism, transphobia, ableism, classism, homophobia, etc. Upon entering this space, you are expected to act respectfully or get the fuck out.” My writing here aims to complement and lift up the work so many queer folks have already been doing locally. 

White queers and QTPOCs alike: reach out, tell me what you want to know or help other people know and I’ll do my best to tackle it as clearly and kindly as possible.

Your local fierce black femme on a mission,

– Sami

Got questions? You know you do. Send them to our experts at DearWhiteQueerPeople at gmail.com to potentially be addressed in a future column. We’re also looking for experts in diverse areas of study and practice to pen future responses. Drop a line to that same email address if you’re interested. Thank you!

One comment on “Dear Queer White People
  1. Does the midwest really suck so bad?

    Not asking if it sucks more, less, or differently than other places, but I wonder if you could share some of your worst and best “midwestern” experiences as a QPOC in Wisconsin. Btw this column rocks.

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