Pretty and Witty and Gay: Calling out racism in the spaces we love


Pretty and Witty and Gay

Mac Ploetz

As I near the end of my Vanderbilt career, I find myself reflecting on both my academic and personal journeys. It was at Vanderbilt that I truly acknowledged my transgender identity. For the first time, I met people who belonged to vastly different social classes than I did. As a Midwesterner, I almost never thought complexly about race and racism. As far I was concerned, racism ended with the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Everything that happened after that was the product of laziness or bad luck.

I was a sophomore in high school when George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. I remember watching each new headline with each new piece of evidence breaking across the TV screen in huge letters. Because of my environment– and, subsequently, the information I had access to– I dismissed this instance of police brutality as a product of unfortunate circumstance. Why didn’t Martin just listen to Zimmerman? If Zimmerman was acting out of self defense, wasn’t it okay for him to fire his gun? Such questions bubbled up to the front of my consciousness, and for a little bit, my after-school routine was occupied by the television.

With each heavily publicized incident of police brutality, I became more and more skeptical of not just the criminal justice system but also the ways in which black people were, and still are, being treated. Upon my arrival at Vanderbilt, I had known racism to be a continuing national issue.

Like most young queer folks, I sought out LGBTQ community. When I started attending Lambda meetings, and when I started frequenting the K.C. Potter Center, I was overwhelmed with the immediate acceptance and validation I felt in my own identity. I could ask people to use a different name and different pronouns for me, and my requests would be respected. I could talk to people whose experiences were strikingly similar to mine, and I knew I could find affirmation in such conversations. Vanderbilt’s LGBTQ spaces were my first tastes of queer community, and it was exhilarating. Needless to say, I adored Lambda. Perhaps that is why this critique may come as such a surprise now.

Lambda, The Hustler, Dank New Rand Memes, Greek Life, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee and the United States of America all contain facets of white supremacy, and thus, racism.

It is tough to look at an organization (and a university) you love so dearly and honestly and critically consider its role in racism. The simple reality of this country is that its foundation and subsequent economic success are reliant on cheap and/or unpaid labor. At first, this cheap labor in America came through indentured servitude, and social hierarchy was based more on class than on race. The unsustainable and inconsistent resource of indentured servants, along with the growing number of (potentially revolutionary) working-class individuals living in what is now the United States, prompted a change in how our cheap labor was structured. The social elite, in trying to avoid a revolt from the entirety of the working class (which were comprised of white and black people), manufactured a racial division. If white working class people believed they were above black working class people, there could never be enough unity to overthrow the wealthy. The blossoming nation turned to enslaving African people and thereby created a class of people who were not even considered human. Even if a white person had nothing, they were still human, but a black person was not.

The abolition of slavery was hardly an abolition at all. Dependent on slave labor for economic prosperity, Southern states found new ways to work around the law to maintain the same institutions under different names. The Black Codes throughout the 19th century mandated that black men sign a labor contract with a pre-approved company, else they be jailed. Between ridiculously low wages and the threat of incarceration, most people chose low wages. The Reconstruction Era brought forth notable civil rights progressions, but the backlash against the social advancement of black people brought about what we now know as the Jim Crow Era.

“Separate but equal” facilities and institutions never actually existed in the United States. In fact, black people almost always had governmental resources far inferior to resources of their white counterparts. Of course, this may have been changed through the channels of democracy– if black people were actually allowed (not barred from, not having to take a test to, not miles and miles from, not at work during the time) to vote. Fast forwarding up to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it becomes clear that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not simply asking politely that white people look past his brown skin. He was demanding a radical change in the way the United States addressed racial inequity. As you might know, he was killed for such a demand.

In the 1980s, the United States government cracked down on drug criminalization. You may know this as Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. Policing in “urban” (which is code for “black”) areas heavily increased, drugs most popularly used by thugs (another code for “black”) had high possession penalties and the United States incarceration rate boomed into what is now the second-highest rate of incarceration in the world. And despite white and black people using drugs at about the same rates (if anything, white people are shown to use drugs more often), the vast majority of drug charges were placed onto black people. A drug charge is a felony. If you are charged of a felony, you are no longer able to vote. It’s not too difficult to connect the dots here: the War on Drugs was a ploy to incarcerate and disenfranchise black Americans. My recommendation for those who’d like to read more on this history would be Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Obviously, the story of racism in America is much broader. There are countless injustices (and successes) I did not mention. After all, I only have this column in which I can write. In the midst of this complex history, Vanderbilt University was founded. Lambda was founded. The Hustler was founded. Greek Life was founded. It would be silly to say that all of these institutions and organizations took no influence from the social politics surrounding them. Specifically in Lambda’s case, the leadership and general body of the organization have historically been mostly white. Even as someone who studies race and racism, I have, ingrained in me, expectations and standards set by historical and contemporary white supremacy. Even as I write this column, I know that my leadership in Lambda is and has always been through the lens of my whiteness. I have said and done things that proved that I am not immune to the effects of white supremacy.

To say that the queer community can be separate from race is a fallacy.

To dismiss race as simply a social construct is short-sighted and, frankly, ignorant. Sure, race was socially constructed, but it matters. Black Americans are far less likely than white Americans to accumulate wealth. They are more likely to suffer from health issues. They have been systemically stripped of their civil rights. The naivety one must have to claim that we are in a post-racial society is astounding. To purport that the concept of identity is fiction only tells half the story.

I write this to call on my white peers. Do your research. Check your facts. Think about the pervasiveness of white supremacy and of racism, and try to challenge it. As your pointer finger extends toward someone else, take note of the three fingers that are pointing to yourself.