By Buddy Early, February 2020 Issue.
Last month a coworker made a racist comment to me.
I almost referred to it here as a joke, but although he intended it to illicit laughter it certainly wasn’t funny. He knew it was inappropriate, as evidenced by the way he leaned in and said it rather quietly. Aside from being completely disgusted that he would assume I’m fine hearing racist “jokes,” I’m equally disappointed in myself for tolerating it. You see, while I gave him an unmistakable disapproving look, I let loose a tiny chuckle.
I have always – and especially since 2016 – touted myself as a person who will call out racists and racism whenever I encounter them or it. So why, in this scenario, did I make a split-second decision to let it slide and offer tacit approval of his comment? Perhaps it was because up until this moment I really liked this coworker; I was hurt when I found out the kind of person he is. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for such a confrontation at this particular time.
The best I can do is promise myself that the next time I won’t let this opportunity pass. I have forgiven myself. But what has been weighing on my mind more that my cowardice is this coworker’s comfortability with telling me a racist joke. This person knows I’m gay, and he knows that … well, that’s all someone really needs to know in order to assume I am not cool with bigotry.
I’m not naïve; I know that gay people do not all share the same politics and values. I know our community includes liberals, moderates and conservatives. Many of us care about our fellow humans … and some others are current members of the Republican Party. (I couldn’t resist.) But if there are things we all should be on the same page regarding, it’s bigotry and bias in all forms.
I’ve been an out gay man for almost 25 years now and, if I do say so myself, have been an active, contributing, well-connected member of this community. During that time, I have, unfortunately, witnessed deplorable behavior from gay men and lesbians. I’ve seen people of color excluded, derided, and segregated. I’ve witnessed both blatant and subtle displays of racism in some of our community’s watering holes. And I’ve overheard more racial slurs and “jokes” like the one my coworker told than I care to remember.
It’s shameful and embarrassing for our community.
There are a good number of gay men and women who would be outraged the second marriage equality is put on the chopping block, adoption rights for gay couples threatened, or employment discrimination codified. On those occasions they leap into action as Super Social Justice Warrior. But that’s where it stops for them. They’re peculiarly quiet when the topic is black men being stopped by police for no reason — and then shot by police for no reason. They remain silent when Hispanic parents are separated from their young children at border camps. They keep their mouths shut when a Muslim individual is escorted off a plane because one of the passengers got scared.
But two queens get bad service at a restaurant and there is hell to pay!
All of this is what went through my head after I tolerated my coworker’s racist comment. I kept thinking “How could this person not know that I don’t approve of that?” I wanted to return to him and say “You know I’m gay, right? So why did you feel comfortable saying something racist in front of me?”
But after a bit of contemplation I realized: he didn’t assume I’m anti-racism because there are plenty of racist gay people. I can fault him for his racism, but I can’t fault him for his assumption about me – or lack of assumption. That fault lies with my community. He told me his lame racist joke because he figured, gay or not, I was a good old American racist like him.
In January, I celebrated two decades of being a writer for this magazine. I’ve witnessed a lot of wonderful things; gay people have won our equal rights and protections in almost every arena. My wish for this next decade is that we understand that other communities’ existence is being threatened in numerous ways. My wish is that our racist coworkers will automatically know we are a people who are not racist. I think it should be a given.