Browse Author: Spectra Speaks

Spectra is an award-winning writer, media advocate, and new media consultant. Her work explores the relationship between culture, technology, and philanthropy, and her writing, gender, media, and the African diaspora. She's also the founder of QWOC Media Wire and community philanthropy programs officer at Africans in the Diaspora (AiD). Her mantra: "Love is my revolution."

I Keep Forgetting That Cupid is a “Colorblind” White Boy

As always, Valentine’s Day weekend was jam-packed with red and pink themed parties designed to seduce the in-love and broken-hearted — mainly new couples, single hetero-ladies, and guilty spouses — into spending big cash in the name of commercial “Love”. However, at almost every event I attended, Cupid seemed to shoot out of range (or not at all) as far as LGBT people of color were concerned. I keep forgetting that Cupid is an immature, “color-blind” white boy. But even if side-stepping the casualties of V-Day weekend may well be a blessing in disguise, it’s no excuse for mainstream to blatantly ignore people of color and LGBT folk.

I’m sure most of us can recall at least one moment during which we realized that major businesses had already hired Cupid to begin spear-heading their annual “Make Sure Your Valentine’s Day Doesn’t Suck” campaigns, right on cue after New Year’s Eve and just before the first web trailer of this year’s white star-studded Valentine’s Day movie flop (wow). You may have stopped by at CVS to grab a pack of gum only to be obstructed by barely-floating heart-shaped balloons in the tacky-candy aisle; perhaps the increasing amount of sexist blood diamond commercials and romantic getaway packages (complete with mid-winter tanning bed deals) that interrupted your TV show eventually clued you in; or, like me, maybe your weekly (aimless) stroll through the “home design” section of your favorite department store was cut short by a plethora of hideous Valentine’s Day furnishings e.g. red plush pillows going for $45 a pop (e tu, Target?).  It wasn’t long before every media channel was red-hued, and the nationwide groans began.

Gratuitous ads, elaborate storefront displays, candy aisles, smartphone Apps, and over-priced restaurant menus seemed to beckon every ditz to “Let Loose”, “Forget about Him” (ha!) , and “Find the Perfect Gift for Her!” even if you were single (or broke). [I give Cupid props. Seriously, you’d think a new religion or non-denominational “Way of Life” would’ve been birthed around this pseudo-holiday by now.]

However, in spite of the on-cue messaging, the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day seemed a little frostier than usual (and I don’t think this was just due to the blizzard-that-never-was). So, no doubt, the recession played a major role in re-loading the average hater’s ammunition; I heard complaints, everywhere. Facebook friends, cabbies, professional networkers, idle storekeepers, even Photographers – aren’t they usually responsible for getting other people to smile? – scrooged away un-originally about the pointlessness of Cupid’s holiday. I heard the played out “Why celebrate love just one day of the year – what happens on the other 364 days?” rhetorical question, blunt variations of “I think it’s over-commercialized and stupid!”, real-talk confessions like “It’s a recession, and I’m broke,” and a new personal favorite, “I have no Valentine so I’ll be avoiding my mom.” Fortunately for Cupid, people hardly ever walk their talk. So despite the buffet of reasons for the V-Day mascot to hand in his bow and arrow, a sudden spike in “positive” status updates right after humpday provided the much-needed momentum to coax almost everyone I knew to leave the “Anti-” campaign and join the “Merry” V-Day party.

The LGBT community in particular was no different — we too boasted a fairly busy social itinerary during Valentine’s Day weekend — but with a slight twist; in Queerville, it almost goes without saying that supporting (or worse, promoting) capitalism will earn you harsh judgment if it’s not done philanthropically i.e. alongside some popular cause. You don’t need to follow the news on TV, print, or twitter to know that Americans are currently group-thinking towards “Saving Haiti” these days, almost on the same scale they usually rally around issues that affect poor and/or starving African children… Oh that’s right, the media’s depiction of the country’s “recent” catastrophe essentially calls for the level of humanitarian response Americans have only ever bestowed unto starving African countries: Infantilize, play Savior, then join a Facebook group like the concerned citizen you are. And I’m not just talking about white people; people of color have been doing this to Africans for years.

Incidentally, and in true queer fashion, there were of course a number of V-day events that promised to donate a significant portion of their proceeds to Haiti relief efforts, homeless shelters, liberal political candidates, and other buzz-worthy causes in return for your generous RSVP. It’s a brilliant strategy really; help queers overcome their guilt or embarrassment about participating in traditionally-hetero V-Day activities even after they’ve been conditioned by the liberal movement to be anti-capitalist… and make some money at it, too. Ah, the complexities of being a rebel. In any case, I was both lucky and unlucky to attend several events like this; lucky because, well, queer options are better than no options, and unlucky because queer options usually means I end up being used as brown garnish in a white beantown crowd.

Since queer Boston frequently subjects me to (seemingly inviting) all-white spaces, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the “pulse” of every event’s promotional communications before donating my RSVP. V-Day weekend was no different, particularly because I had an out-of-town guest and ladyfriend with no patience for diversity fails. So I began my assessment as follows:

Lesbian Nightlife’s V-Day Celebration at Pearl (Friday Night): Cupid didn’t even bother to take aim in this instance. The night’s main feature (and performance) was by “popular” lesbian singer, Lori Michaels. I had no idea who this woman was, but apparently she routinely calls herself a “diva.” I took one look at her MySpace page and new that this would not be the event to party at with my posse of brown and mixed-orientation friends. It would be too white, too loud, and too lesbian. No diversity fail, just a “Next” with no bad feelings. What you see is what you get with LNL, and that’s okay. We would save our energy for Saturday and Sunday.

DykeNight’s Second Saturdays at Machine: This V-Day extravaganza hosted by long-time nightlife philanthropist, Kristen Porter, was also generously running as a fundraiser for the DykeMarch. Based on my past experiences with DykeNight events (the name says it all), I was pretty sure that this party would draw a large crowd of white lezzies that would wanna celebrate V-Day, sweatbox style; the club would be sardine-packed and the DJ would play mainly white pop music, with the occasional “salsa” song (i.e. Elvis Crespo’s “Sauvemente”… yeah).  Based on this, could I overlook the lack of cultural diversity? Suuuure, though it’s not like I ever had a choice – I live in faux-progressive Boston. I’ll cut DykeNight some slack for their age diversity, but Cupid may be losing  sight of what’s important by focusing mainly on this older crowd; he routinely misses the mark when it comes to showing Asians, Blacks, or Latinos any love.

Cupid Coming Out party at the W: The thing about being a community connector and professional token is that you have to socially netWORK before you make it to the fun party of your evening. So before me and my brown V-Day posse could settle for vanilla-fun at Machine’s Second Saturdays, we had to drop by a fundraiser that I’d been invited to. In the spirit of holiday philanthropy, Spirit Magazine had generously donated promotional power and the “Featured Singles” (which included yours truly) from their February issue to Community Servings’ singles auction to feed the homeless. QWOC+  Boston had partnered with Community Servings on our “Community Organizing Fair with Mayor Denise Simmons” during QWOC Week 2009, so I went, in part, to return the favor, and also because I was curious to see if the turnout would be different from what I expected. It wasn’t. And though I hate to do this to Community Servings, the event was such an epic fail as far as diversity is concerned that I’d be remiss not to spell it out.

  • Diversity Fail #1: The tickets were $35 during a recession. Better than GLAD or Fenway with their  $100x dollar tickets, but there goes your younger crowd. I doubt that there was anyone under 30 in the room. Maybe they didn’t want any youngins, but  youth are the future. FAIL
  • Diversity Fail #2: There was no music playing. I mean, NONE. Where was DJ Mocha (the featured DJ)? I thought this was supposed to be a paaaartaaaaay! Were there audio issues? The only sound I heard was of the chitter-chatter of white gay men holding stiff martinis. FAIL.
  • Diversity Fail #3: There was no real food. And just in case you missed the lesson from the first fail, I’ll get straight to the point; non-white cultures essentially revolve around good food (not celery, carrots, and bread buns  — think rice, spice, and MEAT!) and upbeat music (not “easy listening” or “lullaby” music, we need something we can sway to and put us at ease about being surrounded by so many white people). If you’re going to pass on one, you BETTER come correct with the other, or you’ll lose people — it’s that simple. Please turn the music back up, I’m not interested in what you have to say until we break bread or break dance… (haha, I couldn’t resist that one). FAIL!
  • Diversity Fail #4: So Spirit Magazine, a white-gay-man-run LGBT magazine, donates “Boston’s Best Catches for Valentine’s Day” to a live singles auction for your cause; there are a total of TWO people of color in the single lineup (me and a handsome South Asian guy in a pink shirt), and just TWO vaginas (again, me and a silver-haired lezzie with her dog), but you didn’t think to, say, reach “out” to a number of other people of color, or even other women in the community so that it didn’t create weird feelings about modern day slave trade if someone like me wanted to help out and volunteer? No one would want to be the only person of color on stage, and so it’s your job to do better outreach. FAIL
  • Diveristy Fail #5: The MC was a VERY glamorous dragqueen (go her!) that wasn’t funny to me or my friends cause she routinely made gay pop culture (?) and political jokes that went over our heads. When is the LGBT community going to understand that if you feature a Drag Queen without a Drag King (or Female Pole Dancers…) you’re sending a message that says you’re mainly concerned about pleasing your gay male audience. It was bad enough that there was just ONE woman on stage, but you had to get a drag queen to make sure the few women in the room would stay spectators and not participants in the auction. Oy. FAIL FAIL FAIL!

Needless to say, we didn’t last long at this event – not with my menacing frohawk and brown leather jacket against a backdrop of gray suits and aggressive networkers. I still need to write up my thoughts about the blatantly racist treatment that Men of Color Creating Change experienced at the Stork Club on Sunday [that deserves a separate poste], but all in all, besides the good company I was lucky to have, Valentine’s Day weekend was a huge slap in the face from mainstream queerville.

As I mentioned, I had a friend visiting this past weekend, so it was no easy feat to drag him from diversity-fail event to diversity-fail event, particularly when it was clear that even though the LGBT community could make everyone feel good about spending money by themizing their events with social justice causes, people of color would still have a hard time being seen and, thus, shown any real love, by Cupid.

Good thing we love ourselves.

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Diversity Outreach Strategy is Smart Business According to Donald Trump

I don’t watch much TV at all, which means I’ll routinely miss out on moments like this. This found its way into my Twitter timeline yesterday and I’ve been cracking up ever since.

But do you know what I really love about this clip? No, no, it’s not that blondie gets fired in the end or that the West Indian lady had a ‘moment’ listening to Anna’s pathetic defense and rolled her eyes in the boardroom – haha! No. It’s the fact that Anna (blondie) defensively, yet eloquently, illustrated her privilege as a white person in corporate America, line-by-line. She was soooo “into her book” while she was meant to be doing market research at the mall that she “didn’t notice” all the Hispanic people she would have to market her product to, and so, failed to hire Spanish speakers to bridge the communication gap. Really, Anna?

This is a clear case of the cat constantly guessing at when the mice will come out, while the mice have the cat’s eating, sleeping, and hunting schedule down to the T (they probably even pass out pamphlets to new mice coming through). What does the cat care? His survival doesn’t depend on knowing much about the mice at all. He’s got a lap to sleep on, and a warm bowl of Meow Mix. But I digress…

  • Diversity Fail #1 – The business-mogul-in-training failed to “notice” the Hispanic population that drove her target market segment
  • Diversity Fail #2 – When she finally did notice that the mall was full of Spanish speakers, she did nothing… I daresay she hoped that it wouldn’t matter / affect the team’s bottom line at all
  • Diversity Fail #3 *And this is my biggest petpeeve* When it became apparent that the team’s cultural incompetence  and lack of Spanish language skills was affecting the business, they of course called on the two Spanish-speaking people of color to save the day. Reactive diversity tactics are NEVER successful.
  • Diversity Fail #4 – During the boardroom recap with Donald, the poor white girl defended herself ; both her words and tone seemed to suggest somehow that her professionalism? colorblindness? (I don’t know what she was getting at) angelic innocent nature that doesn’t see brown people? was actually a good thing even if it meant failure to sell their product.
  • Diversity Fail #5 – She didn’t own her mistakes, and so I’m assuming she didn’t learn anything from this experience. (I just hope that her elimination on the account of Diversity Fails doesn’t turn her to the dark side, if you know what I mean)

I’ve always been a fan of Donald Trump. He’s a smart no-nonsense businessman, and he knows his stuff. The fact that he highlights the importance of diversity from a strategic planning standpoint is not only extremely influential to millennial professionals of all cultural backgrounds (white people especially), but it’s also music to my ears since I’m constantly listening to the chime of  “good will” corporate politics.

Often enough, people dismiss diversity initiatives as “fluff” – good to have, but not required. But, in this example, that notion is nipped in the bud. It’s simple, really; the world is changing – has already changed – and our outreach initiatives, marketing strategy, branding etc, need to keep up with the social climate. It’s just good business practice.

Emerson “Both Black and Gay” Panel Recap: LGBT People of Color Discussions Too Narrow for 2010

Last night, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a panel titled “Both Black and Gay: What It Means to Be a Person of Color and a Member of the LGBTQ Community.”

When I first received the invitation, I was both honored and pissed off (I’m a virgo sun, and saggitarius moon – my emotions usually come to me in opposing twos). I was of course very excited about the opportunity to talk to students, because I don’t think they get enough support or are exposed to enough role models while they’re in school. However, I wasn’t as thrilled about the panel topic: not only did it sound like an academic dissertation, but the colon-ed explanation that followed the words “Gay” and “Black”  insinuated that the larger discussion about the experience of being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer would inevitably be reduced to a much narrower (and unfortunately, more popular) discussion about what it means to be a black and gay man.

How is it that in 2010, we’re still unable to remain inclusive of the various cultural and ethnic backgrounds – not to mention the L, the B, and the T! – we claim to feel connected to during such critical discussions? Furthermore, are we really okay saying to our LGBT youth groups that narrow discussion scopes that blatantly disregard other cultural groups, gender expressions, and sexual orientations are okay? Disheartening as it was, I decided to focus on the excitement I felt around empowering and equipping the students, and not so much on the semantic snafu that was the panel topic. And for the most part, that worked really well. It was easy to get all warm and fuzzy when I saw the bright, young, eager minds slowly trickling into the room, and remember that “gentle” – not “militant” – is usually the best way to deliver a message.

But just as I feared, I ended up being the only woman on the panel, and was flanked by two “Black” and “Gay” male fellow community organizers (and dear friends) for the two-hour long conversation: Carnell Freeman from Men of Color Creating Change (MOCCC) sat on my right, and Steven Fleury of the Multicultural Aids Coalition (MAC) sat on my left. (Not to worry, ladies, I held my own ;)) We began rather formally: Tikesha Morgan, the Director of Student Multicultural Affairs introduced the three fabulous panelists, and then a blackgayboy student moderator (dressed in the cutest must-have vest!) kicked off the discussion by posing the first question of the evening: “What challenges did you face before you became comfortable with being an LGBT person of color?

[Crickets…] There would clearly be no warm-up. We all looked at each other, chuckling, scratching our heads as we struggled to come up with a succinct starting point to the loaded question.

After a minute or so, Carnell of MOCC rolled up his sleeves and kick-started the conversation; as a Boston native, he grew up in a predominantly African-American community, it was clearly no piece of cake, and a daily struggle to assert his identity as a gay man, particularly among straight black people, hence his creation of MOCCC, a social space in which he could interact freely with other African-American gay men. Steven, who has Haitian roots, talked about the challenges (and triumphs!) he experienced reconciling his sexuality with his religious beliefs and present-day activism within the Multicultural Aids Coalition. I described my experience as an on-going journey to which I held no end point in sight; my gender expression had evolved drastically over the past several years: from privileged femme to fluid futch to soft stud (and beyond), who knew on which part of the spectrum I would settle on (if I ever did)? My racial consciousness, I explained, had evolved too, but unlike my sexuality, I felt pretty sure that it wasn’t going to change. [Just for kicks, here’s the “iQWOC” journey I touched upon].

As you can imagine, the discussion got deep very quickly – there was so much — too much — to talk about. The panelists jumped all over the place, touching upon our experiences in the workforce (unanimously gay black men are “in” and iQWOCs are ostracized), our thoughts on Prop 8 and “the Church”, the use/mis-use of labels, coming out in communities of color, etc. The mix of personalities provided enough variation and alignment in perspectives which (I think) made the stories that were shared more interesting. So, even though we seemed to fly off on tangents every two minutes, the students in the room remained fixed in their seats and soaked it up for two whole hours.

But there was so much talk about “The Church” and Black Gay Men on the DL that I left reconfirming my belief that LGBT people of color are still unprepared to add any real value to the gay rights movement. As we discussed Prop 8, gay marriage, and other buzz-worthy political issues, I frequently had to play (devil’s) advocate and offer the women’s, latino, immigrant perspective in order to guide the conversation back to a more inclusive platform. I still find it mind-boggling that in 2010, people are still VERY comfortable substituting the word “Black” for “people of color”, passing on the experience of mainly white lesbians as the “women’s voice”, and leaving out Asians and Latin@s in almost every important discussion. Take for example, one student’s request to hear our perspectives on community leaders and advocates that aren’t “completely out.” Her question, although very smart and well-posed, seemed completely isolated from the variety of cultural contexts under which we should be exploring the issue. As a first generation immigrant, whose parents still live in Nigeria, a country in which it is ILLEGAL to “practice” homosexuality, it is not only dangerous for me to be out there, but for my parents as well – they could be physically harmed or socially ostracized (which in our country is financial suicide). I have a number of Latina friends who echo similar sentiments, and so most of them are only out in some variation. To imply some informal standard of “outness” would (and I’m sure already does) alienate a large subset of the LGBT people of color community: mainly the immigrants

All the panelists argued their positions on this politely, and the students, hungry for information, took it all in. So, even though I had a few hairs standing on end by the end of the evening, I felt very good about participating on the panel.

A few stream-of-consciousness takeaways:

  • We’re clearly not providing enough mentorship and support to our youth.
  • “Black” people in particular are going to need to do a better job of owning their American privilege if we are to unite the LGBT people of color community
  • Community-building is SO important for the LGBT people of color communities. It’s the foundation on which we can stand to raise our voices in the future.
  • Academics need to become more practical and ‘apply’ their theories to school reform; teen youth programs are reactive and just aren’t cutting it
  • Sexuality should stop being confused with gender expression (ugh!)
  • Being a community leader is HARD work!

Many thanks to the students of EBONI and Multicultural Students Affairs staff at Emerson College for inviting me to participate in their Black History Month celebration!

Becoming iQWOC

The name, iQWOC, came to me after I founded Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston) and, all of a sudden, felt invisible in my own community. It seemed I had succeeded in creating a safe social space for black lesbians, asian queers, white allies, latina friends, young professionals, power couples etc., but somehow, forgot to include Africans or Immigrant queers as one of the beneficiaries of the group. It had dawned on me one day that although QWOC+ events were rich in cultural and age diversity, they were nationally homogeneous: almost everyone identified as American.

I began to write about this, and one day, I described myself as an iQWOC in my journal. iQWOC: an international/immigrant queer woman of color. I liked it – the techie in me in particular drooled over the lowercase “i” a la the age of Apple, Inc – and began using it online and offline.

Many people have asked why I choose to identify as an iQWOC – after all, QWOC should suffice. Sigh… people. So, below is a brief trajectory of my journey, and why you should never question my (or anyone’s) choice of label again:

  • When I lived at home, I was simply an “Igbo” girl in a predominantly Yoruba state
  • When I left home, and came to high school in the United States, my accent and “strange” (read: polite) behavior routinely gave me away and forced me to identify as “Nigerian” moreso than I ever had in my entire life
  • Then frequently, people would call me “Black” and I’d stare at them blankly, trying to understand if they intended to offend me or not, cause sometimes, for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time, it did make me angry. The American media (read: movies I’d watched growing up) always painted “Black” as a bad thing and so of course I wanted no part in it. It also didn’t help that my parents had lived in a poor neighborhood in CA for a few years before moving back home, so all they remembered of the black people in their community was the gang violence, armed robberies, street loitering, and drugs. This made me cling to my “Nigerian” label even more vehemently.
  • To make matters worse, I was bullied by a group of African-American kids for being “African”, having an accent, the way I dressed etc, for the two years I was in private school.
  • In college, just after I’d gotten over my fear of  “Black” people, women’s studies classes opened my eyes a little more to the racial dynamics of the northeast, and my own internalized racism; I began to empathize. By then, I’d also experienced a few years being treated like a “Black” person so the empathy factor deepened my interest in understanding racism, a social phenomenon I’d never thought about (outside of movies) before. I came to view my racially identity more politically as a “Person of Color” and enjoyed intellectual conversations about racial profiling, interracial dating, adoption, and the power/influence of hiphop music on pop culture.
  • Just when I thought I’d figured everything out, I came to identify as queer, and my world shrank again right before my eyes: I was all of a sudden surrounded by white (American) lesbians, and.. well, that was strange. It was frustrating to feel alienated from my diverse group of straight culturally competent friends and feel stuck with a group of privileged white people (who didn’t think they were because they were queer).
  • I thought diversifying my social network would ease the burden – hence the launch of QWOC+ Boston – but whereas having QPOC friends was rewarding in specific ways (I now at least had an extra pair of eyes to exchange “No she didn’t” glances with! yay!), I felt completely invisible as a Nigerian / international / immigrant woman.
  • In the process of reaffirming my cultural roots, and reclaiming my FULL identity, I coined the term “iQWOC” for myself, which means International/Immigrant Queer Woman of Color.

The End.

My Life as a Professional Token

I was recently invited to a house party style networking event hosted by Fenway’s Development staff. For those of you who don’t know, I’m the founding director of Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston), a not-for-profit social networking organization for LGBT women (including trans-people) of color, so I’m used to receiving many invitations like this; sometimes, as often as three or four times a week.

The majority of the emails begin in the same way:

“Hi, I’m the new [insert position here] at [name of organization] and I’d really like for us to get together in person or chat over the phone about how we can work collaboratively this year to make our programs and services more inclusive of [insert PC descriptors here e.g. “people of color” “women” or “members of the LGBT community”].

Early on in my organizing efforts, I’d get excited about receiving similar communications – what an honor it was to be called upon to provide support and direction on various outreach initiatives of some major non-profits! I strongly believed – and still do – that engaging in these consultative conversations would ensure that QWOC+ Boston’s successful approach to creating and sustaining diversity via community partnerships would be proliferated in the larger queer community and that ultimately, we would all win.

So, I’d happily field questions about what they could do to improve their outreach efforts, connect them to local groups that they could partner with to strengthen their POC or women’s network, suggest modifications to their event programming to create stronger resonance with their multicultural/gay/women’s contingent(s) etc., all to no avail. They would take notes, make a few e-connections, and even send follow-up “Thank You!” emails to me, but they would only ever carry out short-term fixes (such as posting more ‘diverse’ photos on their website, or modifying an event title to include more kinds of people). A few months later, I’d receive a new email from the same organization, but from a new hire or individual professing their desire to “continue the work” or “do better”, and the cycle would continue… I used to be such a sucker.

I’ve since then earned the reputation of being extremely hard to get a hold of and have become methodically selective of which emails I respond to; I’ve only gone on a handful of diversity dates within the past two months and they were each arranged via referrals or personal connections. In the case of Fenway, even though I did not know the sender directly or indirectly, I decided to make an exception. I wasn’t about to get all excited about the initiative they took to reach out to young leaders in their network – myself included, or the extensive list of VIP that was strategically appended to the invite – I’d seen this all before, but I felt like I at least owed it to my community to attend the event. After all, Fenway had been steadfast supporters of QWOC+ Boston for the past several years.

So, accompanied by a fellow POC community organizeer, off I went to yet another event, where I knew I’d most likely be one of two (but hopefully at least three) people of color in the room, hoping to change the world with my charm, energy, and great ideas.

To be continued…

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