by Kevin Currie-Knight
When confronted with those different from us, when should we notice and take the difference seriously, and when is it best to look past the difference and act as if it doesn’t exist? To use the language of a modern discussion, should we be “colorblind” and move to treat people of different “races” the same, or should we aspire to be antiracist even if that sometimes means explicitly noticing and adjusting our behavior based on another’s “race?” Should we raise our black foster-daughter any differently than we raise our white son, or if we treat them the same, does that effectively mean we are sweeping an important difference under the rug?
Legal scholar Martha Minow calls these dilemmas of difference for a reason. They are dilemmas; situations where one can make a plausible case for several ways of proceeding that are in some way mutually exclusive. As she puts it, treating everyone equally has a certain ring of fairness, but it can often come at the expense of either not offering appropriate accommodations or demanding that some people should sacrifice important parts of their identities in order to fit in. But when we treat folks differently, this also has drawbacks, such as drawing attention to and stigmatizing difference, or putting more importance on a particular difference than it deserves.
I hope I don’t disappoint by not providing “the answer” to such dilemmas. We must all work out solutions ourselves, based on the situations in which we find ourselves and their contexts. But what I can do is offer you reasons why I think we have these dilemmas. In the US, at least, we have inherited a history of civil rights movements, and the messages we’ve inherited have been mixed or conflicting. On one hand, black, GLBTQ, and women’s rights movements have proceeded by demanding the right to assimilate and integrate; to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., to be judged by the content of character rather than color of skin (or other trivial differences). On the other hand, these movements often became less about demands for integration and more about demands for recognition, where the idea was less about the right to integrate into “normal” society and more about the right to challenge and loosen up what can count as “normal” society. In the first case, differences in identity should be seen as trivial, and the goal is in some sense to ignore those differences in order that all may be equal. In the second case, the goal is to shine a spotlight onto differences, to allow differences to pose a challenge to the very idea of normality, where integration occurs not because differences are overlooked, but because they are increasingly affirmed and embraced.
The black civil rights movement provides the most obvious example. For most of its history, the movement involved pushing for black people to have the same rights as white people: the right to own the fruits of their labor; to vote; to eat at the same restaurants and shop at the same stores; to use the same facilities, be subject to the same laws, etc. It was a tall order, and involved the message that the differences between black and white were only at the surface. The goal was to convince white people that black people are more like white people than the latter generally realized.
We are rightly taught to laud these words and the role Dr. King and groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference played in gaining civil rights for black people. But as effective as this ideal was, it came at large cost. Simply put, white people were shamefully slow to accept this message, if they ever truly did. Many a non-violent march animated by this integrationist ideal was met with loud and violent resistance among white people who refused its offer to meet black people on an equal footing. Attempts to integrate schools by way of the Supreme Court’s 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions were often met with statewide resistance and even violence. This assimilationist approach did lead to robust legislation, like the 1966 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting things like discrimination in real estate practices, jury selection, and other areas. But things moved slow and there were costs to this approach.
Behind this generation of activists and their integrationist strategy, many young black people became frustrated. Repeatedly asking to be treated as equals only to be denied becomes infuriating. It grows to feel like a kind of groveling, and a groveling you increasingly resent, knowing that it will continually be met with skepticism. Also, for a minority group, integration can be self-effacing. It often means that one will be treated as fully human only to the extent that one adopts the dominant social norms. One can even grow to see the ways in which one differs from that norm as obstacles to one’s humanity. This became known as the “politics of respectability,” and it is understandable why it would lose its allure.
Stokely Carmichael, one of these young activists who helped develop and channel the idea of Black Power, put the frustration most succinctly.
Our concern for Black Power addresses itself directly to this problem: the necessity to reclaim our history and our identity from the cultural terrorism and depredation of self-justifying white guilt. To do this we shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms to define ourselves and our relationship to the society, and to have these terms recognized. This is the first necessity of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend.
One motivating idea of the Black Power movement was to modify the integrationist message. Proving to white people that our moral worth comes from being roughly the same as them means that black people grow to measure their worth by how well they conform to white ideals. Instead, said the movement, we will teach black people to love themselves on their own terms. Those differences we were previously (implicitly) told to de-emphasize – and were told by white people made us ugly and inferior – we will now claim as a source of pride. Compare any picture of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the group King predominantly worked with) to a picture of a Black Panther gathering and you will see it. King and colleagues are in suits with smartly cropped hair, with stances and facial expressions exuding Christian humility. The Panthers, by contrast, are famous for their black leather jackets and sometimes dashikis, wearing sunglasses and proudly worn afros.
These are both parts of the American civil rights movements, and both achieved certain goals. The integrationist message won black people certain legal civil rights, and the Black Power movement won black people a certain sort of self-respect and the felt freedom not to have their value judged by dominant white standards. The difficulty is that as contradictory as their messages are – about how, whether, and when to integrate, and about the value of sameness and difference to self-worth – US culture has inherited both and has not resolved in favor of one over the other. We want colorblindness but worry that it means we won’t see people as they are. We want integration in a way that trivializes difference, but not if it means a one-way assimilation of minorities into the dominant norms. We want to treat everyone the same, but continue to celebrate differences.
These two themes can also be seen in the GLB movement (we’ll leave out the T, because its visibility came later). And the pattern is very similar. Formal efforts for GLB rights starts largely with the formation of the Mattachine Society in 1950. (Later, a lesbian sister group would form, called the Daughters of Bilitis.) Like the early days of the black civil rights movements, The Mattachine Society was primarily concerned with defending the rights of gay people to equal protection of the law. Gays were not allowed to serve in positions of federal government, were subject to sodomy laws that by intent and effect banned gay sex, and were subject to all sorts of discrimination.
Also like King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Mattachine society’s message was an assimilationist one predicated on what some now call “the politics of respectability.” The idea was to show that gay people were, in essence, like everyone else. In so doing, they could convince the wider society to give them equal treatment and respect.
This approach met with moderate successes, mostly in increasing the visibility of the need for gay rights. But it gradually led some members – like with the black civil rights movement – to be dissatisfied with the assimilationist message. While the Mattachine Society would go on strong through the 1960’s, members disillusioned with its assimilationist messages splintered off to form new groups, and this came to a noticeable head when, in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York. While such raids were typical of the time, this one found frustrated patrons (and allies) fighting back in self-defense and protest against police. Historian Lillian Faderman depicts the rift this caused between older, more assimilationist, and younger, more assertive, members.
An unidentified representative of Mattachine Society New York was quick to chalk a message on Stonewall’s boarded-up window that betrayed the immediate response of many “respectable” gays: “We Homosexuals Plead With Our People To Help Maintain Peaceful And Quiet Conduct On The Streets Of The Village.” But a new generation had just ushered in a new gay era, and the Mattachine plea for “peaceful and quiet conduct” seemed to them nothing short of laughable. For Village gays, the riot had been the equivalent of Rosa Parks taking a forbidden seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The rest of the world might not know it yet, but they knew that there was no going back to the way things had been.
This led to more assertive groups being formed, most famously the Gay Liberation Front. For the GLF, as for the Black Panthers, assimilation was unacceptable if it meant – as they suspected it did – gays and lesbians (and any gender non-conforming people) masking any differences that challenged straight norms (what we might today call “heteronormativity”). Faderman writes,
By the end of July 1969, Gay Liberation Front members formulated a statement of purpose whose tone mirrored the uncompromising militancy of groups such as the Black Panthers, with whom many of the GLF-ers, especially the men, had a spiritual romance. GLF defined itself as a “revolutionary group of men and women” that had formed with the realization that “sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished.”
There is the same rough shape to these movements: what once starts as an assimilationist plea for the dominant group to ignore a perceived difference (skin color, sexual orientation), becomes an assertion that differences need to be affirmed rather than ignored, to pose a challenge to dominant norms rather than be absorbed existing ones. The same tension, by the way, can be seen in the women’s civil rights movement. There, the goal has often been equal treatment of women to men under the law, in workplaces, etc. Yet, feminists have often realized that this equal treatment has come at the demand that women act more like men in these spaces, which leads to demands that the norms in these areas change to recognize the ways in which women may differ from men.
As mixed as these messages are, they are both parts of our cultural inheritance. They both come to us as equally valuable pieces of civil rights struggles that have taken place in the US. And as contradictory as they seem, they are also complimentary in certain ways, each responding to an oversight in the other. To ignore difference or to celebrate it as difference? Culturally, the answer is (or the answers are) still up for grabs. And, in part, we have our mixed history to thank for that.
 Anyone interested in a history profiling the transition between these two ideals in the black civil rights movement should read Down to the Crossroads, by Aram Goudsouzian. It tells the story of the 1962 James Meridith March, which became the symbol for this transition. Here, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lose some of their moral authority, especially among young protestors, and the vacuum is filled by Carmichael and Black Power advocates.