Ever since Obama became president and the term “post-racial” was bandied about, it seems there have been increasingly more news articles claiming that discrimination is no longer an issue: Young American women now make more money than young men, six states have passed gay marriage bills with more to follow, and a transgendered man appeared on Dancing with the Stars. Supposedly we’re all one, there is no “other,” and identity politics are totally passé in art and literature.
In the late ’80s, bell hooks argued that racist domination still existed in the U.S., even if it contrasted to the overt racism of “coercive control” in South Africa at the time. Her belief that it was incumbent on both blacks and whites to continue questioning the forces of racism now echoes through our own time: “For each of us, it is work to educate ourselves to understand the nature of white supremacy with a critical consciousness.” I try to remember how unapologetic she was as I navigate my own way through race and otherness as a writer. The issue came to a head when I was working with a collective of queer Armenian women artists this summer to produce a book of our work at the same time that a straight white American man gained worldwide news coverage for writing in the persona of a gay Arab woman. As much as I would like to live in a world that has overcome the injustices of discrimination, I couldn’t help but question why such a hoax would happen now and why it had gained so much attention.
An event that seemed to measure American writers’ tolerance for dealing with race took place last year when the poet Claudia Rankine, who is black, took offense to “The Change,” a poem by Tony Hoagland, who is white. The speaker of “The Change,” who is also white, describes a black tennis player in stereotypically racist terms and then reveals that “I couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe, / with her pale eyes and thin lips.” The narrator also celebrates the win of the black player as “the end of an era,” closing on the line, “and we were changed.” When Rankine asked her colleague about the poem, he admitted that the speaker was racist, made it clear that he wasn’t the speaker, and stated his preference not to explain the poem to a poet, adding, “This poem is for white people.” Rankine responded at the Associated Writing Programs conference with more questions, unsure whether Hoagland was aware of the poem’s lack of condemnation for racist attitudes. Further, she sensed that his claim that the poem was “for white people” was taking a historical form of entitlement, telling her, a black woman, to back off. She concluded her speech by pleading, “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.” Rankine went on to call for submissions from writers of all racial backgrounds to broaden the discussion about “creative imagination and race” on her website. What resulted was a cavalcade of voices, asking and defending who gets to say what, why, how, and about whom in terms of race.
This ad hoc response to the conundrum of writing through race was inverted just a few months later by Tom MacMaster, the straight white American man who fabricated Syrian-American Amina, a “gay girl in Damascus” persona that he embodied on a blog by the same name. MacMaster wrote about Amina’s personal life and political observations of Syria undetected until he posted that Amina had been kidnapped during the government crackdown on the uprisings; in their search for Amina, journalists pinpointed MacMaster as the blog’s author. At first he denied it, but when he realized he’d been caught, he became defensive, claiming that he had created such a voice in order to bring Syrian issues to a Western audience. Because Amina’s blog seemed to give a direct and immediate connection to her audience, the hoax caused a particular sense of betrayal.1 MacMaster apologized and went on to say that as a self-justification, he had hoped that creating a bold voice would give Syrians the impetus to be outspoken in expressing their opinions. Perhaps he was also hoping to embolden himself; unlike Hoagland, he didn’t have enough guts to stand by a persona of his own creation. He explained that he chose to write as Amina because he thought people would be more polite to a girl who shared his political views supporting Palestine. Once people in the media took note of the blog, he felt an extraordinary sense of accomplishment, even if his name wasn’t attached to his words.
This need for approval came at very high stakes. When asked by the Washington Post why he decided to write Amina as a lesbian, he said, “It was part of the challenge of being someone who wasn’t me. It was a way of also drawing attention to things, I do think there is a certain Orientalism, where we in the West tend to pay more attention to people that are like us, people we can relate to, someone marginalized is more interesting.” It’s not clear from this quote if he’s acknowledging, condemning, apologizing for, or embracing Orientalism. Besides invalidating and endangering L.G.B.T. bloggers and organizations in Syria, who were under intense scrutiny politically and socially, he also insulted those of us who are Middle Eastern, female, and queer when there are so few outlets within our countries of origin and the U.S. to be seen.
I am a bisexual Armenian-American woman who lived in Armenia for a year, blogging about my experiences with sexism and homophobia. As a writer I have worked with issues of sexuality and identity, challenging a traditionally conservative ethnic community yet managing to publish two books on small presses. I often battle an ever-present voice that nobody cares about my writing, so watching a white man taking on an identity not so different from mine because he felt no one would listen to him, and getting much more attention in the process, was curious and bizarre to say the least. Here was some hard evidence that we’re not living in a post-racial or a post-sexist society. We’ll still give a misguided straight white man more of our focus than any well-meaning queer woman of color. Though we’re enraptured by the story of the first black president, feeling accomplished in our abilities to “overcome” racism, we are fascinated by a white man pretending to be something that he’s not. True, Amina was beloved by many and the State Department opened an investigation to find her, but the story exploded once the impostor was revealed, garnering MacMaster interviews in many major newspapers. The media attention seemed to tap into racism: The white, straight, Western viewer feels victimized and vulnerable like MacMaster, wanting a white man to be a better queer Arab woman than a real queer Arab woman, sort of like Hoagland’s racist persona wanting the white tennis player to win.
I write this examination on racism, sexism, and representation in conjunction with the release of a book that I have been involved with for a few years: Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric Art, a catalogue and document of the work of Queering Yerevan, a collective of Armenian women writers, artists, and activists living in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora in the U.S., Europe, and North Africa. As we discussed how to promote the book, some members mentioned that they didn’t want the audience to be limited only to queer and/or Armenian readers. This called up the “nobody cares” voice in me, not so different, I now realize, from MacMaster feeling unheard because of his identity; it also helped me respond to the Amina scandal of last summer in a way I couldn’t do till now, with the power of a collective behind me.
The original members of Queering Yerevan (QY) communicated to each other first over a listserv as they found each other, became acquainted, compared their life experiences, then debated their purpose. Eventually they came to create three annual art events together as well as posting regularly on a shared blog. The book represents this work, sandwiching images from the exhibitions between texts that represent the group’s history: e-mail correspondence, rejection letters from foundations for support, resignations from various members, challenges to art institutions, a report on an art demonstration against militarism, an academic treatise on queer aesthetics, and an open letter in protest to homophobic articles about homosexuality in the Armenian media, among other documents. Much of the work isn’t translated, so there are Armenian texts that will remain mysterious unless you find an Armenian reader to sit with you and go over them—and Armenian readers won’t understand the English unless they find a translator as well: This represents the way the group communicated to each other, with speakers of different abilities among us.
The group’s exhibitions addressing queer identity were the first of their kind in Armenia, an exceedingly traditional and conformist culture in which feminism is seen as a foreign and dangerous concept, capable of tearing the fabric of Armenian society. It’s notable that a group of women would be the first queer presence to be so visible in such a culture, but makes sense when considering that during the Soviet Union, gay men were the ones who were persecuted—lesbians were simply ignored and invisible. So it took great acts of courage, especially for the women in the collective who live in Armenia, to out themselves through art. Indeed, the title of the first QY exhibition was Coming to You to Not Be With You, signifying the possible shunning and ex-communication most would face when revealing their queer identities to their families.
The group moved from making work together with their first exhibition within a safe circle of artists and friends, then attempting to widen their influence with the second exhibition while losing members who disagreed with the direction of the group and its means of communication, and finally reaching out with the third event to include more artists outside of Armenia and including queer men as part of the collaborative. At a time when Occupy Wall Street attempts to work only collectively, shunning all efforts of the media to name a figurehead and demands, here’s a collective operating similarly, freely admitting the rifts that often occur in small embattled groups, and presenting their doubts and difficulties with personality, authority, communication, and representation.
The Internet has shifted the way we operate as people from living with a balance between individuality and collective identity to a more hyper-individualized reality. Even if the Internet brings together people of similar interests, background, or identity who don’t normally have the means to meet, computers are designed for only one set of hands to operate, one set of eyes to view, so we interact mostly with ourselves, commenting on articles one voice at a time, creating pages on social networks that attempt to represent our coolest and wittiest individual personae, and offering a continuous first-person singular narrative on blogs. We seem to have become burnt out on this cult of individualism, especially when we get duped by it in ways that insult our notions about race, gender, and identity.
It goes without saying that the creative imagination should be unencumbered by rules on who should write as whom; most of our literature wouldn’t even be in existence if not for this ideal. But perhaps every writer dealing with issues of race in the immediacy of the Internet age needs to take some of bell hooks’s advice. MacMaster’s fear of being criticized for writing an Arab perspective in his own voice could be validated by what happened to Hoagland. I am wondering, though, what is wrong with such criticism, and why answering to it was so problematic for Hoagland. At one point he answered Rankine, saying, “We drank racism with our mother’s milk, and we re-learn it every day, as we weave our way through our landscapes of endless inequality. That is one reason why it seems foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans and not white-skinned Americans.” But Rankine didn’t suggest that Hoagland shouldn’t write about racism or race; she asked why he wrote the way that he did, informing him of the way his language hurt her: a form of feedback. Why does such feedback get deemed as censoring or threatening when more people than ever read Hoagland’s poem and it prompts more dialogue?
I understand that some white people might see an “other” identity as a privilege that lends validity and sidesteps the accusation of being racist. In arrogantly adopting such an identity, however, a literary impostor like MacMaster pursues only the perceived privilege and experiences none of the prejudice, misunderstanding, and invisibility that can often make people of color, who also hold racist attitudes, feel less than valid. He not only loses out on the process of expanding his knowledge, imagination, and critical consciousness in order to understand and write about “the other,” he also fails to continue the ongoing discussion on discrimination.
So how do we deal with the dismay of such a crime? One possibility would be to support collective efforts like Queering Yerevan or Meem, the group of anonymous women who produced the book Bareed Mista3jil, a collection of oral histories and stories by L.G.B.T. women in Lebanon. Some might see these groups centered around identity as outdated, when cultural and racial categories have become blended and blurred with more people identifying as mixed race and transgendered folks questioning the attributes that contribute to our notions of gender. But it seems they are needed now more than ever as the Internet gives us the ability to shape identities, misrepresent ourselves, and abuse the powers attached to lingering hierarchies. They teach us that identity can be shifting yet authentic, that the “other” contains its own set of complexities, and that patience and attention for underground movements can reward us with knowledge and empathy—if we can just turn away from the fearful and exploitative tactics of the media, now available to anyone with a blog. They present people who say to one another and their audience, online or face to face: please.
- 1. This betrayal became a bizarre insult when Paula Brooks, the editor of the website LezGetReal (“A Gay Girl’s View on the World”) and publisher of Amina’s articles pre-blog, posted the IP addresses used by Amina which led to uncovering her identity as MacMaster; the very next day, Brooks was revealed to be Bill Graber, also a straight white man, who claimed that he never knew Amina’s true identity, and that Amina had even flirted online with him as Brooks.