Black, Queer and Visible
From the Stonewall riots to Black Lives Matter, history-making resistance and activism are in the dna of the black community. In celebration of black historymonth, we meetjason okundaye, TravisAlabanza, MNEKand Munroe Bergdorfto find out how the new queer generation is fighting
racism in 2017.
When you sit at the intersections of race and sexuality, your understanding of oppression in all its complexities is naturally more intimate. Take that knowledge and funnel it into activism, and history is made. You’ve got Marsha P Johnson, the vanguard of the queer civil rights movement; Audre Lorde, one of black feminism’s most revered thinkers; Bayard Rustin, who organised the march that led to voting rights for black people in the US, and propelled Dr Martin Luther King Jr into the history books; more recently, DeRay McKesson, who became the face of America’s Black Lives Matter movement. And Black Lives Matter itself was created by three queer black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen far-right views that were once pushed underground swell back into the mainstream. Homophobic hate crime has increased by well over 100% since Britain voted to leave the European Union, while anti-Muslim sentiment grows more toxic by the day. In the US, white supremacists are given Burger King by police after murdering black worshipers at church, while black men are strangled to death by cops for selling cigarettes on the street corner, or shot dead after traffic stops. Here in the UK, black people continue to die in police custody at disproportionately high rates.
Within the LGBT+ community, racial inequality is rife. Beyond the harmful discrimination on dating apps and in gay bars, black queer men are twice as likely to contract HIV as their white peers, and black trans women face a level of violence and persecution that the rest of us can’t really begin to imagine.
As regressive politics push back on the progress made over the past 50 years, black queer people are leading the resistance once more. In education, arts and media, they’re forcing people to rethink their biases and acting as catalysts for resistance.
However, being visible, black, queer and political comes with a price. University of Cambridge student Jason Okundaye knows this well. In August this year, his tweets about the prevalence of racism in all parts of white society were taken out of context by Katie
Hopkins and the Daily Mail. A hit-job ensued: Conservative MP Bob Blackman called for Jason to be arrested for inciting racial hatred, while the press called on the University of Cambridge to investigate Jason, who’d recently been made president of the students union’s BME campaign.
“Calls for taking a ‘middle ground’ or treating ‘both sides [racists and anti-racists]’ as equal are weak and ridiculous,” Jason told us, explaining the strong language in his tweets. “It’s like saying antibodies protecting the body against pathogens from diseases are ‘just as bad’ as the disease for fighting back with force, rather than attempting polite negotiation.”
Jason was first introduced to race activism at the start of his university education in 2015, and has been prominent in battles to “decolonise” curriculums:
“By decolonising we mean ensuring that curriculums don’t simply present heterosexual white men as dominating our resources, and ensuring that the voices of women, queer people and people of colour are represented in education.” He was also in favour of returning the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria – artefacts that were stolen from the African country in 1897 and placed in intuitions including the British Museum and University of Cambridge.
Whether it’s the press or his fellow students, backlash has followed Jason throughout his political work: “The level of hostility you can receive for speaking on race is unprecedented,” Jason says. “Often this hostility is the result of those around you feeling that you are being aggressive or accusing them of engaging in racially violent behaviour against you. Honest and frank conversations concerning race remain controversial and inflammatory, even at the most mundane level, because they require a level of introspection and discomfort many people aren’t willing to commit. But that certainly doesn’t deter me from continuing.”
Being misconstrued as aggressive or divisive for discussing racism is an issue that non-binary performance artist Travis Alabanza grapples with too; they even say they’ve “lost bookings or potential work because people have been afraid” of what they might say in a performance. But separating politics from art was never a possibility for Travis: “From the moment I started making work it was birthed out of a need to survive, to process and to work through what I had experienced as a (at that time) 16-year-old queer, black kid.”
Out of a “necessity to be heard,” Travis began creating art that has taken them all over the UK and beyond. In 2017, they responded to the lack of racial diversity in the Tate Britain’s Queer British
Art exhibition with a performance of their own at the same gallery, called Left Outside Alone. The performance used lip-syncing and pop music – the most important weapons in any queer performer’s arsenal – to “critique how galleries
“My work was birthed out of a need to survive and to work through what I
experienced as a queer, black kid.”
often use us as props, as tokens, as something to fill one event and never actually allow us to have ownership.”
It might sound abstract, but the main message of Travis’ art can be used by allies in daily life. They believe allies need to look at how they can “redistribute and dismantle” all white spaces, from art galleries to offices: “Is your work place all white? What would it look like for you to disrupt that?”
While Travis has always incorporated politics into their art, 22-year-old singer-songwrite rproducer MNEK has only just begun with his video for Paradise, which dealt explicitly with police violence against black people. In the video, a black man strolls through what looks to be an idyllic alternate
world; but as the song progresses, the imagery becomes more ominous until the figure is met with a violent policeman in riot gear. The lyrics echo the visuals’ message: “Nothing like what I saw on the news yesterday/another man down, blood on the ground/Makes me wanna just run away.”
It was shift in subject matter for the hitmaker, who has written for everyone from Little Mix to Madonna and Beyoncé, but one that felt timely, given the growing prominence of racial equality movements. “I’d written this song with the intention of it touching a nerve that I hadn’t in my previous releases, and the reflection of that was the video,” he explained. “The goal for me was to hint at what was happening in the real world in a captivating way and I’d like to think that was achieved.”
When activist, model and actress Munroe Bergdorf was chosen to be part of a diversity campaign for L’Oréal, it felt like a huge deal for trans and black representation. However, after a Facebook post calling out racism and white privilege was shown to L’Oréal, she was swiftly dropped. The makeup brand, without a shred of irony, released a statement saying that Munroe’s comments were “at odds” with their commitment to “diversity”. She’s had to endure hatred, death threats and even
Piers Morgan as a result.
“It’s definitely made me much more savvy and aware that big brands will exploit anything for a profit,” Munroe said, reflecting on how her views on corporate diversity have changed since the L’Oréal. “They wanted my audience but didn’t want me to talk about our oppression. This needs to stop happening. You can’t just take our money but expect us to say thank you for oppression.”
Munroe’s post was provocative (“Your entire existence is drenched in racism” was a particularly fiery line), but what the likes of the Daily Mail had failed to mention in their reporting was that her post came the morning after August’s NEONAZI march in Charlottesville – a night that filled black and brown people across the US and UK with dread, fear and rage that things had regressed this far. “I am angry. I’m angry as hell,” Munroe tells us. “The fact that white people expect us to mind our p’s and q’s when it comes to talking about racism is the height of white fragility.”
Being an ally, as Munroe sees it, is about facing the anger that minorities have towards a racist society and engaging with it honestly and openly. “White people need to realise that this anger is valid, it’s important. Listen to that anger. That anger is the symptom of our oppression. Not the cause of more divide, as the media tried to spin with me.”