That Time (Last Week) a White Man Joked That I Must Be the Coat-Checker
Holiday parties: for me, either the best of times or the most uncomfortable of times.
As the editor of G Philly, Philadelphia magazine’s LGBTQ channel, and one of the few Black gay journalists working in this city, I’ve become accustomed to a routine that rarely varies. I walk into an event and take stock of the sea of whiteness about to embrace me as if I were Tiger Woods at a PGA golf tournament. The hosts tell me how very happy they are that I came. After that, there’s a round of step-and-repeat photos in which my partner and I are the cute young Black couple that makes event planners feel even more flattered about the “progress” in our “community.”
Often, of course, it turns out that he and I are two of the handful of, and sometimes the only, Black guests in the room — there are usually more Black people staffing the party than enjoying it. For the rest of the night, we’re the targets of white onlookers who are either overfamiliar and disrespectful of our time or visibly bothered by our appearance there. Photographers keep trying to capture an image of us smiling so that the organization they’re shooting for can slap it on promotional material, our melanin the diverse sugar and spice that makes everything lacking about these events feel nice. (I’m always the “big wide-smiling Black guy” you see on college brochures, while my partner is more of the “serious grin” kind of Black guy.)
At a recent fundraising event in Center City, however, the routine finally did vary — in a shocking way. Waiting in a crowded line for my coat-check ticket, I bumped into an elder white philanthropist whom I’ve met at several LGBTQ charity events and socials. As I headed to the main hall, he passed by me and made it a point to jokingly tell me: “I thought you were one of the coat-checkers.”
My face checked out; I was emotionally paralyzed. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. How did this white man think that making a racist joke like that in this setting was acceptable? I felt beyond offended — I felt exploited. After having seen me at numerous events, this old white man had the audacity to try to reduce me to something subservient to him. I won’t even get into the history of slavery or the numerous times old white men have tried to disenfranchise the work I have done as a journalist, but this moment felt especially visceral. In a blink of an eye, I had to reflect on how to respond — if I even should. If I (rightfully) cursed him out, I would be the angry Black man. If I didn’t say anything, I would be allowing him to feel validated in his bigotry.
So I did a combination of both, whispering directly in his ear: “Don’t you go there.” He backed off, perhaps feeling some guilt as he tried to strike a friendlier tone. But for me, there was no longer anything warm and welcoming in this predominantly white liberal space of LGBTQ donors that in truth was just as segregated as the very hate groups they claim to want to dismantle.
To avoid making a scene, my partner and I concocted an excuse and left the event in the first hour. We had dinner downtown and replayed the situation the whole night, reflecting on how much people of color have to downplay their anger and hurt to survive professionally. And as I considered all of these holiday parties and why their Black turnout is so low, I came to a conclusion: None of these local LGBTQ organizations are truly serious about racial diversity.
These advocates champion huge, important issues — HIV/AIDS, youth homelessness, employment discrimination, economic opportunity — but they aren’t led by the people who are disproportionately affected by the issues. Translation: While they may be the recipients of these organizations’ services, Black people aren’t properly represented at the top.
Here’s a roll call of the number of Black board members helping to guide the major LGBTQ nonprofits in Philadelphia:
- William Way LGBT Community Center: 2 Black members out of a board of 15 members.
- Mazzoni Center: 1 Black member out of a board of 15 members.
- Attic Youth Center: 2 Black members out of a board of 15 members.
- Independence Business Alliance: 1 Black member out of a board of 15 members.
- DVLF: 0 Black members out of a board of 14 members.
Grand total: Only 6 Black people hold positions out of 74 available board seats within the major LGBTQ nonprofits in Philadelphia.
This is beyond embarrassing — this is gross neglect of sound leadership and proper representation. How can a city whose population is 44 percent Black have less than 10 percent of the board seats in a demographic that prides itself on inclusion and acceptance? And can no one else see how that disparity manifests in situations like the one I had to endure?
As we enter 2017, I no longer want to just hear conversations (and excuses) as to why a city that prides itself on being the birthplace of democracy still can’t find it within itself to give the most marginalized groups a seat at the table. It should no longer be a suggestion, but mandatory — get with the times, white people.
Ernest Owens, the editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly channel, writes regularly for BET and other major publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MrErnestOwens.