The Challenge of Symbolism


A few years ago, at a meeting between Salsa Soul Sisters and Black and White Men Together (BWMT), the women of color asked their black brothers: “Why are you getting into bed each night with whites who cannot help but be racist and who represent all that is wrong with this society?” The men of color responded by informing their sisters that the white men in BWMT were different; they at least were willing to look at racism and commit them-selves to its eradication. A more piercing question was directed at the white male members. A woman put it this way: “I am a Caribbean, working class, lesbian mother committed to socialism …. What do I possibly have in common with you white, middle class gay men who benefit from racism, sexism, capitalism, and other forms of oppression?” To our credit, we white men did not flee the room. I felt naked and began to reexamine my own attitudes toward and commitment to fighting racism. Others explained that racism filled their lives with pain and fear of losing control, and that once recognized, these feelings could not be ignored. We were able to accept that, to these women, we were symbols. Moreover, we realized that it would take much time and energy before we could be perceived as individuals.

After years of therapy, I have struggled to reconcile competing emotions.I now almost accept that I can love and hate someone at the same time; that I can tolerate differences between myself and others. Somehow, it is more difficult to apply this principle to political awareness. At the core of this difficulty is our inability to accept that we, as human beings, are simultaneously “symbols” and “individuals.” What does it mean to be a symbol? It means that we lose that which characterizes us as individuals. This loss of individuality is extremely threatening. In a society such as ours in which people desperately cling to their individuality, recognizing our symbolic roles is heresy. I believe that this reluctance to acknowledge our roles as symbols has been the bane of the lesbian and gay movement. If we do not consider our roles as symbols, we will never have any incentive to generalize beyond ourselves or to bond with others. In addition, unless we, as white men, are willing to acknowledge our role as symbols of the privilege historically and currently enjoyed by white males, we will never confront institutional racism and sexism. In recent years, progress toward achieving these goals has been blocked by our failure to re-solve the contradiction between our status as negative symbols in the eyes of our potential allies and our perceptions of ourselves as progressive people.

Suggested Reading

Culture provides a foundation for the way we experience the world.[1] Rooted in traits such as ethnicity, race, religion, and gender identity, culture influences people’s values, behaviors, and beliefs.[2] Scholars have described culture as something akin to “the air we