An Outsiders Look at Racial Divide
We cannot look to the future without addressing our past. In order to get to the heart of the matter of racism and where we are today we have to rewind Toronto’s LGBTQ2 History before the Black Lives Matter Movement. Because you see, this movement didn’t just pop up. It took many micro-aggressions to push people of colour over the edge.
Let’s go back to 2013. A beloved drag performer decided to do blackface to open Pride week that year. Being that I am originally from the United States, I was shocked that this kind of entertainment existed in that day and age. I made a simple comment on the post that this performer put up from the dressing room. I said, “I don’t know what to think about this” and left it alone. That was early on a Monday morning. Unbeknownst to me, I had no idea my husband had seen the photos and left a scathing comment. By Tuesday evening, my husband and I had become the Church Street pariahs online. Drag performers and DJs were outraged that either of us had anything to say about this performer’s choice to do blackface on Pride week (not that any week would be better).
When I read the comments left about us I was enraged. How was it that none of these people from the community (white and black) could not see how racist this act was? It wasn’t even I who called out the racism but I got blamed for it (probably because I’m black). And then it dawned on me…they honestly believe that there is no racism here because this is Canada. Even one of the comments from a local black DJ said that my husband and I should take our democracy back to the U.S. and not bring our American problems to Canadian shores. One queen even used the movie “White Chicks” as a defence (as if black people had power of White America at anytime in history).
I was enraged. So, I took to writing a blog called “And I’m The Troublemaker” where I basically called out all the racist shit I had seen since moving to Toronto. And the one thing most white people hate is to be reminded of racist things they have done. The next thing I know the Toronto Star contacts me and ask my opinion on that Wednesday. On that same afternoon, I got a call from the drag performer who explained that this had gone too far. She never meant to offend anyone but she also decided to say it was an artistic choice to do a character…not blackface. We weren’t enemies or had harsh things to say to each other. Her shtick was being offensive on stage. She was actually a very nice person and was always respectful to me.
What neither one of us knew was that the Toronto Star had reached out to TD Bank about the post of her photos in blackface and the hash tags attached. While we were on the phone she was being fired from her Pride gig to host the main stage. And guess who got blamed for that? Me.y
I guess it was also surprising to see who spoke up and who supported her choice to do blackface. Some of the important drag performers of colour on the scene said nothing while others attacked me and told me that I should “have several seats” (a term to shut another down). But from that moment on, my relationship with Church Street changed. Suddenly I was no longer being booked for drag shows. I stopped being considered for some DJ gigs.
As a person of colour there was another underlining thread of racism going on. There were men of colour disappearing from the village and we would see posters being put up but not much more happening after that. Of course, we would find out by 2018 that it was the sinister work of serial killer, Bruce McArthur. But it would take the disappearance of Andrew Kinsman to literally get the police to do their job.
I can’t forget my 2014 experience as a DJ for a popular drag king night at another venue in the village where all the performers and most of the audience were white but insisted on doing Hip Hop numbers with the n-word. When I complained I was told that I was trying to control their artistic freedom. I eventually quit because the performers and management did not see how problematic allowing these numbers to go on. A room full of a mostly white audience with white drag kings lip syncing the n-word with an African-American DJ in the booth was not a problem at all?
I guess the turning point had to be the Black Lives Matter protest at the 2016 Pride Parade. There are still people who do not understand why that protest happened or what they were protesting about. First…I have to say that I am not a member of, and never was a member of the Black Lives Matter movement and I certainly do not speak for them, however that doesn’t mean I don’t support their strategies, programs and actions both here and in the United States. However, I can definitely tell you what I believe sparked the protest at that parade. Between the social unjust in the United States over unarmed African-Americans being killed by police, local police violence, and the ever-growing marginalization of Pride events, I believe Black Lives Matter felt that they were being used a photo op when the head of Pride Toronto invited them to be the Grand Marshalls…an empty gesture to show how “woke” and “inclusive” Toronto is.
So, BLM took this opportunity to have their voices heard and demanded that uniformed police should not be included in the parade to march. To appease them, the head of Pride Toronto, Mathieu Chantelois gave a very empty gesture of saying that he would meet their demands. Of course, nothing happened and nothing was done. It was all Just to get the parade going again. After that Sunday, I tried to call and connect Kristin Wong-Tam, Pride Toronto, the folks who I knew were in Black Lives Matter and a few other disgruntled groups to sit down and talk this out before it festered into a bigger problem. None of those people returned my calls.
So, by the time we reached the Town Hall in September of 2016 it turned into a screaming match. Tempers were off the charts and Toronto’s LGBTQ2 Community was divided. Funny how 2016 saw many lines of division around the world and no real solution was offered. Through social media and regular media the narrative went from “no uniformed cops” to “no cops” in the parade. And white folks lost their minds (especially white gay men). And this drove a further wedge into the racial divide. People who had been friends for years suddenly were at each other’s throats and a separate Pride event was set up for those who wanted to support the police. No one ever said “no cops” in the parade but that became the calling card and the police department played the victim as they finally charged Bruce McArthur.
And again, our people-of-no-colour hadn’t a clue or understanding why all of this was happening. Why were black people upset? Why did they have to disrupt our parade?
If you are not at the table when negotiations are going on about what Pride is going to look like or you are regulated to a certain area for your Pride while there are tons of money being spent for what seems to be a white gay man’s Pride celebration you might feel like you’re not really included or welcomed. So, you either adopt white gay culture as what Pride is or you sit off to the side. And from my perspective, we have a lot of people of colour just settling to be invited and not really demanding to be included. And this is why the police presence became a huge issue. The very same people who are supposed to protect and serve our LGBTQ2 community are the same ones who are terrorizing our black and brown communities. But white gays don’t see it or experience it. So, it is not their problem or priority.
The truth of the matter is you cannot have a public event such as a parade without police presence. And police officers are paid if they are in uniform. They actually enjoy doing the parades because it is a photo opportunity to show them interacting with the public and different groups. However, when they are also racially profiling people of colour and using unnecessary force when dealing with them these images of water-gun fights or smiling shots with parade watchers are used to counteract and contrast the wrong doings that are happening.
So, now that we were all in a global pandemic and home to watch the video of George Floyd’s brutal death at the knee of a police officer the line has been drawn once again in the sand. What side of history are you on? Do you bury your head in the sand and pretend that nothing happened and the police were right in this situation? Do you just wish things would go back to the way they were?
Unfortunately, we should not and cannot go back to the way things have been for centuries. If we are truly going to be free and just we have to change the system that has been operating around the world. The darker your skin the better your chances of being shot, discriminated against, fewer educational opportunities which lead to less job opportunities and even worst healthcare. We as black people are the last to be helped or recognized. Yet we are the first to be blamed, incarcerated or punished for not being educated.
Many conversations and chats are happening online and some in person about where we are on race. Some are surprised to find that their black friends have been dealing with the pressures of racism all their lives. Some are even surprised to find racism within racism…colourism – where one shade of colour thinks they are better than another. Some are realizing for the first time that their actions and micro-aggressions are part of the problem and they didn’t even realize they were doing anything that would be considered wrong or hurtful to a person of colour. There’s a lot to unpack.
I’ll give you an example. I am a DJ in Toronto. I have worked for almost every bar or club in some capacity in this town. Last year, I was subbing at a local bar and I came up with an idea for a video night. I proposed coming in on a slow night and trying it out for free just to get it off the ground. The manager asked me: “What are you going to play?” I’m sure he till this day does not see how that would be offensive to a DJ of colour. This question has followed me all of my 40 years in my career as a disc jockey. It is assumed by bar owners and managers that black DJs will bring in black customers (which translates into the wrong element in our bar). I had already spun at this establishment several times without complaints. In fact a couple of people were campaigning for this spot to hire me. So, when I got an email saying the owner wanted to talk to me. I assumed that it was about possibly starting a night or replacing a DJ that they had complained about. When I arrived for this meeting that was not the case at all.
The owner of this establishment called me in to chastise me for accusing his manager of being racist. He proceeded to tell me that they have to protect their clientele and that he did not want certain genres of music played in his bar. And I am sure he really thought that this was okay and he was well in his rights to talk to me like this.
“Everyone is welcomed at our bar.” he said.
I explained that opening your bar to the public does not mean you cater to everyone.
Each time these micro-aggressions happen they chip away at what the concept of a diverse and inclusive community is supposed to be.
If we are truly going to call ourselves a diverse community that is inclusive we have to change the system that has been put in place to keep people of colour in line and in a box. If we are willing to assimilate to what white gay men deem as inclusive and acceptable then we fit in and are welcomed. I have no desire to be the new “Uncle Tom”.
Because of COVID-19 this year of 2020, we did not have an actual Pride Festival on the streets. I bet Pride Toronto saved a lot of money this year! But I honestly think that we as the LGBTQ2 Community need to rethink how we interact and what we deem as inclusive. If and when Pride returns, lets scale down to one big Pride stage where we all come together and share the spotlight. Let’s see a Broadway production followed by some twerking Soca number with a poetry reading followed by a hot vocal club track by a local LGBT artist. It’s nice to have special guests but it would be even greater to focus on the many multi-talented people we have right here in our community. Because at the end of the day, we are Toronto!
And we need this to spill over into our everyday lives. There’s a reason you came to this city. It was to experience a city life. And the beauty of living in a city is experience all the different people and cultures that live there and make up the community. Once we start embracing other cultures and beliefs we open our minds and learn how to live with each other.
So, each bar and club should have representation of all of the people in the LGBTQ Community. No more having spaces that are for one group. I no longer want to see some bars having the drag performers of colour closing out their shows and not featured earlier in the evening. I no longer want to see spaces using people of colour for profit but not playing their music. If we start including everyone then there can be no misunderstandings about race relationships. There can be no more perceptions that things are just fine the way they are and that black people should be happy with just being allowed in these spaces. And we have got to stop bar owners and managers from perpetuating the stereotype that black people will drive their white customers away. If that’s the case then you might want to think about what kind of clientele you are catering to. Do you want to be on the right and just side of history or do you want to continue this systematic racism?
You cannot claim that we are a diverse and inclusive community if you continue benefiting from this system.
A good way to determine if you have racist tendencies is to take a look at your own social circles. As a black gay man, these are questions that I would ask. How many of your friends are black? Do you hang out with them? Would you allow them in your home? Would you go to their home to hang out? Are your only interactions in public places? Are your only perceptions of black people from television and movies? Would you date a black person? Do you have sex with black people but your white friends have no idea?
If your answers lean towards secrets and denials you probably have racist tendencies.
For our white allies it is time to own your history and part in this racist system. You have benefitted from this system all of your lives. We as black people have been oppressed all of our lives. Once you understand that then you will begin the healing. You can no longer accept friends and family using the n-word or telling racist jokes. You can no longer stand by and just say, “That’s so terrible…I’d never say something like that.” You have to call out racism and discrimination whenever and wherever you see or hear it. This is how decency is going to be restored. It’s going to be hard and difficult for some to take responsibility for their part but it is the only way we can begin the process of ending this system.
White privilege does not mean you come from money. It means that you have no concept of what it is to be a person of colour. You have never had the hardships or an oppressive system keep you from moving forward. Life is hard for everyone. But if you are black or brown or native or Asian in North America it is a little bit harder. Recognize that and you can begin to eliminate the system that has worked in your favour for many centuries.
And if you profit off Black Culture and don’t speak up for black people you really are the problem. You are obliged to use your voice to uplift black people and protect them.
Until we all have rights and all are free none of us will have rights and none of us will be free. Until you see that everyone is equal you are blind to the fact that you are no better.
And as far as the police…it’s time for a new system. Any system that was created originally to keep another group in line has long overstayed its welcome. Defunding the police is not about getting rid of them. It’s about using some of their resources towards community projects and neighbourhoods that need help. Use that money to start taking care of the homeless and disenfranchised. It’s time for those who have more to realize that they have a responsibility to take care of those who don’t. Besides…who’s going to do the jobs you won’t? If you don’t take care of the less fortunate there will be no one to do that work. And like a pride of lions, we all have our jobs to do to keep the group alive.
About the Author
Alphonso King Jr - originally from Tampa, Florida. Moved to New York City in 1992 and then relocated to Toronto when he married John Richard Allan in 2010. Together they run POZPLANET on facebook and produce a monthly magazine for the group. King is also the founder of Relentless Entertainment which produces the POZ-TO Awards that recognizes ten people each year for their activism in HIV/AIDS as well as the MINGLE events that are social HIV events to raise funds for local ASOs. King is known as DJ Relentless and drag recording artist Jade Elektra. A CANFAR Ambassador, King uses his voice to raise awareness for those who are living with HIV.