The Emmys were this past Sunday, and they were nothing short of black star power. From a black actor winning for the first time in decades in the drama category to a black comedian winning in a comedy series directed and written by all black people, one could say that the event was the most inclusive and representative of black people in the 69 years of the show.
The real highlight of the night came when Lena Waithe won her award for comedy writing, becoming the first black woman in the history of the Emmys to ever win in that category. What made the win so special for many was knowing that Waithe utilized elements of her own coming-out experience in co-writing the “Thanksgiving” episode that won in that category for the show Master of None.
In her acceptance speech, Waithe not only called on the need to go beyond diversity conversation topics in entertainment, but also went on to make a special mention of her “LGBTQIA family,” specifically making mention of the fact that we need to be more visible and vocal about the right for LGBTQIA people to exist.
Almost every news media outlet acknowledged her black identity first while only mentioning her queer identity as an afterthought. For folks like myself, who see both a person’s queer and black identity as synonymous, I was left to wonder why media outlets often acknowledge the greatness that is, in fact, being black, but rarely acknowledge the beauty that is being both black and queer.
I remember once having a colleague who identified as both black and queer tell me that she often felt like she had to choose between her black and queer identity. She shared with me that once a white co-worker asked her if she was “black today or queer today,” making it seem that her identity as a queer black cisgender woman was something that could be selected like puzzle pieces.
Hearing this, it made me think about the work that black scholars Jamie Washington and Vernon Wall have done around the both/and, and/or complex (pdf). Both scholars explain that often black queer people are made to feel as if they aren’t whole and will have to choose one identity over another in order to feel recognized or validated in certain spaces.
The bigger issue: On most days, black queer people are often forced to live between the lines of their marginalized identity, being made to feel as if they are too black to be queer or too queer to be black. When society or media fails to recognize black identity and queer identity as being synonymous, we further marginalize their existence. As Corin Peterson stated, most queer black people will spend most of their lives never feeling completely accepted, being caught in the middle of their intersecting identities.
What I find to be even more interesting in times like these is how both media and society use the word intersectionality (pdf), coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, but will often leave out the oppressive and discriminatory ways in which we treat black people when we begin discussing one’s queer identity.
When we address Lena Waithe as just a black woman who briefly mentioned her queer identity, or tell black people that they should leave their sexuality out of public discourse, then we begin to embrace the dangerous elements of identity politics, which often add to the oppression of black queer individuals.
Further, we begin to perpetuate this idea that there is no need to recognize the intersections of black queer people’s identity (specifically, black women) and that one identity takes precedence over the other. As Crenshaw stated, this leads to treating race, gender and other identity categories as “vestiges of bias.”
In all, we have to challenge mainstream media to start seeing black queer people as whole. Regardless of what you might believe, every person deserves the right to be seen as a full individual. We must challenge the notion that someone should have to choose between their racial and sexual identity because Audre Lorde tells us that regardless of how we identify, we are all complicated people leading complicated lives.
If we can celebrate and embrace Ellen DeGeneres fully in both her white and queer identity for all the work she has done for the LGBTQIA community, then Lena Waithe deserves to be celebrated for all the work she has done just by being visible and forthcoming about both her racial and sexual identity.