The Weapon Against Racism: Empathy

I’ve spent a lot of my leisure time in gay spaces. For me, these places are a chance to express who I am. That’s why I sought refuge at leather and bear bars. These spaces allegedly provide space for people who want to explore who they are. In these spaces, I’m at least promised that I will be treated as a person. But often, these spaces don’t live up to their promise. I am of color. Because of my brown skin, religious and ethnic background, I’m not guaranteed the same measure of respect as my White counterparts.

Let me give you an example. One night, I went to the Bullet, a leather bar in North Hollywood. As I usually do, I took off my shirt. I smiled. I socialized with the other patrons. I remember spending time talking with this older gentleman (who was White). He talked about his music background and his kids.

It was a pleasant conversation. After our chat, I placed my empty drink glass on the table for the bar back to pick up. But the older man asked me give the glass back to the bartender myself. Even though someone was employed at the bar to collect empty glasses, I (a patron) was being asked to do a bar back’s job. Slightly confused at the request, I dropped the glass off at the counter anyway. That’s when I came across another patron who had seen me make out with the DJ earlier. He asked me where I was from.

Ali Mushtaq

I already knew where the conversation was going. I told him I was from Orange County. But he continued to interrogate me about “where I was from.” He was unsatisfied that I didn’t tell him my ethnic background. I had enough. After telling him I was from Mars (my go-to snarky response), he still persisted. Then I then told him my Mom was from New Jersey. I wasn’t exactly lying because my Mom moved to California from New Jersey. This was after immigrating from Pakistan. But clearly, I was being harassed because of my skin color. The DJ who I had been making out with then stepped in and said his family was also from New Jersey. I knew I had been kissing the right person.

I eventually asked an older, White friend if he had ever been asked to do the bar back’s job. He said, “no.” I was not surprised because events like these are commonplace for people of color. This June, I was asked to model in a fashion show in San Diego. One of the designer’s employees messaged me over Facebook, telling me to await information in July. This implied that he was interested in having me as a model. During the week of the show, I asked why I hadn’t received information. I called the designer, and he said it was because “I was too far from San Diego.” I had met him at an event in San Diego where we judged a leather contest together, and I assured him I would be able to make the trip. He then described how it was a big fashion show. I told him I had walked LA Fashion Week. After asking him for his real motives, he then said, “I have enough diversity.”

This was insulting. Though the designer would eventually try to get me to work with him, I declined on principle. Clearly, for this designer, my presence would only fulfill a quota. It had nothing to do with my body or what I looked like. He already had a set number of ‘people of color,’ and I had apparently missed the mark somehow. Again, no White man (gay or straight) would have ever been treated like this on the basis of his race.

Recently someone created a Facebook group for muscle bears that excludes Asian and black men. There wasn’t just a hint that Asian men weren’t welcome. Instead, in all caps, the author of the group page wrote, “IF YOU ARE ASIAN OR AFRICAN, DO NOT JOIN THE GROUP BECAUSE IT (sic) WILL BE BLOCKED FROM THIS GROUP.” Given my experiences, it’s not surprising that someone blatantly created a discriminatory group.

I remember being 22, a Ph.D. student who just moved to San Francisco. One of my first outings to express my new found freedom from Orange County involved attending a Bearacuddah event. I remember thinking that this place would be the hallmark of acceptance. While I was not as muscular/toned as I am now, I was still a hairy otter. I thought there might be a possibility of being accepted here. To the contrary, I felt invisible. I tried being friendly, and no one reached out to me. I wasn’t alone in this feeling. I remember seeing heavyset Asian men standing alone at the bar, not having fun with their White counterparts. Years later, I would finish my doctoral dissertation and would find out that the reason why they were excluded was because they couldn’t “fit the bear mold” of being White.

A lot of these problems stem from a lack of empathy. The man at the bar has probably never experienced being interrogated for his race. The designer was used to hiring White models and probably considered Latinos “diversity” in Southern California.

Keep in mind, Latino men, though dealing with other forms of discrimination and objectification in our community, are not excluded from gay life in the same way Asian and Black men are (see above Facebook group in caps). Just a caveat, “Latinos”/ “Latinx” and “Asians” are ethnic groups, not races.

Ultimately, the person that wrote the discriminatory Facebook post had no empathy for Black and Asian men, and didn’t realize they are constantly discriminated against in society. And so on. I was determined to get to the bottom of this.

The Talk

My main concern with Bearacuddah was that there were not that many models of color on its flyers. Also it didn’t have a diverse set of go-go dancers and flyer models. I decided to talk with the event’s promoter.
As to why he didn’t hire models and dancers of color within the bear community, the promoter argued “well we couldn’t find anyone of color.” This was as if finding bears of color was a hard task in diverse cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego (which is realistically bullshit). As usual, rather than readily admitting there was a problem and agreeing to take steps to deal with it, the promoter immediately pushed back. Businesses, promoters. and organizations have to remember this pushback involves making an active choice. They make choices. Their choices are deliberate. They hire and ask people to work with them. And most importantly, we as consumers should see those choices as deliberate.

In further conversation with this promoter, he asked me why I, personally, chose to not go to events that cater to a specific ethnic group. He asked why I would even want to go to a night like Bearacudda as opposed to Gameboi Night in San Francisco, an Asian dance party. I responded that I am a leatherman. I like kinky and perverse sex. I said, so “why can’t I just be a leatherman and not just the Pakistani leatherman? And besides that, I’m not what America typically defines as “Asian, so I wouldn’t fit in because I’m not East/South East, or Central Asian.” The fact that I had to justify my existence in the bear space to someone who is promoting the event was pretty fucked up.

I also had to remind him that racial minorities have money they’re willing to spend, so, from a business perspective, it would be worth marketing to these people. Rather than just focus on the fact that people should not deliberately discriminate against one another, I pitched inclusivity as a business strategy. Yet, a familiar pattern emerged: deflect from pressing issues, minimize the problem, and downplay any individual action on the perpetrator’s part. So he said, “The main event director isn’t racist. Back then the bears just wanted a space to ‘dance.’ It’s a gay problem, not a bear problem.” But again, there he was making active choices. He could acknowledge: what his event was doing, his own role in promoting the event, change his marketing strategy, change how and where he markets and to whom. But again, the resistance to change is only matched by the resistance in people’s choices.

The Empathy Moment

I was exhausted. It felt like there was nothing I could do to change this guy’s mind. For whatever reason, I started shifting the conversation to older men in the gay community and people that were positive. After drawing analogies to the problems these people faced, the promoter started to better understand that he was unintentionally discriminating against people of color in the community. He started to slow down. The walls between us started to break down, and I felt like he was finally starting to listen.

Our conversation reminded me that some people can listen. Some people do care about being better human beings. In short, some people have empathy and no one is perfect (not even me). Yes, this promoter made mistakes early on. But those mistakes do not define him as a person because we all make mistakes (even I do, and I feel like I’m empathetic). This promoter actually realized that he had made mistakes. I believe he is fundamentally a good person. And somehow, despite the tension in the beginning, I found a shred of empathy in him, and we were able to build on that to form our conversation.

It was strange for me because I could then feel the pain he felt because of his own marginalization. I felt bad for him because he was simply another person trying to live, just like I was. Yes, we shouldn’t have to use our own pain to understand another’s pain. But it was a start. Compared to the vilification and the bullying I had endured on multiple across multiple contexts because of my skin color, it was the most productive conversation I have had in the last six years in the LGBT community. In short, empathy was possible. Understanding was possible.

Let’s Start from Here

The promoter started to realized that racial discrimination was a choice, and that he had some control over how marketing and representation worked. He started to realize that, if we take responsibility for our choices, we can take responsibility for the direction that we choose in society. Yes, as a sociologist, I understand that arbitrary systems of power affect our lives, but we need to take personal responsibility for making better choices to be more equitable. If we understand that racism persists in the media, there is no reason why I can’t choose to hire a model of color to off-set this problem. Not because of some “quota,” but because we actually value people for being there and contributing something different to the world. Yes, the semantics might be another problem, but this is why we have to increase representation everywhere so everyone feels like they are valued.

In an era where the Supreme Court has now legally justified a ban on refugees coming from Syria, a war-torn country and where children are being separated from their parents because of their skin color, we have to do our best when others lack empathy toward other people. We acknowledge that there are people in the world who fundamentally are sociopaths (they are more prevalent than we think), but we also should know that not everyone is a sociopath. Love is possible.