When a Black Woman Loses Her Tribe
Updated: Jan 19
As a woman of color, why do I feel alienated from progressive friends who used to be my biggest allies?
I’m not saying it’s tough to be a straight white man these days, but for the first time in my life I can actually see the advantage of not being one.
It’s almost impossible to go 15 minutes without seeing a commercial, TV show, PSA, or yard sign that reminds us how awesome it is to be “different.” Whether it’s the color of our skin, the texture of our hair, our sexual orientation, or the gender we identify with, it seems the more “different” we are from people who benefit from systemic privilege, the better.
You might think this diversity & inclusion love fest would be a dream come true for someone like me, right? As a gay black woman, I check almost all the right boxes (the only thing I’m missing is a disability, and I’m pretty sure being near-sighted doesn’t count). But the dream hasn’t played out for me. I’ve learned the hard way that being different doesn’t mean thinking different.
It turns out that thinking different (which, believe it or not, Apple boldly encouraged us to do not so long ago) isn’t so awesome; in fact, these days it’s actively discouraged. So if you’re a gay black woman, plenty of juicy perks await you and everyone wants to hear what you think — but only if you think the “right” way. Otherwise, you may as well be a straight white man. Because your differences won’t mean jack.
As I try to navigate a world that seems to makes less sense every day, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization that I’m no longer the “right” kind of gay black woman.
Lately, I’ve become persona non grata with many of my progressive friends. People I’ve known for decades and have always been in sync with chastise me for speaking my mind. My posts on social media have subjected me to personal attacks and humiliation. I’ve been accused of being a Trump supporter an agent of misinformation/disinformation, paranoid, a conspiracy theorist, a threat to democracy, and my personal favorite, an enabler of white supremacy. Even peers who aren't prone to name calling politely lament how “disappointed” they are that I’ve “lost touch with reality.” It's ugly stuff.
Regardless of how the message is delivered, it’s always the same: I’m on the “wrong” side of things now. Yes, I’m still a gay black woman, but I’m not the kind whose differences are celebrated; I’m the aberrant kind who needs to be contained or removed.
Being shamed and attacked by people who have always shared my core values is shocking, bizarre, and even a little surreal. I can only compare it to being part of a tribe you’ve fought with for years, only to have them suddenly turn their backs on you for reasons you can’t begin to fathom.
Losing your tribe is also alienating and painful because humans, even the most independent and thick-skinned among us, are social creatures. We’re hard-wired to connect with people who see the world through the same lens. Bonding with like minds provides the safety and comfort that make this rocky journey through life a little less lonely and uncertain. It gives us a sense of belonging that we all crave on some primal level.
That’s the beauty of being part of a tribe. But now I’ve lost mine.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I’m no longer on the same page with my progressive friends, and I think it’s because the tribe has fundamentally changed. These days, fitting in seems to have less to do with our race, gender, or sexuality and much more to do with how we view the Establishment.
As a black kid growing up in the 70s and 80s (with an inkling she might be gay), I wandered for years without a tribe.
I attended predominantly white schools, so I never had friends who shared or could relate to my life experience. When I watched coming-of-age movies, I never saw anyone who grappled with my pubescent urges. When I watched the news, I never saw faces that looked like mine in positions of leadership or power. In predominantly white workplaces, I went out of my way to avoid offending peers or upsetting my boss; I knew that if I lost my job, I wouldn’t have a trust fund or well-connected family friends to cushion my fall. I spent a big chunk of my life feeling lonely and vulnerable.
And then I found my tribe.
In the late 1990s, I landed my first job in Hollywood, an industry that became ground zero for the progressive revolution that would soon sweep the country. That’s when I met a new breed of white people I'd never encountered before. They appreciated my experience as a black woman and supported my lifestyle choice. They valued my intelligence and respected my opinion, even when we disagreed. Most important, they gave me the courage to demand the voice I’d been denied for so long, and they inspired me to use it — fearlessly.
I loved everything my tribe stood for.
We abhorred discrimination of any kind and dreamed of a future where people would see and judge each other based on what was in their hearts and minds, not the color of their skin or the shape of their gonads.
We were champions of the poor and defended underdogs. We didn't trust the rich and were wary of anyone with excessive power or control.
We were gracious and prided ourselves on taking the high road. We didn’t demonize or punish people who disagreed with us; instead, we tried to help them understand why our path would lead to a better America for everyone.
We cherished the democracy that inspired people all over the world to demand better lives from their governments. But we also understood how important it was to safeguard this fragile experiment; history had taught us that civilized societies could unravel in the blink of an eye.
We believed in the System, but we were keenly aware of its imperfections. We remembered that our laws had wrongfully denied civil rights to women and people of color. We faced the inconvenient truth that greed had compelled our government to depose leaders of foreign countries and replace them with ones "favorable" to American interests. We knew that people in power could manipulate “facts” for ulterior purposes: intelligence agencies lied to us about wars and our reasons for waging them, and they even used the media to trick us into believing these lies.
We understood the danger of blindly trusting people in power and the need to hold them accountable.
But more than anything else, we believed in equality, and equality demanded that everyone have a voice. We fought attempts to silence those who weren’t in the majority because we knew that without a voice, nothing we fought for would be possible: the lies and misdeeds committed by rogue members of government would never come to light, and hundreds of millions of people would still be living in a “separate” America. Without a voice, the promise of a better America would just be an illusion.
For most of my life I was in sync with my tribe. And then, without warning, everything changed. We began to see the world through a different lens.
The people I’d always been on the same page with began to see the problems we faced, and how we should fix them, in completely different ways. The changes happened so gradually that it’s hard to pinpoint when they started, but by the time the 2016 presidential election rolled around, the rift was unmistakable.
When I refused to demonize Trump supporters, my tribe accused me of being a Republican sympathizer. When I urged others to follow MLK’s path of forgiveness and tolerance, I was called a white apologist. When I encouraged my friends to focus more on issues that unite us (class inequality) and less on those that divide us (race), I was shamed for minimizing systemic racism. I lost black friends for suggesting that elites benefit from a divided America, and I lost white friends for questioning what I was told by the media and “experts.”
Over the past 20 years, I’ve watched my tribe undergo a metamorphosis so complete that it’s almost unrecognizable to me now. Granted, tribal leaders never sent a mass email to the rank-and-file (“Update: It’s Okay to Trust the Establishment Now”), but my progressive friends clearly got the message: challenging the status quo was no longer an option.
The firebrands who dedicated themselves to identifying flaws in our institutions no longer question how they function or who they serve. The crusaders who held government accountable now shame anyone who second guesses it.
The tribe that cheered journalists for exposing Watergate and revered whistleblowers for leaking the Pentagon papers now demonizes anyone daring enough to uncover secrets and lies. And it’s not hard to see why: the same people who used to denounce Republicans for being the party of big business now unconditionally trust the news media that big business owns, a media that regurgitate whatever “facts” authority figures dispense and accuse people who disagree with them of spreading disinformation.
The tribe vilifies the run-of-the-mill rich (the 1%), yet gives a free pass to the uber wealthy (the .1%) who increasingly control more aspects of our daily lives. Billionaires have become the tribe's partners not just in keeping us "informed," but also in safeguarding public health and protecting the environment.
The people who marched so that black and white children could be educated side by side have no problem keeping 44,000 children out of public schools, many of them black and brown, because they’re unvaccinated. The tribe that fought Jim Crow now supports mandates that are turning America into a two-tiered society, denying millions of the opportunity to travel, shop, or earn a living.
The tribe that went out of its way to protect those on the lower economic rungs now excuses policies that disproportionately impact these people — when doing so advances an agenda that matters more.
The tribe that championed diversity and inclusivity now shames anyone who voices thoughts outside the mainstream or asks uncomfortable questions. It supports free speech, but only for those who agree with it.
The enlightened minds who praised others for bucking the System now hassle anyone who doesn’t go along with the “program," whether it's masking up, vaxxing up, or walking on pronoun eggshells. They’ve conveniently forgotten all the times we’ve later discovered the “program” was actually failing us and the courageous Americans who fixed it by speaking up.
Everything my tribe believed in and encouraged me to believe in has been turned on its head. It’s as if our memories of what we’ve accomplished, and how we accomplished it, have been erased. It makes no sense, yet members of the tribe look the other way and play along. They pretend it’s not happening.
But I've refused to play along. I can’t pretend.
So what makes me different? Why do I find it so hard to look the other way as my tribe embraces everything it used to oppose? I think my race may have something to do with it. Playing along requires a level of faith in the Establishment that most black people don’t have. Given our life experience, blind trust doesn’t come naturally to us.
We remember how public health officials gambled with black lives during the Tuskegee Experiment, so we’re wary of vaccine mandates. Having the freedom to decide what does (or doesn’t) happen to their bodies matters a helluva lot to people whose ancestors were human chattel a little more than a century ago.
We focus less on how things are “supposed” to work and more on how they actually play out in our real world. So when the tribe pledges to spend trillions to “build back better,” we don’t really expect that to help us. We’ve watched our communities fall deeper into poverty and despair for decades (ironically in cities where the tribe wields the most power).
When we’re asked to trust the media that’s silencing and marginalizing other Americans, it raises red flags — because we know what it feels like to be silenced and marginalized. So it’s not surprising that black celebrities and athletes like Nicki Minaj and Draymond Green have become staunch advocates for free speech and personal choice, or that “Let’s Go Brandon” has become the rallying cry of black rappers fed up with censorship and government control. We know that when people are denied a voice, it doesn’t always mean they’re wrong; sometimes those in power simply fear the message.
Yet even my race doesn’t entirely explain why I have such trouble playing along. Although black Americans (especially black men) have become less-than-enthusiastic supporters of the tribe, most are still loyal members. So something else sets me apart, and I think it’s likely because of where I live and what I’ve exposed myself to.
Ten years ago, I uprooted my family and moved to Montana, a state that’s 89% white and almost entirely straight. On the surface, it would seem I have nothing in common with the people here: they’re mostly MAGA supporters who reject abortion, transgender restrooms in schools, and masks; they think God is the ultimate celebrity, and guns are among their most prized possessions; they drive gas-guzzling American-made trucks and don’t stress about recycling.
They’re what my tribe would politely call “rednecks.”
But over the years I’ve found an unexpected connection with these deplorables that’s deepened as I’ve drifted further from my tribe. Living with them has taught me that we have something in common now that eclipses our differences, a connection that’s often obscured by identity politics and party labels.
We were born without the privilege that matters most: the one based on class.
If you’re a working class white American, your life doesn’t look a whole lot different than most black ones now: you know what it’s like to feel invisible. You know what it’s like to live in a society that values the education you can’t afford to give your children; to vote for people who don’t look out for your best interests; to be trapped in a System that keeps you working harder and leaves you falling further behind; to watch your friends and family fall into drug and alcohol addiction because they’ve lost hope; to be forced to take a vaccine for which neither manufacturers nor the government are on the hook if (God forbid) something goes wrong.
Although I’m a lawyer and not part of the working class, I see their struggles with my own eyes and relate to what’s causing their frustration. Although we’ve never been part of the same tribe, on the most fundamental levels we now see the world through the same lens.
We’ve stopped pretending the institutions we’re supposed to respect are actually serving us. We no longer trust the government that’s betraying us. We no longer believe a media that are censoring us. We no longer have faith in the economy that’s killing us. We still believe in America and what it stands for, but we don’t have confidence in “experts” and the people who are running the System.
We’re fed up and we’re compelled to speak up.
These are the people who stand with me now. These are the people who are willing to challenge the status quo. And they’re encouraging me to do what the tribe no longer wants me to do: use my voice. Because speaking up is dangerous to people who have gone all-in to defend the Establishment.
It’s no coincidence that the most vocal members of the tribe now aren’t on the lower rungs; they’re beneficiaries of class privilege who have never been burned by the System. The people who try hardest to shame and silence the squeaky wheels are celebrities and others who can afford to insulate themselves from reality, the ones who are least likely to be threatened or negatively impacted by the Establishment.
It's no coincidence that my biggest detractors on social media aren’t part of the working class; they’re highly educated people (mostly white and mostly men) from upper middle class families earning mid-six figure incomes. They worked remotely while lockdowns decimated everyone else. They’ve never been burned by politicians who’ve sent their jobs overseas. They implicitly trust doctors and hospitals that have always given them the best care. They have platinum-level insurance, so they don’t fret about dying from anything other than COVID. They’ve never been marginalized or felt vulnerable, they’ve never been denied a voice, and they’ve never experienced the pain of feeling invisible.
The people who live in this world don’t concern themselves with slippery slopes. They can’t imagine an America where something could be taken from them — because nothing has ever been taken from them. And if you’ve never had anything taken from you, then you have no problem trusting the System. The System is still working for you, and that’s all that matters.
And I think this is the core of the existential crisis the tribe faces now: it’s defending an Establishment that’s crushing the very people it’s pledged to protect.
To be clear, I’m not encouraging anyone to defect to the “other” tribe because it’s better. It’s not better; it merely protects the Establishment in different ways. What I’m saying is that we should focus our collective energy on attacking the System, itself, instead of attacking and silencing each other. We should be joining forces with anyone — regardless of race, color, or sexual orientation — who has the guts to stand up to the institutions that are no longer serving most Americans.
For those who are still playing along and choose to remain loyal, it’s time to ask who’s really benefiting from your loyalty. Yes, we’re all looking for safety and comfort, now more than ever; no one wants to make this uncertain journey alone. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what we really believe in and who and what we’re really supporting. Because we can’t build a better America if we’re enabling and defending the forces that are tearing it down.
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