Rainbow Pride Flag Stripes & Tone Policing

Rainbow pride flag with POC stripes

As cities across the country host LGBTQ pride events this month, an angry undercurrent has clogged up a lot of social media conversations after Philadelphia added two new stripes to its rainbow pride flag. The flag emerged as a result of the More Color More Pride campaign aimed at increasing visibility of oppressed LGBTQ persons of color (POC).

While the change is not meant to ‘solve’ racism, it is meant as a first step toward shining light on the city’s racism problems so a discussion can commence about how to make that city’s community more inclusive of LGBTQ POC.

Amber Hikes – executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs – spoke to media recently about the changed flag. “It’s a push for people to start listening to people of color in our community, start hearing what they’re saying, and really to believe them and to step up and say, ‘What can I do to help eradicate these issues in our community?” she said.

Admitting the flag will not solve racism, Hikes discussed her hopes in adding two stripes to the Philly LGBTQ pride flag. “They’re very difficult conversations to have. I’ve been very clear about that — this is not going to be an easy process.”

That change has caused a lot of anger and tone policing across social media.

Stoked mostly by angry white LGBTQ community members, conversations about the change have often mirrored accusations lobbed at the LGBTQ community as a whole from right-wing special interest groups. Claims such as ‘why do they get more rights?’ to ‘where is the white stripe?’ are common retorts across Facebook and Twitter.

As several observers have repeatedly noted, arguments against the POC flag variation are mostly rooted in some form of racism whether it’s “tradition,” white privilege or tone policing.

These criticisms omit the fact that dozens of pride flag variations exist concurrently and that a prominent variation served to speak out against the AIDS epidemic – the Victory Over AIDS pride flag. Moreover, the rainbow flag’s creator – LGBTQ advocate Gilbert Baker – is on record as being fine with alterations and variations before he died recently.

His longtime friend Charley Beal spoke with the press about the Philly flag arguing, “I encourage it, and I think people who know Gilbert would.”

That so many variations exist – including the current “standard” rainbow flag (as it omits two colors from Baker’s original flag) – makes it difficult to see legitimate arguments against one city creating a POC-centric flag meant to highlight its struggles with being an inclusive place for queer persons of color. They’ve said upfront they are not attempting to co-opt or replace the more widely recognized pride flag, so what’s the big deal?

Writing for the Advocate, Amanda Kerri touched on this:

If it really irks you that people of color wanted to feel represented on a Pride flag, you need to rethink your battle plans, because this is a stupid hill to die on. People of color really have been marginalized and pushed aside in our community, and if you don’t think that’s true, I can probably guess what color skin you have — and no, spray tan is not a skin color. If giving POC their own Pride flag helps them feel welcome, then what the hell should it matter? There are flags for trans, bi, lesbian, bears, allies, leathers, bears; I mean, for God’s sake, there’s probably a flag for queer furries who are only into left-handed Jewish people. If people of color want to have their own Pride flag, let them. The fact that you’re so uptight that they want something as simple as a minor symbol of acceptance says more about you than any sort of “social justice warrior/political correctness run amok.”

There’s something very telling in the reaction to the new Pride flag as well as the impetus for it. I know that the rainbow flag is supposed to cover everyone in the community — black, white, indigenous, Asian, gay, bi, trans, etc. — but when some people feel they have to do something like this to draw attention to their unique issues, it shows we’ve all failed in some regard. We’ve overlooked something, we haven’t been listening, and we haven’t been supporting each other, and so we aren’t really a rainbow. In fact, instead of putting the stripes on one end of the flag, I would have stuck them right in the middle where everyone can see. Why? Because I see this as not just a way of calling attention, but a way to unsettle those who are a little too out of touch.

White LGBTQ people often either don’t understand or ignore the struggles of queer persons of color. That’s understandable…it’s one of the reasons Philly created this flag: to spark discussion and education on oppression. But arguing POC don’t need a separate flag because the rainbow flag is all-inclusive demonstrates the precise lack of awareness the flag exists to highlight.

Saying the standard rainbow flag represents everyone and that adding stripes to highlight oppression is inappropriate or wrong demonstrates its need. Calling it a ‘unifying symbol’ while arguing there’s no need to highlight POC oppression via a pride flag variation highlights the underlying bias and need for education across the LGBTQ spectrum.

More importantly, arguing that POC should find other “more civil” and less disruptive ways of seeking racial justice serves as a classic example of tone policing. Every time someone tells a queer person or color (or one of their allies) to ‘calm down’ or be ‘more polite’ in order to be understood, listened to, or otherwise patronized, one of the most insidious fallacies in the white supremacy playbook comes into play – even for LGBTQ people that don’t consider themselves racist.

It really goes back to one simply concept: Using personal privilege – be it couched in skin color, gender, or some other factor – to place conditions on recognizing or addressing a person or group’s oppression does not make you an ally; it makes you one of the oppressors.

But this behavior is especially dangerous to POC because it’s not as overt as blatant racism. The people arguing against two additional stripes are the same ones attending pride celebrations and proclaiming their diversity as they malign an effort to highlight a real problem POC in Philadelphia are attempting to bring attention to.

Here’s the deal…

POC are under no obligation to kowtow to anyone to earn favor in being heard. They are under no responsibility to police their emotion when they are expressing how racism affects them. They are not required to abide by rules set up by predominantly white institutions proclaiming how they should and should not make their oppression visible to everyone else.

Clinging to a modified version of a flag that’s been repeatedly modified (even by its creator) out of some notion of personal history with its symbolism while refusing to listen to queer persons of color trying to communicate their oppression is the exact reason those two new stripes needed to be added.

As Philadelphia’s Black and Brown Workers Collective co-founder Abdul-Aliy Muhammad said recently referencing the controversy, “The fact that two stripes have triggered the online and offline responses that it has, it just proves that there is entrenched racism and anti-blackness.” Muhammad added, “This is real, this is lived and this is felt by us on a daily basis.”

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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