Much has been said and written and Facebook-commented regarding Sierra Mannie’s op-ed that expresses frustration with white gay men for “stealing black female culture”. There were mixed responses from many gay white men, ranging from confusion over the abstractness of her points or the “wait a minute” posts that point out that many of the examples she gives of black female culture actually originated among gay men, many of whom were of color, and took further issue with the wrought iron boxes surrounding cultural and gender concepts with which Mannie speaks of with the idealist eloquence of a well-studied collegiate.
I myself have some particularly stark questions for Ms. Mannie to back up. The first question I have is pretty simple: why call out specifically white gays? Does she mean to suggest that other gay men of color, be they Latino, Asian, Native American, South Pacific Islander or mixed-race don’t also appropriate “Blackness”, or is it only offensive to her when white gay men do it? If the first, let me share I’ve had several encounters with gay men of all colors who do a good Beyonce impression; if the second, well, I hate to throw around the word “racist”, but what’s really a better term?
The second question I have regards “stealing”. If somebody steals my bicycle, that’s a loss to me, because I don’t get to ride my bike anymore. But if somebody goes out and buys the same brand of bicycle as me, I’m still riding my own bike with the wind in my hair and the rainbow streamers coming off the handlebars. Ditto culture. Does Ms. Mannie not get to enjoy “[black] music, dances, slang, clothing, and hairstyles” because they’ve become popular with white people? Are they somehow forbidden to her? Not quite, and to claim that the cultural zeitgeist borne from people of her color should somehow remain with people of her color is a rather narrow world view in this ever broadening world. White gay men have their own culture, and we (for the most part) didn’t feel threatened or stolen from when Judy, Liza, Barbra, Bette, and Cher moved on from their roots playing the gay clubs and started broadcasting into the living rooms of Straight America. We tuned in.
The byline of her piece admonishes that white gay men are not black women, and thus have a right to claim neither “blackness” nor “womanhood”. Call me a literalist, but it’s my understanding that these concepts are pretty concrete. “Blackness” ostensibly means that one is a black person, cultural implications notwithstanding. “Womanhood” means one is female. Blackness is blackness (and it’s wonderfully diverse, both in the U.S. and throughout the world) whether you’re dark-skinned or light-skinned; biracial or multiracial; red-headed or blue eyed, born in Harlem or Hawai’i; enjoying Rap or Rococo. “Womanhood” is straight sorority girls and butch lesbians; courtesans and nuns; drag queens (many of whom are transwomen) and beauty queens. The “black womanhood” of which Mannie speaks appears to be a strikingly small slice of the rich cultural diversity of black women. It seems daunting for anybody to “appropriate black womanhood” if the caricatures she (rightfully) takes issue with are all she’s “having stolen”. If that’s truly the case, it’s not “black womanhood” that’s at stake; it’s the more grotesque forms of black female archetypes (which any University sociology student would be aware of) and not much of a treasure to forfeit.
The next question I have regards what I call the “Oppression Olympics”. At the risk of appropriating black female culture (because I’m frankly a little pissed) my response to Mannie’s comparison of the black female experience to the White Privilege enjoyed by white gay men, my response is “Effie we all got pain.” Black women suffer misogyny and racism (and homophobia) – there’s no disputing that. White gay men suffer homophobia. All three are injustices; all three have proven to be harmful, even fatal.
The late Christopher Isherwood was once famously engaged in a conversation with a young Jewish movie producer, and the topic of the Holocaust came up, which Isherwood mentioned killed hundreds of thousands of gay men. The producer responded, “It killed six million Jews.” to which Isherwood quipped, “What are you, in real estate?” Perhaps I digress, but what I mean to say is oppression doesn’t get rated on a point system. You don’t get extra chits for being a member of more than one oppressed minority at the same time – the homophobia is just as hurtful if you’re black or white; the misogyny is just as damaging if you’re a straight tennis player or a lipstick lesbian.
Richard J. Rosendall, President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, contrasts Mannie’s opinions on this much better than I ever could:
When a member of one group claims exclusive ownership of a particular bit of turf regarding oppression, he or she commits a falsification by omission. Ranking oppressions can blind us to one another’s experiences and get in the way of justice. Looking at me or hearing me at a given moment does not tell you everything about me. It doesn’t show all I have stood for, whom I have fought beside, or the price I paid. This works both ways. When we are too quick to judge, we erect obstacles to cooperation. That chip on your shoulder is a form of aggression.
The final question I have is about intent. I hardly think any white gay man who approaches a black woman doing their best Madea impression is doing so as some sort of cultural vampire bat. If one were Latina and he approached attempting to speak Spanish, is that cultural appropriation or cultural understanding? Assumptive, yes (What if you don’t speak Spanish?) A little tacky, undoubtedly. (What if you’re actually Native American?) But remember that whether or not you think the joke is cute or funny, appreciate the fact that they’re attempting to enjoy it with you, not in spite of you.
Converse. Say “You know what, I don’t appreciate that.” Seize the specific moment, and deal with the situation one-on-one (instead of in a blanket complaint) individual experience facing individual experience. But don’t try to lock down “black female culture” (because any culture is diverse and unruly to render controlling it impossible – just ask the French), and don’t finger white gay men – we may not fully understand your struggles as a black woman, but it’s crystal clear from your assertions that we can hide our minority that you sure as shit don’t understand ours. it’s easier for us to strengthen you if you’re not trying to blame us.