Cultural Appropriation Isn’t a Compliment

I recently wrote a piece about my experiences with gay white men when my girlfriend and I go out to gay bars or clubs. While often they are very friendly and we have a great time, there are too many instances where white gays will overstep boundaries by asking personal questions, touching my body or hair, or simply doing a little bit too much “yaaaaaas girl” for me to feel comfortable with them.

So, when Mike sent me an article called Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away by Steve Freiss, I have to admit that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The piece is a reaction to Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture in which Sierra Mannie criticizes the appropriation of black women’s speech and mannerisms by gay white men, some of whom go as far as to refer to themselves as strong black women.

Steve’s piece interpreted Mannie’s criticism as being a “full-on attack” on the black woman-gay white male alliance. I don’t see it that way. For one thing, she is not criticizing white male- black female friendships. She is criticizing cultural appropriation. And for another, what is this alliance that he is referring to, anyway?

I was never informed that there was an alliance between gay white men and black women. I never got a membership application in the mail. And If I had, I wouldn’t have joined because so far this “alliance” seems pretty one-sided. White gay men get to have fun playing the “sassy black woman” stereotype for as long as it suits them. But what do we get? Shouldn’t an alliance mean that all that white male privilege gets used to elevate black women’s social issues? And what about GLBTQ black women? Where are the black women in the gay rights movement? Where are the non-white folks at all? This “alliance” Steve is protecting seems like something that only exists in his mind.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe gay whites can absolutely be allies, and I’m glad Steve acknowledges the oppression that black women face on the basis of sex, gender and race. But bizarrely, Mr. Freiss spends a good portion of his piece claiming that white gays can and would help us more, if only we would let them (your savior complex is showing)! And for what it’s worth, some might find it insulting that you think black women want or need a white conduit through which to “work against the countervailing forces which push [us] down.”

And back to this issue of cultural appropriation. I challenge the idea that “white gay men imitate black women out of admiration, much of it out of a sense of black women as fellow sufferers of oppression.”  Heres the thing about being a black woman. When you are one, you are one all the time. You are one at work. On the bus. At home. With friends. With strangers. When you feel safe and loved. When you feel threatened. The thing with being a gay white man referring to himself as a sassy black woman named Shaniqua is that when it’s no longer cute and funny, you can take off that mask to reveal a white male face. A white male voice and manner. And return to your white male life, full of white male privilege.

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Steve isn’t the only one insisting that black women should take cultural appropriation as a compliment. John McWhorter wrote a piece in which he explains that we should be flattered, really. He goes on to argue that cultural appropriation is, essentially, only offensive when it results in monetary gain for the white people involved, which he doesn’t think is the case when it comes to black women. Steve would probably agree. He argues that we live in an “open source culture” and therefore cultural appropriation is not problematic. The thing is, most open source stuff is free. When white people co-opt black culture like music, slang, dance, clothes, hairstyles, they often capitalize off of it in ways that most of us aren’t in the position to. So the term “stealing” isn’t only figurative. In a lot of ways, it is very literal.

But really, the financial exploitation aspect isn’t what stings the most. What really hurts is the fact that there are white people, many of them our friends and allies, who perpetuate this caricature of the black woman. It is not admiration that causes them to snap their fingers and roll their necks. They do it because it is funny. It’s cute. It’s entertaining to “act black”. But when people “act black” what they are really doing is reducing all black women to a singular worn out trope. They are stripping us of our individuality. We are not one-dimensional. Some of us are sassy. Some of us are shy. Some of us are loud and bold, some of us are fashionable, some of us are funny, some of us are serious, some of us are angry, some of us are courageous. Yet, all of us share an identity. The result of that shared identity is that there are certain ways of being that are associated with us. There are patterns that we learn from our mothers and sisters and aunties. Those things are ours and have meaning for us. We are people with history. We are more than the the butt of your tired jokes.

So much more.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you for saying what needs to be said. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a crowd of gay males who think that this is cute. Other cultures love to pick and choose which aspects of black women they wish to hi-light and it’s never the respectable aspects. And to address this head on is to be “petty” or “overreacting” and further perpetuates the angry, overly sensitive black woman stereotype. Thank you for shedding light on this.

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