What white gay men need to learn about black women and cultural appropriation

andy cohen

Dear white gays: You’re doing it wrong.

BY DERRICK CLIFTON

Dear white gays: Leave Sierra Mannie alone.

Judging from the reaction to her TIME magazine op-ed about how black women are being mocked and appropriated by gay white men, some are a little hurt after having their wigs snatched by a woman who’s clearly fed up. Despite all the finger-pointing from both sides, including what some have decried as Mannie’s play on the ill-advised Oppression Olympics, there’s an unlikely culprit being left out of the discussion: How both black women and gays are represented in mainstream media.

For many people who’ve never had the opportunity to meet a black woman, a gay white man, or even a gay black man in their own communities, the images seen and stories they hear on TV color their perspectives on all sorts of cultural fare: from personal tastes and mannerisms, to clothing styles and dance moves. It’s a byproduct of growing up in a society that’s so divided that the otherwise life-giving and bridge-building cultural exchanges don’t happen nearly as often as they should.

Yet some people still naively believe that what they see on television is the ultimate teaching tool for learning about people who are different, rather than programs created almost solely for entertainment purposes. In the process of perhaps genuinely wishing to learn and understand others, what’s instead taken and acted upon plays upon a variety of denigrating tropes and exaggerated stereotyping. Despite what TV and magazines might otherwise lead people to assume, the media cannot and does not fully represent the wide spectrum of cultural experiences from any given social group.

For most people, exposure to gay culture comes by way of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, Will & Grace, or even Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live. And, vice versa, the lives of black women are viewed through reality shows such as The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Braxton Family Values, and Basketball Wives. One would otherwise assume that what’s on the screen can’t really be applied to everyday life for either group, but that there are some small lessons to be learned along the way of being entertained.

It’s pretty easy for someone to pick up a remote control, flick over to a network such as Bravo, and see an otherwise affable Cohen perpetuate some not-so-savory stereotypes while most of the people around him smile and join in on the fun. For example, during the recent RHOA reunion, Cohen referred to show star NeNe Leakes by her birth name Lenethia, while swiveling his neck in a sassy and stereotypical manner, despite her side-eye and pointed protest to call her by the name she’s requested. It was an unfortunate moment that played on the tropes of the angry black woman while reinforcing the “ghetto name” fascination that many white gays have with black women, as Mannie also highlights in her piece.

He’s even become obsessed with using phrases like “shade” and “reading,” terms derived from black gay ballroom culture that moved steadily into the mainstream after the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Then again, black women also use these phrases without any clue of where they originate perhaps because so many of them also learned it through the media they consume, rather than black gay friends in their lives who could diplomatically offer a crash course into what the scene is really like. (Hint: It’s really not what Madonna’s “Vogue” video would otherwise have you believe.)

But that’s where it’s up to each of us to be discerning media consumers, and not apply the social dynamics of these television shows into our everyday encounters and relationships.

And it’s through these types of friendships—or so-called “alliances”—that people from two different backgrounds can come into a relationship where they truly appreciate one another. But those alliances cannot and should not be built on a foundation of nasty tropes and stereotypes, especially when there are clear power dynamics at work.

That’s what Mannie speaks of when she references the specific privilege gay white men have within a sexist and racist society, given two strong elements of their identity. Yes, it’s true that many black women operate with privilege within a heteronormative society, but at the same time, let’s not forget about black queer and same-gender-loving women who also encounter homophobia, but also have to deal with the “hey girlfriend” and “I’m a stronger Black woman than you” remarks from their gay white male counterparts. This isn’t a game of the Oppression Olympics, but an examination of how the power dynamics work in this situation, especially when the issue at hand is primarily a racial one. 

And lest we not forget: if you’re a gay white man, you’re still white and must contend with the white privilege and misogynoir being projected in these nasty encounters.

Part of being in any type of alliance means listening to someone when they share their struggles, or when you may have personally offended them. So, for the white gays coming for Sierra Mannie and black women levying similar critiques, here’s my question to you: Are you truly listening to her? Or are you instead committing the privileged faux pas of centering your feelings instead of empathizing with the racialized experience she’s describing?

With Mannie’s criticism, most folks seem unable to understand that her described experiences with white gay men read as though she’s encountered what are perhaps attempts for these men to really get to know her but go about it many clueless and belittling ways. Broadly speaking, it gives way to unnecessary microaggressions that stem from an overidentification between what white gay men think about black women and how various women like Mannie actually express themselves and navigate everyday life.

There’s really no single cultural experience for black women, white gay men and black gays, but there are, of course, common threads shared by members of each community. If we truly wish to learn more about people and cultures that are different from ours, it’s a process that should ultimately begin with educating ourselves. That not only means learning the histories of a community’s struggles, but also holding that alongside what’s seen and viewed on television.

And if you’re blessed with the opportunity to have friends and meet people who come from an entirely different background, it’s okay to simply be yourself. Ask questions. Take chances. Make mistakes. It’s okay to not get it 100 percent right but, once you know better, do better. No one will fault you for not knowing at first, but perpetuating stereotypes and microaggressions doesn’t allow for authentic, sustainable relationships to be built. Instead, it makes people feel tokenized, unvalued and unappreciated for who they are as individuals.

That’s perhaps why Mannie felt it was necessary to ask white gay men to cut out the foolishness. And we all can build upon her call to action by examining the ways in which many of us, in various communities, have appropriated and stereotypes others in hurtful ways—while having no real-life accountability to help each other create lasting social and political change in the areas where we desperately struggle.

It’s not that we don’t want to share culture or have an exchange—we just have to do the messy work of figuring out how to do it in ways that give us life. And this isn’t the way to do it.

Derrick Clifton is a NYC-based journalist and writer primarily covering race, gender and LGBT issues, and their intersections with politics. Follow him on Twitter, on Facebook, or visit derrickclifton.com for more information on his work.

Photo via Digitas Photos/Flickr (CC By 2.0)