Dear White Gay Men, We’re Not Done Here: Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Why do white gay men want to spend so much time telling a black woman that her hurt, anger and disappointment is false, hate-mongering, and offensive?
Publish date:
July 15, 2014
racism, cultural appropriation

On July 9th, Sierra Mannie’s article “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Culture” was published on Time Magazine’s website stating that white gay men appropriate black womanhood, and emphatically asking them to stop. This imitation of black womanhood is seen in gay slang, in who gay men pick as their icons and even in the personas featured on RuPaul's "Drag Race" (I’m looking at you LaGanja “YAAAS MAMA” Estranja).

The response came in from a sector of white gay men who saw Mannie’s article as wrong and offensive -- their cultural appropriation is really appreciation, they said. Also, criticizing white gay men for their actions is homophobic, and because white gay men have no privilege in society, we’re all in this together, sistahs! These white gay men do not get the hurt and sadness behind Sierra Mannie's words because they do not understand the harmful impact of cultural appropriation because of their status as White Men.

Gay white men are white men. There’s no two ways around that. You can’t tell me that gay white men aren’t white men. I’ve seen them with my own eyes in their natural habitat.

Being white men, they benefit not only from white supremacy but also male privilege. Yes, gay people are oppressed because of their sexuality, but it’s possible to benefit from male privilege and white privilege even as a gay person because some gay people aren’t white and aren’t men. Your sexuality doesn’t negate your gender or your race. You can be two or three things at once and two of those things grant you powerful and unstoppable privilege.

Saying you don’t have privilege when you do have privilege and insulting those who say you do is an act of privilege. Denying that cultural appropriation is a problem is an act of privilege. Denying a black woman her hurt and anger in the face of racial oppression is an act of privilege. Changing the conversation about the racial transgressions of a certain group of white men to a conversation to shame and belittle a black woman affected by those very racial transgressions is an act of privilege.

H. Alan Scott in a response to Mannie on Thought Catalog writes that the Mannie’s article was “…clearly published to cause a reaction (which obviously it has from me), the piece goes on to describe how gay white men, because of inherent privilege in our society, should stop talking, acting, pretending, or remotely aligning ourselves with black women.”

You can align yourself with black women only if you are our friends and allies but yes, you should stop talking, pretending, and acting like black women.

Scott has a problem with this request because as he puts it: “The point is that recognizing the things that she thinks belongs only to black women is the very thing that causes the separation and hate in our society. There’s a reason why this country is called a ‘melting pot,’ because eventually, once you lose the bullsh-t separation and start appreciating what makes us all amazing, you start realizing that, ‘Wow, we’re not all that different after all.’”

Mannie’s article didn’t ask white gay men to stop “…talking, acting, pretending, or remotely aligning [themselves] with black women” because she doesn’t like them and wants to keep their gay cooties away and she wants everyone to be sorted by their sexualities. She’s asking for cultural appropriation to stop because cultural appropriation is terrible. Mannie writes “…it’s aggravating as hell…it’s damaging and perpetuating of yet another set of aggressions against us.”

Perhaps Scott and other white gay men don’t believe their actions are cultural appropriation. Well, let me explain: They are.

Cultural appropriation happens when members of the majority (in this case, white men) decide that blackness is a performance, a set of vocabulary, and some exaggerated hand gestures that white men can put on and off in the same way that they perceive black women do. Cultural appropriation happens when white men determine what the essential qualities of black women are and only see black women with those qualities as worthy of attention and praise. In the case of white gay male appropriation of black womanhood, those qualities are being fierce and the undefinable “sassy.”

Cultural appropriation happens when the bodies and unique fashion of black people are sold as costumes for a fun night out or a drag performance. Cultural appropriation happens when white gay men claim they have an “inner black woman.” Cultural appropriation happens when black behavior, looks and slang performed by white gay men is seen as cute and funny and the same behavior performed by black women is a barrier to success and acceptance by the rest of society.

It’s not cute. It’s not funny.

Perhaps white gay men don’t believe that cultural appropriation is harmful. Well let me explain: It is.

Cultural appropriation leads to black womanhood being defined by people who aren’t black women. It takes the control of black women’s lives and identities out of their hands and into those who benefit from their oppression. Adopting or mimicking blackness in “admiration” reduces blackness to stereotype. It becomes a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The only parts of black womanhood that survive are the parts that can be heard over dance music in a Boystown nightclub. The complexity, personhood, and history of black women is erased in favor of the flashy and exciting aspects. Instead of praising black women for their intelligence, contributions to American society, and creativity, black women are praised for having fly-ass hairdos and twerking that big ol’ ghetto booty!

White gay men spend their Saturday nights pretending to be black women to make their friends laugh.

Meanwhile, Black women are code switching to survive. They are hoping that having a fly-ass hairdo won’t be against the rules at their new job. They are hoping that their big ol’ ghetto booty won’t be used against them as evidence of their lustful nature if they are sexually assaulted. They are hoping their black voice, face, skin, body, hair and history won’t keep them from getting a job, a home or respect. Sierra Mannie wants the insensitive and insulting cultural appropriation of black womanhood to stop. The assertion that “You can’t tell me what to do! We’re a melting pot! Being black looks fun so I’m going to do it!” sounds an awful lot like entitlement and privilege.

My greatest problem with the response to Mannie’s article is the assertion that her sadness, pain, and disappointment in society as she watches her body, words, and blackness mimicked and mocked by white gay men is somehow foolish. It’s not focusing on the right problems or the big problems.

Having your feelings and thoughts invalidated because of your response to racism seems like a pretty big problem to me. When white gay men claim to want to unite and focus on “real issues” that impact marginalized people, but then write a piece calling the feelings of a black woman “bullsh-t” when she writes about where racism and misogyny intersect, white gay men are not doing a very good job of being people black women would want to be united with.

Why do white gay men want to spend so much time telling a black woman that her hurt, anger and disappointment is false, hate mongering, and offensive?

Is it too much to ask of white gay men that they treat Black Women as people worthy of their respect? Does it ruin your night out if you can’t “[claim] our identity for what’s sweet without ever having to taste its sour” or if you can’t “[breathe] fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures”? Is a black woman asking to be treated as a person so worthy of scorn? The act of cultural appropriation treats people as stereotypes and jokes so why is cultural appropriation of black women so vital to white gay male culture? And why can’t it be dismantled when it is shown to be hurtful?

H. Alan Scott ends his article by asking Sierra Mannie to “Try to see the good in everybody around her.”

Dear White Gay Men Who Actively Participate in the Cultural Appropriation of Black Womanhood, We’re Still Waiting to See The Good.