An Ivory Response to an Ebony Frustration

Dear Ms. Mannie,

I found your piece for the Daily Mississippian, shared widely by TIME here, to be both thought-provoking and more nuanced than many of the responses have allowed.  I also believe the importance of various minority subcultures to be able to have dialogue with each other is vital to working toward greater equality for all of us.

Many responses have focused on discounting, dismissing or dismantling your perceptions and conclusions.  I don’t find that productive as it tumbles quickly into the “oppression Olympics” that everyone proclaims they abhor yet often feed into so easily.  I would rather contribute to continuing a conversation.  It’s important that we be able to have dialogue rather than screaming firmly planted monologues at each other and calling it discourse.

Much of the response is focused on the “can we/can’t way or racist/not-racist” aspects of your issue with the behavior of some white gay men.  To explore it from a different perspective, I’d like to consider where this behavior originates.

Within the vast array of minorities, there has long been a particular affinity between sizeable amounts of gay men and black women.  I like that, and really, more than that – I love that.   I also understand how our familiarity at times can be perceived as crossing your “much thicker line” between appreciation and appropriation when viewed from a distance or when the parties involved do not know each other.

The greater issue of appropriation and the way in which many things, particularly in the arts, are appropriated from black culture and introduced to mainstream culture through white artists with greater visibility rather than lifting up and promoting the black artists and communities that created them is a massive problem.  One society-at-large must continue to address.

I’d rather stay here in the gay white men/black women relationship.  Because I care about it.  You’re absolutely right.  As white men, we will never come close to understanding the experience of being a black woman dealing with the intersectionality of two distinctly different and equally potent kinds of oppression.

I’m about to venture dangerously close to “Not All…” territory, so I hope you’ll give me leeway for a moment because I truly believe this is the journey for the greater majority of the white gay men who engage in these behaviors you feel are appropriation.

The root basis of our behavior with black women is this – we admire the hell out of you.  We are absolutely in awe.  For the very reasons you stated.  You cannot hide that you are a women when you leave the house.  You cannot hide that you are black when you leave the house.  So instead, so many of you have learned, despite the massive obstacles and oppression it comes with, to leave the house loudly and proudly, embracing who you are and demanding to be included and accepted equally at the table without having to compromise any aspect of your identity to the patriarchy or white culture.

And that. Is freaking. AMAZING.

You mentioned that we retain so much privilege because what is denied us could float back to us if no one knew we preferred the sexual company of other men.  When we were doing that – hiding our identities to maintain appearances – in the closet, wrapped in the privilege our ethnicity and assigned and accepted sex provide, we were dying.  Some of us actually did.

Enjoying the benefits of the privilege you describe came with a steep cost in shame and lack of self-worth.  We cannot actually allow that privilege to float back to us without destroying ourselves, and when we were cloaked in it like some kind of privilege skin receiving those benefits before coming out – it never fit because we hated ourselves for hiding and lived in fear knowing that, for many of us, the true revelation that would end our privilege would also lead to total rejection by our families, churches and communities.

Standing in that closet, where we looked like just any other white men at the top of the privilege pyramid, for many of us it was a special kind of hell.  And there, in that place where we were so terrified that revealing who we actually were would be world-ending – we saw you.

The proud, and honest, and authentic black woman.  In myriad forms.  The musical divas we adore for the fearlessness of their lyrics, performances and conquering of a challenging industry.  The iconic black women in television and film who embody characters we adore with performances we admire.  The girls in the club proud of bodies in all shapes and sizes that do not conform to mainstream magazine beauty standards.  The hair choices.  The bold approach to patterns and colors in fashion, jewelry and shoes.  The girl down the street who walks the sidewalk like a runway.  The mother in line at the grocery store that clearly made a decision long ago not to take crap from anybody.

We saw you.  We saw so many versions, types and expressions of you, but with a seemingly shared cultural decision to be strong, present and accepted for the very things that make being a black woman a challenging path in our society in the first place.  And we fell in love.

You are right in some ways about our privilege.  Many of us who could hide, and did hide for far longer than was healthy.  Because we could.  Because we were ashamed, because we were terrified and because we just were not quite brave enough yet to step up and step out to face the hatred and vitriol that so often comes with revealing who we are.

I understand your great issue with the line between appropriation and appreciation.  I do think it’s important.  I also think it’s important to note that what constitutes appropriation is different for different people in various circumstances.  I also get the “sassy black girlfriend” stereotype most greatly perpetuated by Hollywood is a maddening thing for the black female community knowing that you, collectively and individually, are so much more than that.  We have our version of that archetype character that many in our community find equally frustrating and limiting.

I believe it is natural that we often pick up the conversational habits and behavioral mannerism of our friends and idols.  I talk far more Texan around my friends from the south, I get a little valley girl with my producing partner’s daughters and sometimes I kiki in African-American Vernacular English with my black gays and black girlfriends.  I watch Ryan Gosling as a study in acting (okay, fine, and for the abs), I learned to smize from Tyra Banks, and I watch the Real Housewives to figure out how far is too far in plastic surgery.  I’ll happily admit Atlanta is still my favorite.

Some of the generalized mannerisms that slide into caricature territory that it seems like you most likely take issue with I would qualify as the place our two communities meet in the middle which can always be messy.  I would call it, for simplicity’s sake, “black drag queen.”  On the spectrum between gay white men and black women there are a number of stops that I think contribute to your frustration and hopefully explain some of the feelings of ownership white gay men have launched back at you.

Drag queens exaggerate and play with masculinity and femininity.  Many gay men of color who could not hide or “pass” have chosen to proudly embrace overt femininity and the drag community sort of mixes it all together.  White drag queens often adopt the vernacular of their black counterparts and the language and mannerisms mix and mingle.  Then those of us who sit in the audience in awe take on the empowering elements of the combined total feeling as though we are all one big mass of individuals attempting to slap back at the judgment of the conservative and controlling societal hierarchy in the strongest way possible.  The reality is, many black women do that better and with more panache, wit and flair than almost any other minority group.  And again, because it bears repeating, we absolutely love that.  It’s inspiring.

I think one of things we can all agree on is that assuming someone is going to respond to you a certain way based on a stereotype is terrible. You’re right that to roll out my best head-popping, sass-talking stereotypical imitation to any black woman I encounter is offensive because limiting someone to only being a stereotype is offensive.  I feel the same way about white girls who want me to be “one of the girls”.  I know what they mean, but it’s irritating.  I’m gay, not a girl.

So, I’m willing to begrudgingly admit that I am not a fierce, black woman.  But I just want to maybe provide a bit more insight into why some of us find it an aspirational thing to be, to embrace and yes, at times, to imitate.  After all, that so much of white, patriarchal society puts you down and limits you for who you are as black woman, I hope that underneath the irritating-at-times aspects of our ridiculous behavior, you can see the very genuine compliment it contains.

As a skinny, gay, white man who grew up with all of the perceived privileges that you did not, but was hard-pressed to appreciate them for my own feelings of being a fraud, I stewed in shame and low self-esteem for too long.  I would stand in the shower (okay, fine, I still do sometimes) and let my “inner black girl” sing “And I’m Telling You…” from Dreamgirls believing for a moment that I was Effie because I wished I had her strength, related to her pain and loved the way she expressed it.

I don’t want to claim your blackness.  Or your womanhood.  I know my “inner black girl” is not real.  I also do not intend to insult you by referencing her to embody traits I wish I had more of and expressed more regularly.  I have learned, and had the benefit of time to do so that you did not, to be confident in me – as you had no choice but to do.

So, let’s make a deal.  Some of us white gay men do need to work to ensure that we never presume when meeting a black woman that she is going to fulfill some of the regular stereotypical aspects of a black woman that we find to be fantastic, amazing and inspiring.  We should allow her to be a full and complete person and appreciate her regardless of what kind of person she chooses to be.  If we remember to respect her beyond the stereotype, I hope you won’t begrudge those of us who do the hip pop, finger snap and “yasssssss, girl” if she proves to be one who is happy to purse her lips, tilt her head down and quip back with “alright queen” because she does see the appreciation and the “imitation is the highest form of flattery” intended in our clumsy display of admiration.

All of this does not necessarily change anything, but having these discussions is important to ensuring that as minority groups we continue to respect and strengthen each other.  And of course there are white gay men who are genuinely inappropriate.  Who presume too much.  Who assume familiarity without first being invited to do so.  That is an expression of some kinds of privilege.  They should behave better.  (And possibly, at times, I personally should behave better.)  I just believe that a much greater majority of us mean it as far more than appropriating your identity for laughs or limiting you to the characteristics we like best.  When we’re out of line, you should call us on it.  I hope that the rest of the time, you can see it for the tribute and expression of love and appreciation it truly, truly is meant to be.

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