Earlier this month, TIME magazine published an essay by Sierra Mannie, a young black woman who made an eloquent, fervent plea for white gay men to stop stealing black female culture. Simply put, we need to “check [our] privilege.” Mannie embodies the voice of many black women who are sick of seeing white gay men appropriate their fashion, slang, and style with no apparent awareness of their own inherited privilege. She claimed that these white gays have no notion of the line between appreciation and appropriation, and that this reenactment of black womanhood was therefore an offensive gesture.
Mannie’s essay is, without question, a profound statement, and it forced me to consider a different perspective on the behaviors of the white gay community. Some of her arguments, however, leave no room for the complexities of masculine and feminine identities within the gay community. She steps back momentarily to explain that she isn’t trying to “suck the fun out of your life” with her demands:
All of this being said, you should not have to stop liking the things you like. This is not an attempt to try to suck the fun out of your life. Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth. If you love some of the same things that some black women love, by all means, you and your black girlfriends go ahead and rock the hell out.
This conflict is not as simple as “you can have your fun with your black girlfriends, but don’t take my culture.” Mannie claims that the line between appreciation and appropriation is “much thicker than some people think,” but doesn’t expand upon where this line begins and ends. The gay men who I know that come remotely close to appropriating black female culture are not doing so for pure enjoyment. They act this way out of appreciation, and more-so admiration for black women. They repeat slang phrases because they find them to be powerful expressions of femininity, a perspective that Mannie’s essay very rigidly dismisses: “womaness is not for you.”
I don’t have any claim to womanhood, but in this world where masculinity still has a firm grasp on cultural power and agency, I find the expression of the dominant feminine to be few and far between. Regardless of our white male privilege, gay men still have a rightful claim to femininity, and I’m proud to say that some of our best role models are black women. Women like Sierra Mannie and Beyonce and Lauryn Hill and Maya Angelou. I admire the way they express their femininity with such grace and power.
When white gays repeat a phrase like “throwing shade,” they may not be trying to appropriate black female culture. I, like many gay men, can often relate more to this expression of feminine power over the violent, rigid world of the masculine. In embracing and expressing the feminine, are gay men not then surrendering to its societal burden? Are we not leaving ourselves vulnerable to the oppression and discrimination that comes with feminine embodiment? While I certainly have the choice to pass as a straight man, isn’t my abandonment of this choice—whether it is manifested through the admiration of black female culture or through other mediums—a way to tear down the wall of masculine supremacy? The gay community has enough trouble idealizing masculinity and degrading feminine expression, as I’ve already explored here. We don’t need any more voices telling us that we have no right to the feminine just because we have the privilege of passing as straight, or the convenience of getting back in the closet.
I have to assume that Mannie’s impressions of white gays are limited to young gay men who are still trying to figure out how to express themselves. And while they do not represent the entire community of white gay men, there are plenty of white gays who choose to imitate drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race because they finally have a source of feminine power to relate to, but have no concept of the line between admiration and appropriation. They just know that they love telling their friends to “sissy that walk” or “oh no she better don’t.” And this is by no means an excuse. I think her essay goes a long way to stop white men from “breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes” of black women. The gay community does not get a free pass to objectify black women or appropriate their culture, and we are responsible for policing our own circles to stop any sort of perpetuation of “ugly stereotypes” that mock women, or the black community, or any other community that faces oppression at the hands of white privilege. As much as her plea has surely resonated with the small sample of white gays who imitate black women for pure enjoyment, she fails to delve into the complexities of the problem. We shouldn’t be saying “don’t even think about identifying with black women.” We should be asking why gay men seek refuge in black female culture, and why they identify with the strength expressed through black womanhood.
Racial appropriation, alone, is part of a larger problem that extends far past the gay community. To think that white gay men have any right to identify with black oppression because of their own experience with discrimination is erroneous. Drawing parallels between black and gay oppression doesn’t do any good for social progress. White people–gay or straight–who perpetuate black stereotypes or appropriate black culture for enjoyment are inherently racist. There is nothing about my sexuality that will ever erase my white privilege, and nothing about my experience that will ever make me understand what it’s like to face the burdens of an American societal system that was built to privilege whites and disenfranchise the black community. But I don’t think singling out white gay men for their appreciation of black women is a solution, especially without considering that any semblance of misappropriation is certainly rooted in admiration for black female culture, and for the strength of feminine expression.