The Trouble With “Stealing” Cultures

Beyoncé at the 2014 BRIT Awards. 

Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters

Who owns a gesture? Who owns a phrase? Who owns a particular style of moving through the world?

These kinds of questions—aspects of the larger issue of “cultural appropriation”—have emerged again this week in the form of an open letter by Sierra Mannie, a rising senior at the University of Mississippi whose college newspaper article, “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture,” was reprinted on Thursday on Time magazine’s website. Because she conflates a number of different issues (on which more in a moment), it’s hard to summarize Mannie’s essay succinctly, but what’s clear is that she has grown tired of the way in which certain white gay guys identify with a certain strain of black femininity and partake in its cultural vocabulary. “You are not a black woman,” Mannie writes to the offenders, “and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you.”

There is nothing wrong with this argument, as far as it goes. Gay white men like myself are indeed not black women, and for us to “claim either blackness or womanhood” would be strange, if not outright offensive. On that limited point, I join with Mannie in bemoaning the type of white queen who struts around in a kind of performative blackface, claiming to hold a “strong black woman” captive inside himself and invoking other Tyler Perry-like caricatures with oblivious glee. This kind of behavior, I think it goes without saying, is racist.

Likewise, Mannie’s survey of Structural Inequality 101 is well-taken, if not particularly original. Anyone at all familiar with these issues can only nod at a statement like: “A culture of racism is bad enough, but pairing it with patriarchal structures that intend to undermine women’s advancement is like double-fisting bleach and acid rain.” Indeed, being a woman of color in the United States is in many ways a bum deal—and probably, on balance, a worse one than gay white men enjoy.

With that situation in mind, it’s easy to empathize with Mannie’s frustration over these gay wannabe black girls. Of course, given that it is by definition impossible for a gay white man to actually take on a black female identity, I wonder if a better solution is just to ignore absurd queens who are so lacking in self-awareness that they make the attempt.

In any case, my feeling is that this specific subgenre of gays is rather rare and skews pretty young (i.e., immature); far more common are gay white men who, like myself, occasionally make use of certain signifiers that could be said to “belong” to both gay culture and black (female) culture. I’m thinking of concepts like reading and shade and phrases like “spill the tea,” some of which Mannie employs confrontationally in her piece. As I have written a number of times before, these and similar cultural products absolutely owe a great debt to communities of color—a debt that should always be acknowledged—and yet they are also in conversation with gay aesthetic sensibilities and communication styles elaborated by white men of the Wildean mold. The point is that no group can claim to “own” an idea like shade, much less to dictate to others when and where it may be used—provenances and trajectories of development are just too complex to imprison culture in that way.

To act otherwise is to ignore the fascinating and beautiful ways in which various subcultures rub against and influence each other—and indeed, in the case of Beyoncé and similar diva figures, market themselves directly to one another for financial gain. I would hope Mannie would allow, for example, that gay (white) culture has often been an inspiration for (black) women, and, indeed, that our ideas and modes of expression have at times been exploited and caricatured by her community in the same ways she derides. Hey, it happens.

I worry, though, that her understanding of the gay experience may be limited. Take this paragraph:

At the end of the day, if you are a white male, gay or not, you retain so much privilege. What is extremely unfairly denied you because of your sexuality could float back to you, if no one knew that you preferred the romantic and sexual company of men over women. (You know what I’m talking about. Those “anonymous” torsos on Grindr, Jack’d and Adam4Adam, show very familiar heterosexual faces to the public.) The difference is that the black women with whom you think you align so well, whose language you use and stereotypical mannerisms you adopt, cannot hide their blackness and womanhood to protect themselves the way that you can hide your homosexuality. We have no place to hide, or means to do it even if we desired them.

We start out on firm ground here—white maleness is undeniably a privileged position—but then the argument starts to quake. For Mannie, gayness is something that’s invisible unless people are aware that you prefer “the romantic and sexual company of men over women.” We can hide our homosexuality and thus get along more easily, whereas black women have no such ability. This notion, it should be clear, is ignorant to the point of being homophobic.

Mannie simplistically conceives of gayness as a sexual act, ignoring the complex and surprising ways sexuality is registered, often dangerously, beyond the bedroom, whether through comportment, speech style, dress, gender expression, or just some ineffable aura. And of course, those signals are things over which many people have little, if any, control. I actually don’t know what Mannie is talking about when she references those hook-up apps, forums where people generally omit apparently “heterosexual” faces (what does that even mean?) out of a healthy prudence for their online reputations, but I can assure her that gayness is not something most of us can so easily crop out of our daily existence, nor should we have to. But the suggestion that we can or might “hide” belies a condescending and infantilizing attitude toward the gay experience that Mannie would do well to “check” herself.

That said, I want to reiterate my support of Mannie’s critique of queens who lack the sophistication to come up with something better to emulate than tired black feminine caricatures—that’s boring and gross. But before she opines further on how Gay White Men relate to or engage with any particular thing, she might want to complicate her understanding of us and our culture. Otherwise, her call to “strengthen the people around us” sounds about as hollow as the lazy stereotyping she rightly hates.