My gay friend Travis sent me a blog he found in Time, “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture” by Sierra Mannie. In the piece, Mannie kvetches that Black women’s hair styles, clothes, language and dance moves are being pillaged by gay white men. That they are taking all of the glitz and glam and leaving behind the degradation, humiliation and stifled opportunities that characterize the black female experience. Essentially she’s saying there’s a line between appropriation and appreciation.
That’s very true. It seems like every time I turn around some black person is squawking about something we created being stolen by white people. And the list is long of black inventions, tangible or cultural, that have been appropriated by other races, for which we see a pittance, if any, of the resulting dividends.
My problem with the squawking is two-fold. One, what other races appropriate are often the most base, ridiculous and silly traits, things perpetuated by the media and a very small percentage of black people. I say, let ‘em keep that neck-popping bull crap. It has very little if anything to do with real – yes, I said real – black culture and history. If someone gets their kicks imitating the poor, the uneducated or the most flamboyant members of my race where certain traits often originate, knock yourself out. But you won’t do it to me, or around me. I’ve got way too much information with which to check you.
Two, consider who allowed these people to appropriate our mannerisms and slang and clothing and music for humor and profit. We did. At first, we didn’t have a choice. That is no longer true.
I’ve had more than one person come up to me popping that ‘hey, girlfriend’ mess, and I just look at them like they’re stupid, and ask, “are you talking to me? I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” I get a particular kick from telling such people, how interesting it is that they choose to emulate traits from one of the most disenfranchised, reviled and abused races in the entire world. Hmmm. Guess there must be something of value there after all. It was good enough for you to ape.
But as tough as it is to be a black woman and to deal with the sort of girlfriend nonsense that so many automatically and often unfairly associate with my character, I’m not the only gender or minority group to be exploited or stolen from. Don’t think so? I have one phrase for you: native American. Furthermore, there is nothing preventing black people from appropriating so-called whiteness, or gay whiteness, for humor and profit. Black comedians have been making fun of white people with impunity since they were first able to take center stage. And as time passes, we do it more and more, and that’s as it should be. What’s good for the goose, and all that.
But at the end of the day this isn’t about tit for tat. Mannie wrote, "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," that’s not entirely true. That sentence certainly set my friend Travis’ hair on fire.
He pointed out that Mannie cannot be fired from a job, denied the right to marry, banned by the FDA from donating blood, nor does she face huge obstacles when adopting children. We – black women – have some legal protection – if nothing else – from these things. However, laws do not protect LGBT individuals from being fired for being gay, nor does it favor them when trying to provide homes for foster children or adopt babies.
Mannie expressed her frustration with the aforementioned thievery with truth and eloquence, but as Antwaun Sargentwrote in his rebuttal piece in HuffPo, the words, mannerisms and culture that Mannie said white gay men stole from black women actually have roots in gay black male culture, which is now part of the larger gay culture. Check out Ru Paul's reading sessions for more info.
Imitation can be a sincere form of flattery, if what is appropriated is attributed to its original contributor, and if such imitation is welcome. If not, it’s up to the offended to check the offender and educate him or her that “breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce Black females to loud caricatures,” as Mannie wrote, will not be tolerated.