On Cultural Theft

This is a special guest article written by “Chief”.

Chief writes at PostersOnTheWall.com, and is a contributor for Qulture.org.

Gay men, and especially gay white men, have a cultural fetish for Black women, and too often emulate a stereotyped subset of Black women in speech, tone, and action.

In an open letter post picked up by Time magazine, Sierra Mannie writes, “Claiming our identity for what’s sweet without ever having to taste its sour is not. Breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures for you to emulate isn’t, either. So, you aren’t a strong black woman, or a ghetto girl, or any of that other foolery that some of you with trash Vine accounts try to be.”

There’s no doubt that Mannie is expressing her feelings through frustration and her words and tone are strong. But that doesn’t discount the validity of what she writes.

Repeatedly, gay white men have written on Huffington PostThoughtCatalog, and numerous other blogs that Sierra is being both divisive and dismissive of the gay experience. They have asserted that no one owns culture. They have defended their use of speech and mannerisms. And commenters on those posts have called her “ratchet” and trashed her for even addressing the issue, as if to prove her point about the racism inherent in stealing culture and being unapologetic about it. One writer, appearing on CNN, tried to lay blame on Black rappers and entertainers for perpetuating those stereotypes, possibly in hope of freeing gay white men from any responsibility for their own behavior. These men (and almost all of them white men) missed her point entirely.

First, let me make this point: the LGBT Rights movement has never been and will never be as horrific, as terrorizing, as traumatizing across generations as was the slavery and racism against Black people that was codified as the law of the land. When you look at a gay person, you dont have the immediate sensory bias of “you must be angry, and violent, and prone to crime, and less intelligent, and less qualified” and so on. To argue that degrees of historical trauma don’t matter because “we’re all in this together” is a kind of perspective only a privileged young white man working for an online publication could be expected to think.

But back to the idea that no one owns culture: Sierra is talking about appropriation and disrespectful minstrelsy of culture, not about ownership. And what does that look like? It looks like the scene in “A Christmas Story” where the Chinese restaurant workers sing “fa-ra-ra-ra”, or attempting to call Panda Express authentic. It looks like college kids wearing sombreros and serapes on Cinco de Mayo and speaking with a Chicano accent while expressing enthusiasm at being Mexican for a day. It’s the bachelorette party that goes to a gay bar and the bride-to-be calls every gay man “girl” with a stressed vocal emphasis and wants to make out because that’s what they think gay men do.

Culture is the current-day result of history and aggregate of responses to history. It is a cognitive space that a subset of society resides in, and everyone must respect that space. What these gay white men are performing in their defense of their behavior is an absolute dismissal and disregard for the cognitive space occupied by one group of people for the sake of boorish and uncreative jokes among friends. They know what they’re doing. There’s a model (no thanks to media) based on “strong, independent, sassy” Black women that they are copying when they do it. It’s disrespectful.

So let’s talk about that disrespect felt by Sierra and many others. Someone is asking you to stop. And instead of stopping, you’re telling them to lighten up. Someone is saying, “Hey, we both know the caricature you’re adopting, and you don’t have to talk or act like that.” When that happens, you don’t get to assert yourself by saying “It’s okay because we’re all the same in this” when in society you are a white male first and foremost and we are clearly not all of the same history and subject to the same racial and gender motivated biases. It’s very easy to say, “Didn’t mean it, I apologize, I’ll stop”. You don’t have to do these things, there’s nothing compelling you to do these things. Especially when people are telling you it’s not okay and you continue to do it, that just makes you a bully, and a jerk.

In 2011, when discussing offensive language regarding people with intellectual differences (what some people still refer to as “retarded”), Tim Shriver said on the Colbert Report, “You are allowed to be humiliating, degrading, and hurtful. I’m allowed to petition you to at least recognize what you say, and be aware of the option you have to stop.” Sierra was putting the same words to play, albeit in a very blunt way, and the response from too many gay white men was to reject the option to stop.

As a final comment, to those who say, “Not all gay white men,” please just stop right there. Any time you employ the “not all” argument you are putting your own feelings above a conversation that needs to be had, and above the person who is expressing the concern. We know “not all”, and that doesn’t need to be said, even if the conversation makes you, as a white male, uncomfortable.

Chief writes at PostersOnTheWall.com, and is a contributor for Qulture.org.


5 Replies to “On Cultural Theft”

  1. Straight men are doing the same thing in gay porn. Redefining the culture of gay identity. Stealing gay sex and turning into a fetish for straight people.

  2. I just discovered this blogs thanks in part to your recent videoblog about racism in the gay porn industry. I just want to commend you for having the bravery to speak out on these issues. Many biracial attractive men I know want nothing to do with the issue of race. I love you even more now

  3. It seems to me that when you say only “young, privileged, white men” could possibly think the degrees to which particular groups experience hardships doesn’t matter, you’re being too dismissive of why they feel that way. Maybe if you listened to their reasons for that point of view, you would learn something. I, personally, feel that saying things like, “we have it tougher than you do,” is not offering any solutions to the problem. I think throwing comparisons out the window and working together would actually help make more progress in the long run. To me, that sounds like a logical perspective, not a silly one of white, male privilege. I also don’t like the separation that will inevitably come from gay white men listening to Sierra when she tells them to “stop.” Maybe she needs to open her mind up to the possibility that maybe these gay men aren’t reducing black women to one personality type. Maybe they don’t even think about the skin color of the person acting “sassy.” Maybe they just enjoy their character and don’t see anything else beyond that. I think attitudes like this will only cause more of a divide between people. I don’t see anything wrong with a world where cultures are integrated and shared. I think that’s the world we should be living in. Living in the solution, not the problem. Looking towards the future, not harping on the past. Sure, there will always be some amount of bigotry. Nothing is ever perfect. But we won’t make progress if we encourage this kind of divisiveness. And if that’s an attitude of white male privilege, then so be it.

    1. And to be clear, I’m not saying we should forget the past. I’m saying we shouldn’t allow history to repeat itself. We must learn from the past and move forward.

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