A History of Throwing Shade for Black Women and Gay White Men

Sierra Mannie's TIME Magazine piece, "Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture," is a challenge to white gay men to "check their privilege" because their identity is more fluid than other minorities in this country and their usage of language and behavior that is associated often with the cultural expression of black women is offensive.

Mannie wrote:

But here's the shade -- the non-black people who get to enjoy all of the fun things about blackness will never have to experience the ugliness of the black experience, systemic racism and the dangers of simply living while black.

In a rebuttal to Mannie's critique Slate's J. Bryan Lowder argued:

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..."

Both of their arguments make claims on language (shade, reading, tea, slay, etc.) that developed from the gay black ballroom scene in the 1960s.

Shade, if we are returning words and behaviors back to the originators, isn't Mannie or Lowder's to use. Mannie called out white gay men for appropriating black women's language by appropriating language developed by black gay men. And Lowder defends white gay men by wrongly ascribing to gay culture broadly and black female culture singularly words that are rooted in black gay men's resistance to both gay and black culture. These words allowed black gay men to form community when they were trying to escape from the scorn of gay white men, challenge the larger black community's resistance to black gay men's freedom of sexual expression, and survive. These words allowed black gay men to aptly describe their feelings, and themselves, when the language didn't exist because gay, black and mainstream culture was keen on not accepting them. What is often missed is black gay men throw shade because shade was all they had to challenge the stereotypes that were promoted by both gay white men and the straight black community.

I have seen too many times in the LGBTQ friendly Boystown neighborhood of Chicago black gay boys and men who had to leave the black neighborhoods they live in because they weren't allowed to express themselves in them only to show up in Boystown to be harassed by white gay men for expressing their sexuality. I have also seen far too many black gay and transgender youth living on the streets of major American cities. Because they have been rejected by their families and the gay agenda is too concerned with marriage equality to mobilize around issues that disproportionately affect black gay men and boys.

Contrary to popularly held notions of oppression black gay men, white gay men, and black women do not suffer a similar oppression. The histories of oppression for each of these groups are varied and complex. And often black gay men can't see themselves or their contributions when black women and white gay men appropriate their ways of being. No shade, but who do you think taught Beyonce those dance moves?

I assume that Meanie and Lowder both felt that they could use shade and other words developed by black gay men because they had some cultural connection to the words. But they have no more of a connection to the words than does white gay men to language deployed by black women. There is no one to one scale of oppression that allows any group to place a claim on another's culture even if they share aspects of the same identity. I think that's the point that Saturday Night Live missed when they allowed black male comedians to continuously play black females for the better part of the shows 37-year history as if black men and women blackness means the same thing.

I have witnessed white gay men align themselves with black culture in ways that are senselessly offensive. But I have also witnessed black women like Oprah, when she nationalized the "Down Low" without proper context on her daytime talk show; misrepresent black gay men in the name of understanding. And I have also witnessed black gay men portray whiteness in ways that are offensive, despite the fact that white people enjoy unprecedented privilege in this country. And that there is a causal erasure of black contributions to American culture and often white people invent histories to take credit for things they did not discover or produce. And white gay men continue to set the gay rights agenda, and determine what gay equality looks like with little input from the rest of the community. All shade.

The point is, we all can do better at deploying language, style and dance moves that has cultural attachments that are not our own in such a way that it feels inclusive. One way we can as Meanie said, "check our privilege," is by making sure that when we are the appropriators of culture the producers are able to see themselves and that their contributions are valid in our expression of what is not rightfully ours.