Co-authored by Hashim Khalil Pipkin, writer and educator
As you are well aware, an abundance of chatter has surrounded Sierra Mannie's "Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture" since its republishing on TIME magazine's website earlier this month. Full exposition aside, the article is a poignant indictment of a growing cultural practice of some gay white men flaunting the markers of stereotyped black womanhood. As is the case with any piece of cultural critique available digitally, equally large groves of praise and criticism have attached themselves to Mannie's article at the speed of a mouse-click, yours contributing to the latter. However, your piece of criticism, "'Bye Sierra': A Slightly Angry Queer Response to the Sierra Mannie Controversy," in particular, has managed to misapply the reparative contours of critique and reads, instead, as an attack-oriented defense.
Your entire essay is animated by white privilege and theoretical sloppiness. Your first sentence is indicative of one of the most common ways white privilege goes to work to stall equitable dialogue by your dismissal of your interlocutor's point and your self-righteous confession. You write: "Sierra Mannie, by now we've all read your really quite explosive 'Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture,' and the white gay male blogosphere has given its really kind of inevitable reply: We agree." Anthony, who told you we, meaning any one of us situated outside of the white gay blogosphere, need you to agree with us? True coalition is formed by way of difference and does not require sameness, but only a shared commitment to justice -- especially when those benefitting from the distribution of asymmetrical power (i.e. White men, queer and/or straight) are involved. So, what we need from you is to stop abusing your racial privilege because it works against coalition-building. It also activates the type of hubris among the privileged that keeps them from ever truly taking in critique when it is offered.
But Anthony, your very vapid summary of Mannie's piece aside, we are most concerned about the fundamental contention undergirding your piece. Your argument that Mannie's "valid" point, namely, the truth that some white gay men rely on racist stereotypes dressed up as innocent parody, runs the risk of mimicking oppressive structural violence because of, what according to you, is its "cavalcade of homophobic myths about how the closet works and tired anti-queer sentiments" is wrong. Paragraph-by-paragraph, you accumulate, to borrow your own evaluative term, tired logic shaped by an unresearched and reductionist explanation of black cultural production and a dismissal of black female subjective experiences. And let us tell you how.
In your second paragraph, you minimize Mannie's entire argument to "merely bringing up the issue of appropriation." What you should know however, is that the very title of your piece is an act of appropriating black culture. Your leading title, "Bye Sierra," we're assuming is some riff on the once popular phrase, "Bye Felicia"? If so, many think that "Bye Felicia" originated in gay culture and, as is the case with most of popular gay culture, was arbitrated by gay white men. But what you should realize is that the origin of "Bye Felicia" is found in 1995's Friday, a black cinematic comedy classic. Rafi D'Angelo, creator of SoLetsTalkAbout.com, explains:
"Bye Felicia" is straight from Friday, the scene where Felicia -- the neighborhood crackhead stops by Craig's house while he and Smokey are hanging out on the porch. She asks them if they're smoking so she can get a hit. And then she asks Smokey to borrow his car real quick. The whole exchange ends with "Bye Felicia" and that has been a saying for black folks since the mid-1990s. So can we please give credit where credit is due -- like this just randomly burst forth from the gay consciousness last month.
So here we have you, a gay male, who is presumably not black, importing black culture, ridding it of its genesis in black comedic genius, and using that which is produced to dismiss the insightfulness of a young black woman. Bye, Anthony.
Maybe you are correct that what is active here isn't privilege. It is something much uglier and pernicious than that. This is nothing other than a new iteration of cultural hegemony: alienating black cultural hallmarks -- reservoirs of humor, struggle, and survival -- from their birthplace and manipulating them to rank minority oppression all the while absolving the colonizing hand doing it. Stop it.
You go on to collapse womanhood and femininity and contend that by claiming blackness and womanhood as outside the cultural property of white gay men, as Mannie does, she "de-legitimizes gay men and trans-women." We're not sure if this is attributable to a partial reading of Butler's Gender Trouble or an altogether too general deployment of her theory of performativity. But regardless of the reason for your decision to trace the antecedents of black womanhood to femininity, you are incorrect. There is a long and fraught history energizing the trope of the "strong black woman," which has for better and for worst, become the floodgate into black womanhood in American popular culture. Mannie claims black womanhood. She does not stake her frustrations on femininity. Let's be clear: That is your interpretation.
Quiet as it's kept, black women have been policed out of "feminine culture proper" for decades vis-á-vis their forced manual labor during the era of enslavement. Black women have themselves provided not only labor for American industry, but through rape, often at the hands of white men, the human capital to sustain American industry. But this is not new knowledge. In her seminal work "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," acclaimed black woman scholar Hortense Spillers brilliantly articulates this exact point. Anthony, the ways the black female body has been deprived of femininity even while white men, gay or straight, easily access a range of feminine expressions for capital or social gain is part of a sustained American practice of black women hating or, what queer black scholar Moya Bailey has aptly named misogynoir. And you are continuing it.
Now to your point about the problem with claiming "appropriation" given gay men's contributions to black women's cultural production: Beyoncé, NeNe Leeks, Tyra Banks, and whomever else you name in your article. All of these women have honored the creative drive and spiritual locus of black womanhood located within and among themselves. They exist as cultural producers and influencers -- in spite of the white, black, or brown gay men who choreograph or style for them every now and then. While you attempt to dismiss Sierra's argument regarding appropriation, which was really your way of suggesting that Sierra and other black women don't really own "shit" that others can steal, you certainly have no problem reminding us that if there is "shit" to be stolen that misrepresented gay men, white or otherwise, have played a foundational part in its creation, making it possible. Really? Well, that's very imperialist of you.
And to challenge your prepositional tirade in your 10th paragraph for a moment, your disapproval of Mannie not including "for" in her description of the sexual activity of "bottoming" could actually uphold the vexed power dynamics of top/bottom discourse accounting for much of the sexual stigma and shame in the gay community at-large. If we must grammatically apprehend the rambunctiousness of gay sex, which you try to do, we would argue that articulating bottoming as something done "for" someone is not only framing it as a mode of service "for" the top, but is also straight-up (pardon the pun) phallocentric. So much for debunking the "heterodominant fantasy" you claim Sierra upholds.
And since bell hooks is an interlocutor of yours in this piece, I think it prudent to bring to your attention your flawed analysis of Paris is Burning in your 11th paragraph through her own critique of the film, "Is Paris Burning?" If, as you propose it to be, Paris is Burning is some sort of Holy Grail of black gay cultural production, in the case you raise, black gay colloquialisms, we should be skeptical of the ways it, too, was shape by white appropriation at the hands of its white lesbian director, Jennie Livingston. hooks writes:
To say, as Livingston does, 'I certainly don't have the final word on the black gay experience.' I'd love for a black director to have made this film" is to oversimplify the issue and to absolve her of responsibility and accountability for progressive critical reflection and it implicitly implies that there would be no difference between her work and that of a black director. Underlying this apparently self-effacing comment is cultural arrogance, for she implies not only that she has cornered the market on this subject matter but that being able to make films is a question of personal choice. Her comments are disturbing because they reveal so little awareness of the politics that undergird any commodification of "blackness" in this society.
Paris is Burning cannot be used as evidence against appropriation as you try to make it to be, when itself is a product of black cultural mishandling and white scripting, which turns black gay striving into black gay spectacle for display and consumption. Anthony, for the last time -- stop it.
And after you stop it, take some time to deeply listen and self-reflect, which is a key step any good ally should take when engaging others who call their asses out when privilege runs amok. But you never named yourself an "ally" (at least an anti-racist, black women respecting one) and that is why your critique registers as a defense and not a conversation piece. That is why it fails!
As for your jaded "thanks" offered on behalf of "white gay bloggers" who are thankful for being called out on their racism? Save it. You are not really concerned about racial supremacy. You are most concerned with unpacking your invisible knapsack of privilege in search of oppression receipts that you can slam on the counter. We know, despite your parochial demand for Sierra to repeat, "gay men do not experience patriarchal or white privilege the way gender normative white men do." We should note here that some gay men are, in fact, considered "gender normative" and some black straight women are not, but we digress.
We also know that heterosexism is real and that white gay men, especially gender non-conforming men, experience antagonism, and, yet, we should be clear not to minimize the reality of white patriarchy and the advantages daily afforded to white men, regardless of their sexual identities. Privilege much?