Dear Sierra Mannie: #NotAllGayWhiteMen #NotAllBlackWomen

untrope smallI read Sierra Mannie’s “Dear White Gays” article and felt my face getting hot.  A lump formed in my throat, and my breath became quick and short.   It took a moment to find the root of that pain.  I finally realized it all stemmed back to a moment in my own childhood: the moment that I realized that I was black.  That revelation didn’t come from starring into a mirror or looking at a photograph.  It happened at school when someone informed me that I wasn’t white.

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, but my actions led some presumptuous person in my class to announce boldly, “Why are you doing [that], you’re not white.  Until that moment I’d had no idea that being black meant that there were books I was forbidden to read publicly and songs that I just was not “allowed” to dance to.  I didn’t know that being black meant it was my responsibility to conform to someone else’s vision of blackness.  Personality, interests, and tastes aside, I learned that being black meant that I had to learn to act, speak, and behave like a black person.  The truth is that I still don’t quite know what that means.  I do know that attacking someone’s identity because it’s disruptive to your own narrow views is wrong.

When I read Sierra’s article all of those old feelings came raining down—the soggy condemnation of my own personhood.  I am a black woman. I don’t care for Beyonce’s music, I only speak with a folksy “black” accent when code-switching (a learned behavior), and I can’t quote Madea.  So, when a white person, gay or straight, does these things I don’t internalize those actions as ownership of my black womanhood.  Those things don’t comprise my blackness, and are not part of my identity.  My name is Jennifer, a name of Welsh origin, and if anyone ever asked why my name isn’t “Keisha” I’d call them a racist (and I hope you would too).

I’ve read this article several times and while the author makes some good points, that I empathize with, those points are undermined by some pretty blatantly racist remarks. Telling someone outright that they can’t do “black things” is counterproductive.  Appropriation of culture is not the same as institutionalized racism.  Furthermore, one person’s contempt for a marginalized segment of white culture (White Gays? really, not White Gay Men?!?) is not a battle cry to the black masses.

(I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.)

The Article

While protection of voting rights, confidence in the rule of law, and the legitimacy of black arguments about race are all pressing issues, the rest of this particular paragraph is hate-blind racist banter that undermines the cause:

“Black people can’t have anything.” (Oh, I get the joke, and am not amused)

–If a white person said this, you’d call them a racist.

“[black people can’t have] black spaces like schools and neighborhoods”

–I don’t want to live in an all black neighborhood or go to an all black school?  I thought we were past segregation, apparently self-segregation doesn’t count?

And so on.

Culture

Culture is dialectical.  As an artist I take issue with this protectionist view of our “extracurricular activities”:

And then, when you thought this pillaging couldn’t get any worse, extracurricular black activities get snatched up, too: our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, our hairstyles. All of these things are rounded up, whitewashed and repackaged for your consumption.”

Blackface and Indian headdresses aside, if everyone in this nation took offense when someone else used “their” words, or dressed in a style representative of their race, this place would be a living hell? Rev. Run wouldn’t have been able to wear is iconic Jewish hat, the Tavares would have never covered Hall & Oates, and the world would be bereft the genius of Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Again with the taking of the crazy pills?!?!

If anything, the [loving] appropriation of culture is better than treating the other, the outsider, the minority, as exotic and unwelcome?  I am not a walking Black museum of gestures, twerks, and jive talk, wearing this blackness like plumage for others to gawk at.  I am a human being who wants to interact with the world.  While the white gaze is a problem sometimes, a “look, but don’t touch” approach to blackness is not the solution either.  If someone offends you with their behavior, express that discomfort directly to them.  Chances are, they are not an ambassador for their race/sexual orientation (since we’re on the subject) either.

Example I:

Non Black Person [Possibly a gay person]: Hey Naynay, girl, what’s crackalackin’ my sista?

Black Person:  Hi, [Name], I’m doing great?  Are you talking like that because that’s who you are, or because you think that’s who I am?  I have to admit, it’s making me a little uncomfortable.

…[open dialog]

Example II:

Black Person: Oy, that was quite the schlep we just made, huh?

Non-Black Person [possibly Jewish]:  It’s weird that you use so many Yiddish words, what’s your deal?

Black Person: I grew up around a lot of Jewish people, this is just who I am now [shrug]

Example II (Alternate Version):

Black Person: Oy, that was quite the schlep we just made, huh?

Non-Black Person [possibly Jewish]:  It’s weird that you use so many Yiddish words, what’s your deal?

Black Person: I am a black Jew, my last name’s Cohen

(mind-blown.gif)

I have little to say about Sierra’s assertion that America “operates on systems of racism in which we all participate, whether consciously or unconsciously, to our benefit or to our detriment…”  There is nothing more American than racism. I will say that experiencing it is not a green card to say and do racist things to other people. Being maligned for your sexual preference is also a struggle (btw).  It’s not the same struggle, but it certainly cuts to the core of who we are as human beings, the prevailing historical notion being that it is our duty as humans to reproduce.

Contradictions & Conclusion

“…non-black people…get to enjoy all of the fun things about blackness [but] never have to experience the ugliness of the black experience, systemic racism and the dangers of simply living while black.

It baffles me that the author could have such a protectionist view of “stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures.”  If any race/group of people want Madea, they can take her—damn that cooning clown right to the devil.  That is not who I am as a black woman, and I sincerely hope that it’s not who you are either.  While it’s easy to see that non-blacks throwing on the cloak of blackness for shits and giggles is offensive, it’s equally deplorable to condemn people for being who they are.

#NotAllGayPeople act black as an act of cultural warfare. Our quest for personal meaning in our lives begins with empathy.  Humans have survived as species because of our ability to empathize and emulate one another. Those skills and that desire to connect are bigger than race or gender.  While I understand Mannie’s outrage, I can’t condone her incendiary (ironically hyperbolic?) approach to dealing with her feelings on the subject of race and womanhood.

In the womb we are people, and when we die we become dust, everything in between is just peanuts.  If the aim of articles like these is to foster genuine, open discussions about race, I hope we are all taking up that yoke in real-life through acts of micro-activism (see examples above).  The truth of the black female experience begins with the constant assertion of real personhood, and not the protection of tired cultural memes.

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28 thoughts on “Dear Sierra Mannie: #NotAllGayWhiteMen #NotAllBlackWomen

  1. I had a similar, yet different, reaction to this article, and wrote my own open letter to Ms. Mannie – I, however, am not a blogger by any means (I tend to only write when I find myself incensed somehow), and so I merely posted it to Facebook (you can find it here if you’d like to read it: https://www.facebook.com/nkovrig/posts/829742368880).

    I readily admit that not everyone necessarily will see the situation the same way I did, but it is in the differences that we find true beauty and fullness of expression, n’est-ce pas?

    As a gay man, I appreciate your point of view, and thank you for it, deeply.

    • Hi Neill,

      Thanks so much! Yeah, I think one of the most challenging things about this article, is the fact the author conflates a number of very different issues (identity, race, oppression, and white privilege). More accurately, she uses race, identity, and oppression, to attack a marginalized group for her perception of their collective identity. It’s a tough subject, but “check your self-righteous indignation” is definitely an appropriate rebuke.

      It’s difficult not to get upset about injustice, especially when it’s happening to you, but you can’t fight hate with hate, you just create more anger and confusion. That’s what I feel this article does.

      Thanks so much for reaching out…I very much appreciate it (h/t)

      of

  2. John says:

    This misses so many important points, it’s hard to read. All of these things you claim to be not an essential part of the African American experience (Madea, speaking loudly, etc) are not what the author claims to be essentially black womanhood, but rather caricatures that are often portrayed by white gay men. Truthfully, white gay men have an entirely different set of struggles than black women do, and their issues share little interface. Additionally, your rejection of the idea of “black culture” based on nothing more than the desires of some to not participate it is just a whole other disaster of of historic inaccuracy. Is it homogenized? No. And over time it will be less and less so, because African Americans have more-or-less found a niche and/or assimilated into every economic class. That doesn’t negate the fact that, as an African American, whether you defy or define every stereotype in the books, there are places in America where you aren’t welcome, there are widespread ideas that discount your humanity, and there are powerful people who are against you, whether your name is Jennifer, John, or J’meka. These barriers, to a degree, incubate a culture that is differentiated from the culture white gay men experience. The fact that you went so long without realizing you were black and then only realized it as an absence of whiteness should indicate something, but maybe with time and wisdom you’ll come to digest the significance of that information.

    • 1. If they are “caricatures that are often portrayed by white gay men” and not an essential part of black womanhood, it wouldn’t matter, right? She leverages these tropes when setting up her argument. (and no one said anything about speaking loudly, I am not sure any race could lay claim to the volume with which people speak).

      2. “Truthfully, white gay men have an entirely different set of struggles than black women do” I am not sure this is true? EVERYONE you meet is fighting in his/her own personal battle, and in that we are ALL connected. Moreover, in the venndiagram of the argument you’re making, you and I (and Sierra) only share half a struggle, and you share half a struggle with gay men. That’s the problem with segmenting people based on the outward, you feel me?

      3. I don’t know what “participation in black culture” means? And no, I don’t assert that culture is homogenized? Culture is a noun, and even when you apply an adjective like “black” it’s still singular…and so on…

      4. “And over time it will be less and less so, because African Americans have more-or-less found a niche and/or assimilated into every economic class.” Again with the conflation of race and economic class, while there are comorbidities, they are not synonyms.

      5. Semantics: When I write about Black culture, I define it as the collective experience (singular) of black people, in the US, specifically, and the frequency of empirically observed phenomena and behaviors. This includes commonalities in the music, art, food, written word, language, and customs of black Americans.

      6. Racism: “there are places in America where you aren’t welcome, there are widespread ideas that discount your humanity, and there are powerful people who are against you, whether your name is Jennifer, John, or J’meka” You are describing racisim in this sentence, and not white privilege (which is the subject of Sierra’s post). Conflating the two undermines the cause. White privilege is an externality of institutional racism, it is not overt act.

      7. “The fact that you went so long without realizing you were black and then only realized it as an absence of whiteness” I went so long with out realizing I was black because I was a child and didn’t think their were differences between people (period). If I were to add to that statement, I’d say that I also didn’t know that there were things that were only for white people, or Asians, or Latinos. That sentence is about learned “racism” and internalizing racism, you dig?

      I didn’t say this earlier, but thank you for your post John, diversity of opinion is always welcome! ;)

  3. Lisa Norris Traugott says:

    Jen, it’s such a privilege to have had you as a student, and to watch you, albeit through cyberspace, over the years. What you’ve written here is so eloquent and full of wisdom. Although I’m sorry for your pain, perhaps it’s that hurt that has enabled you to be so clear about understanding who you are, and to have the strength to hold to it, and best of all, articulate it so beautifully. And in the end, you cut to the essential perfectly – that we are all human, become dust, and all that really matters is empathy. Thank you so much for writing this. Big hug!

  4. ron says:

    Always such a pleasure to read something so well thought out. Even better is to read something that put into words what I’d been unable to articulate myself. You beautifully reached the core point of what was wrong with her rant. If we are to get past racism and bigotry, I think your approach is the way forward. It emphasizes our common humanity, not our disparate races/identities/orientations. We should always try to understand the other person’s point of view to the best of our ability .

  5. joseph miceli says:

    Thank you for a very insightful and well done article. I would point out this woman’s homophobia as well. “(O)r for which black male you’ve been bottoming” is so loaded with spite and contempt that it completely invalidates anything else she has to say. Frankly, how does she know that black males don’t bottom? Why is bottoming intrinsically bad and worthy of censure? This woman has thrown a verbal bomb for the purpose of throwing a bomb. Contemptible indeed.

    • Steph says:

      That sentence really, really bothered me too. There are so many hateful, offensive ideas packed into that one little phrase:
      -All white gay men are bottoms.
      -All black gay men are tops.
      -Bottoming is worthy of contempt and somehow worse than topping (probably because it’s seen as “gayer”/more submissive by ignorant people).
      -White gay men only care about black men as sexual partners/toys, not romantic partners. And apparently black gay men are totally fine playing along with this.

      The sad thing is that Sierra could have made some excellent points, if it wasn’t so wrapped up in thinly veiled homophobia and the use of the exact same kinds of stereotypes she’s trying to vilify all “white gays” for.

  6. Brilliantly and eloquently said, Jennifer. I wish I could have said the same for my own reaction, but I haven’t gotten my anger down to a manageable level yet. I will leave it at that, except to say that I’m very grateful to an acquaintance who shared the link to your writing. Consider me a fan and follower from this day forth!

  7. Bill says:

    Very well said. Unfortunately, leaving replies on her article aren’t an option. Perhaps The Daily Mississippi should change that. It’s important to hear from the readers.

    You reply is very eloquently said and right to the truth.

    I emailed her/Daily Mississippi the following:
    You and your article on gay white men is so ignorant and homophobic! It would be just as ignorant if I said black women should stop stealing shady one liners from gay men.
    Shame on you. Your article is disgusting and perpetuates the hate lines that are already drawn between people and their cultural differences.
    I doubt any white gay man will be imitating your ignorant ass!

  8. J.W. Swift says:

    A couple of points that also came to mind from reading the above and the original article:
    1.) It’s pretty presumptuous to assume someone else’s intent if you haven’t had the opportunity to ask them. I prefer to give people the benefit of a doubt whenever possible. Ms. Mannie seems to believe she knows the intent of the people she scorns.
    2.) I’ve seen a few videos of people, usually young gay men, acting in the manner described in the article, yet they’ve often seemed to me to be as much an homage to a strong minority (both black and female) character rather than a caricature. What’s the old cliche, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?”

  9. David Milley says:

    Lovely writing from an honest heart. Your response to that careless and cruel article is thoughtful, eloquent, original, inclusive, and healing. I’m looking forward to to hearing more of what you have to say — yours is a blog I will read. Thank you.

  10. “Humans have survived as species because of our ability to empathize and emulate one another. Those skills and that desire to connect are bigger than race or gender.”

    “In the womb we are people, and when we die we become dust, everything in between is just peanuts.”

    Damn straight and well said.

  11. I am so glad I found your reply. I saw Ms. Mannie on CNN, and she seemed smug. I don’t know if that’s because she personally felt attacked, but her attitude is what is wrong with the world. Especially America. No one can lay claim to any particular aspect of culture. We all borrow and steal words and mannerisms. It is why, as you rightly pointed out, we are a melting pot.

  12. I just found it strange that she had another post about a straight white male athlete wearing dreads and how wrong that was, & then having a picture on her facebook of Anderson Cooper and saying how hot he was. Could she possibly have a thing for white men and believes she can not attract one and that is where her anger stems from ?

  13. emjayay says:

    Excellent post – you are not so much art person but thoughtful writer person, but the format of this blog is HORRIBLE. Giant type size and a quarter of the screen taken up by a two inch wide stripe across the top. FIX IT!

  14. Stefan says:

    My closest friend in college was gay and black. We were both in the same scholarship program and had to do a bunch of forced socializing the first few weeks, and eventually we both figured out we liked hanging out, and pretty soon after that we both liked boys. On the surface we were about as opposite as two people could be, or at least our other friends would often see it that way and point it out. Beyond the obvious difference in race, I was from Michigan, he was from Arkansas. I was Catholic, he was Baptist. I was majoring in music, he studied chemistry. I hated spicy food and roller coasters and horror films and rap music. He hated dancing and cooking and doing anything in nature. We both loved sports but sucked at them. I don’t know if the list of things one of us loved and the other found boring or awful were things that made us white or black, and neither of us cared. He came out our sophomore year. I chickened out (another way we were opposite, I guess). It wasn’t easy with his family or people who were once his friends. It inspired me but also scared me. I asked him why he didn’t wait, because–to paraphrase my younger, dumber self–“it’s gotta be hard enough being black, at least you can act straight until you’re living somewhere better.” His response, which I never forgot: “I’m tired of being owned by this” (gesturing to his body). He told me about trying to act less black around some of my friends, and trying to act more black around some of his friends, and trying to be straight for everybody, and even trying to be more gay around the friends of the guy he was secretly dating before coming out. When I read Sierra Mannie’s article all I could think of is how damaging identity policing and stereotyping can be, and how disappointing it is to see such sentiment gain such a high profile. Thankfully responses like yours are around to balance it.

  15. I really appreciate this perspective from an African-American female. You raise very well thought out points. The only thing I would add is how offensive it is that, of all of the people and racist behaviors a black woman in MISSISSIPPI could have found to rant about, she chose to single out another oppressed minority. Gay people are still legally, culturally and religiously oppressed in this country and around the world; even white, male ones. They are particularly oppressed in Ms. Mannies’ own backyard of Mississippi where, in 2014, the state passed an anti-gay law that harks back to Jim Crow. I’m a native of Oxford, Mississippi and I am intimately familiar with the deeply ingrained cultural and institutional racism that is STILL pervasive there. I also acknowledge that white privilege is still a major problem from sea to shining sea in this country. It’s a problem that needs to be called out loud and clear by every fair minded American. However, I can assure Ms. Mannie that white, gay men are the very last people she should be angry at and distrustful of; particularly in Mississippi where most gay men are still deathly afraid to come out. When they do, because there are so few other gay men to bond with, I don’t doubt that many look for, and find, commonality and comradeship with black women. If they cross a line of appropriateness with Ms. Mannie then she should share her concerns with them directly. Maybe such a personal conversation would allow all involved to love, appreciate, understand, accept and ally with each other in our common fight for justice.

  16. Christopher says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Your eloquence is quite beautiful, endearing and witty; putting together my exact thoughts, if only I were as articulate and possessed a broader vocabulary. I have to rely on my trusty thesaurus.

    Your article was like a floating, effortless grand jeté forward whereas, Mannie’s op-ed was akin to ten flat footed stomps backwards, all stubborn indignation. The power of words, depending on how we use them, will always impact our direction.

    There’s something very specific in Mannie’s article which speaks volumes about her own personal demons; her need to call out one particular race, “Dear WHITE Gays.” Is she asking us to believe that only White Gays (men and women?) are guilty of this “appropriation of black female culture” and Asian and Hispanic Gays never dabble in the quoting of Madea and are innocent when it comes to wildly twerking at the drop of a hat? Or, is she telling White Gays that they and they alone are not allowed?

    Ultimately, I believe there’s a deep and seething contempt for White people (I don’t see this as an issue of homophobia) that Mannie is allowing to fester within her soul. I hope she explores these feelings and finds a way to release them as they will only serve as personal roadblocks in her life journey.

  17. GREAT ARTICLE. I think the diff between the two authors may be the artistic aspect. People who create and enjoy art of any kind realize how problematic the idea of cultural appropriation really is. The concept “Cultural Appropriation” is not a friend of the Arts. And that is the ONE thing that truly can be shared equally among us all.

  18. The Alchemist says:

    I see the white gay men love your article. I’m not surprised. Enjoy the rewards that come with colorblind post-racialism. You never used the terms “white supremacy” or “anti-blackness”. Why not?

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