I am indebted to a friend who showed me a debate ignited by an article from the University of Mississippi student press, The Daily Mississippian, about the appropriation (versus appreciation) of black womanhood by white gay men. The student, Sierra Mannie, had her article republished in Time Magazine and has since attracted a great deal of controversy.The Huffington Post responded with a scathing editorial by a doctoral student criticizing Mannie for her:
“Heterodominant feminist fantasy of owning “womanhood” is not the reality of queer people or feminine men. Femininity is theirs also and it is not for you to allow or deny their gender expression.”
The response to Mannie’s editorial essentially circumscribes her blackness as acceptable to criticize the LGBTQ community for appropriating, but then draws a battle line at femininity, as though femininity were a commodity to be negotiated. The argument draws up around the construct of the image of “black womanhood” and who deserves credit for such an image. Beyonce is a central example in the debate: has her image as a strong black women been crafted by what mixture of black women and gay men?
Hold on a minute. Has this sophisticated intellectual debate about the boundaries of identity founded on a debate over cultural figures? Did the Huffington Post author identify black womanhood as a reason for Mannie to “check [her] own privilege?” A major distinction must be made between marginalization and systematic oppression. All groups lacking privilege or dominant status have been marginalized, isolated and psychologically damaged by society. Yes, the LGBTQ community has instances such as the story of Joel Burns, the killing of Matthew Shepard and hate crimes committed out of homophobia and gender normative fear. But gender-normative black womanhood is very different than gender-normative white womanhood. Why? Read this passage from At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire:
“As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity. White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gun-point while traveling to or from home, work or church… humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxi cabs and trains, and other public spaces.”
If anything, the nature of black womanhood is as complicated and subtle than differences in gender identity. Those who remember reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston in high school will recall colorism among women, and the brutal subtext of colorism as the sign of the mixing of races despite official laws preventing miscegenation. Black women have faced a struggle for their womanhood and identity that hardly makes the intersection of blackness and womanhood a cause for privilege. Black women were the currency of Jim Crow itself.
But do I make this point to pigeonhole the writer of the Huffington Post rebuttal? Not at all. Rather, I suggest a third course which puts the debate on the same terms. I would infer that the University of Mississippi student argues from a perspective of economic and social oppression and liberation, while the LGBTQ writer argues from a position of gaining social understanding, normalization and ending the psychological oppression of being outside traditional gender boundaries. What they are actually debating is who possesses which social narratives of oppressed groups. Only then does the path forward start to make sense.
The media reflects our understanding of the world, and co-creates it through tropes and narratives, while theorists describe our current postmodern society as “mediated by images.” Representations and reflections of these groups in the media are as frequently stereotyped as they are celebrated, without attention to whether or not the target is black, gay, or any other category. So long as racist and gender-normative views in the media reinforce the position of the powerful, then black women and the LGBTQ community fighting over cultural recognition will analogous to fighting over scraps from the table of social narratives.
The real “appropriation” of culture is happening whenever a sound bite about American purity or exceptionalism reinforces the powerful Anglo-Saxon, Christian ethos which rose to power in the United States during its history. That is the narrative which ALL oppressed groups must push back to find space to grow into the fullness of their identity, human rights and God-given callings.
Oppression and power still sit at too many seats in American society, and only once everyone has a seat at the table should we decide how to split the food.