On cultural exchange: Things we learned from our Grandmas

This piece was written in response to another essay entitled: “Culture Shock: How Straight Black Women Steal Black Gay Men’s Slanguage” written by Rashid Darden for the blog Dopalicious District.

In his article, Rashid Darden talks about how it’s inappropriate for straight black women, some of whom are homoantagonistic, to appropriate gay black male culture, drawing from the popular reality show Real Housewives of Atlanta for examples of this behavior. While I don’t watch RHOA, and am therefore unfamiliar with the characters and their respective behaviors and backgrounds, I don’t think that matters here for two reasons. First, the argument that black women (esp. straight ones) are culture jacking black gay men is an old one and predates this ridiculous show. Secondly, I am not here to defend these women or their unacceptable homophobic behavior, but to offer a different perspective about the idea that black women are “stealing” from gay men (or vice versa).

First, let’s just be clear, whatever “straight black women’s culture” is or isn’t, it certainly predates “black gay men’s culture”. Our great grandmothers and great aunts have been beating their faces (or making their faces up) and serving tea (or gossiping)  since before many of us writing these critiques were born. If you have never been inside a black church on a Sunday morning you better ask somebody. In fact, the first person to ever read me was my grandmother about trying to wear a dress with no stockings underneath to church–and she read me for filth. I must have thought I was grown that day. As far as I was concerned, my grandma and her three sisters were the professional-level of black femininity and I studied at their feet most my life, aspiring to be as fly, as witty, and as well-informed on the inner-workings of our shared communities as they were. As a result, most of what I know about throwing shade and serving face I learned from a group of old ladies from Alabama, which brings me to my next point.

Just because you label something, doesn’t mean you get exclusive rights over it. I certainly wouldn’t have said, back in my pre-teen years, that my grandmother was made-up face “painted to the Gods” when she got ready for first Sunday, although she so obviously was. So black gay men do get my kudos for putting words to decade upon decade of black femininity for all of us. However, they do not get to imply that now that we are all using the same words to describe actions and behaviors that have existed long before we have, that they are somehow the creators of this culture. Innovators absolutely, trendsetters even, but certainly not the architects. And that does not even take into consideration the many instances in which there have been a direct, and almost unadulterated exchange of black feminine tropes between straight black women and black gay men. In many cases, like translating the styles of old school soul divas into modern day fashion and hair styling, and using terms of endearment like “sweetie”, “girl”, and “honey/huntie” there hasn’t even been a modification of these terms that would make them specifically black gay male-centric.

However, all of that shared history is really not the crux of this issue. The thing is, all black folks, whether they be straight women, gay men or any other categorization, deserve to have access to revere and express black femininity and because we are raised together, our access points to it are pretty much the same. For most of us, regardless of if you were raised male or female, our black female elders are the first people who teach us what it is to be black and feminine at the same time. We will spend our lives adopting and exchanging these behaviors because it is our shared culture that they come from and because black women don’t own black femininity anymore than black men own black masculinity. While Rashid Darden’s critique of some black straight (cis)women’s homophobia against black gay (cis)men is legitimate and I don’t to minimize that, it has definite parallels to the misogyny that those same black women face from both gay and straight men, and it is coming from the same place, namely the internalized hatred of the black femininity both groups share.

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