All posts edited by Madeline Ricchiuto.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

NUS Controversy - Clearing the Air (Part 2/2) - "Dear White Gay Men"

This is a continuation from another post, and is meant to address the other 'big issue' that the media has picked up on (read: blowing out of proportion) from the NUS conferences. Because, again, having represented my university at the LGBT+ conference and being the LGBT+ equality representative elect for my SU, I feel that it's important that you- whether you're a student or just a general member of the concerned public- know the facts.

Some background information before we get into the nitty gritty - This motion appeared at both the women's conference and the LGBT+ conference, which shows how important it is to the proposers. The motion is based off of, and includes an excerpt from, Sierra Mannie's essay published in TIME magazine. The motion is titled similar to the essay, "Dear White Gay Men: Stop Appropriating Black Women," it might not be surprising to some people that this had sparked some controversy at the conference (as did the original essay). But it did, ultimately, pass.

The amount of 'outrage' that's been going around is not at all proportional to the conference though. Critics of the motion, overwhelmingly those who are neither black nor women, complain that it stifles people's freedom of expression. Others claim that the motion is making racist assumptions about black women, or that, in fact, it's just historically inaccurate. So why don't we take a look at the actual content of the motion:

I want to make one thing explicitly clear: This motion is not applicable to every white-gay-man. It targets a specific group within that large group, namely those who act in a particular way often associated with black women. You know what I'm talking about, the stereotypical feminine, sassy, gay man who likes to snap his fingers and shake his head, or the typically masculine guys. Specifically, those who use it as a joke. 

And what does it tell these men? The motion recognizes and wants to raise awareness that these men benefit from privilege. Yes you heard me right. Gay, white, cis men are privileged.

Before you go wailing about your personal problems, here's what you need to know about it in a nutshell: Privilege is a term of relativity and by saying that these men (myself included) are privileged I am not taking aware from the very real struggles white gay men face (the closet, femininity, heterosexism, homelessness, etc.). White, gay, cis men as a group are the most represented group out of the LGBT* in the media, in activism, and positions of power.

Dissecting this a little bit at a time, let's look at the criticisms one at a time.

Freedom of expression - Many people are citing the idea that 'we should be able to act how we want!' However, the motion nowhere even implies a ban so where is this idea be coming from? Conference resolves 2 states, "To work in conjunction with NUS LGBT campaign to raise awareness of the issue, to call it out as unacceptable behaviour and, where appropriate, to educate those who perpetuate this behaviour." In what universe is raising awareness, calling out, and educating, taking away freedom of expression? If this is taking away freedom of expression, then every awareness campaign is oppressive.

Assumptions about Black Women - Some have said that this motion is applying a stereotype to black women. Essentially saying #notallblackwomen. And in some way this rings true. Of course not all black women are full of attitude, angry, or move their hands just so. But I think this argument misses the core issue.

To me the motion isn't so much about the motions or the attitude, but about the claiming of black identity. It's when these attitudes are used in a way that is meant to allude to black culture, specifically black women or when it is explicit, by phrases like "I'm a strong, independent, black woman," that are being addressed. Because when you take this identity, mannerisms, and dialect and treat it as nothing more than a skin that can be shed at your whim you diminish the experiences of those for whom it is not an act or pantomime. The irony of this argument lies that while you defend your desire to copy and stereotype black women you have the audacity to claim that recognizing these stereotypes is harmful!

The stereotype of a 'Strong Black Woman'

#NotAllWhiteGayMen - By far the most common argument raised is the 'but not all white gay men do this!' As with any 'not all...' arguments the flaw is that the motion doesn't assume 'all'; it specifies those within the larger group that it is addressing. You don't behave that way? Great! But that doesn't negate that others in our community do, and something needs to be done to address them. Rather than throwing up a wall and trying to exempt yourself, acknowledge the reality that it happens and the role that race and gender play in it's occurrence. Otherwise all you're doing is pointlessly derailing an otherwise potentially helpful conversation.

Rather than saying 'not all white men'  a more productive argument could me made for inclusion of other identities like bi, pan, and asexuals (which has been done). Here there seems to be a legitimate point to make, because men of all sexualities can and do play at being black women too. The motion isn't infallible after-all. Why limit the motion to white gay men? It could be, that because white men make up the majority of the community that their actions are the most harmful, or that they need the most attention. But why limit ourselves? If we can address them all at once we should.

Historical Inaccuracy - The last common response I see are from those who righteously claim that our conferences don't know our history. Allusions are made to the acclaimed documentary Paris is Burning, claiming this is the birthplace of these mannerisms. Now I'm no historian, and so won't get into whether this is accurate or not, but the historical accuracy of the behavior isn't the point.

Ball culture may have bled into the gay community, but in ball culture many in the community had genuine identities with their attitudes, and had desires for their genders to be recognized. That isn't present nowadays. There is a difference between being in a ball where you/your character identify with or play the stereotype, and when you're just drunk and being sassy.

Is the motion perfect by any means? No. It could have been clearer about exactly what circumstances the conference believes constitute appropriation. But the conference felt it was clear and I'm sure it will become even more clear as they fulfill their obligation to raise awareness, call-out, and educate. And, I feel it could have been addressed to more people. Not just white gay men, but men and non-women as a whole. Because appropriating black-ness and/or womanhood is wrong no matter your sexuality or your race. 

Perhaps next year a more comprehensive motion can be introduced; but for now, with their privilege, white gay male voices are the ones that are heard loudest and most often by the community. And this comes with a price. When those voices are used to promote harmful tropes and stereotypes or to claim identities that aren't theirs, those voices can (and do) cause harm. All this motion asks is that you be mindful of how you're acting and be respectful to other people. Remember that when you're speaking against it.

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