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Are White Gay Men Stealing 'Culture' From Black Women?
Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 12:51 pm
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Salon. That's our Beauty Shop-Barbershop hybrid where we mix things up and dig into some pop-culture stories with a diverse panel of men and women. Sitting in the chairs for a fresh cut or a new do, as it were, are Sarah Ventre, senior producer with public radio station KJZZ in Arizona. Bridget Armstrong is one of our TELL ME MORE producers and creator of the pop-culture blog BiggaPicture.com. Trey Graham is a former NPR arts editor and an award-winning theater critic. And Michael Arceneaux is a writer and contributor to Complex.com and Ebony.com. Welcome back to everybody. Thanks for joining us.
SARAH VENTRE: Thanks for having us.
BRIDGET ARMSTRONG, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.
TREY GRAHAM: Thank you.
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: Good to see you.
MARTIN: So let's start with a topic that's getting a lot of traction. Last week, Time published a piece by a young writer named Sierra Mannie called "Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture." In the piece, Mannie argues that some gay, white men have appropriated black, female culture. And she says, quote, "Maybe, for some of you, it’s a presumed mutual appreciation for Beyonce and weaves that has you thinking that I’m going to be amused by you approaching me in your best “Shanequa from around the way” voice. You are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood," unquote. Now, the piece has gotten a lot of support and a lot of pushback. So I just wanted to ask each of you what you think about it. Bridget Armstrong, why don't you start?
ARMSTRONG: Well, I will say I had a few issues with Mannie's original piece. She kind of brought up some things about gay men not being - not having to disclose their sexuality in a way that black women, you know - you see we're black, you can't...I'm not really with that. I think that's kind of an old mindset. But I have a lot of issue with some of the pushback pieces that were basically, you know, saying because they don't like what Mannie had to say, that she is wrong or it doesn't happen to her. And a lot of the people who wrote this - these pieces - weren't people who have to deal with someone coming up saying, hey girl, hey sister, how you doing? - in the kind of Shanequa voice. And until that happens to, and until you're put in a position where someone wants to talk to you about twerking because they've decided oh, you're a black woman - that's what you're about, and so we're going to be best friends. Until you have to respond to that, I don't think you could kind of tear down her argument or her experience or invalidate it because you don't like it.
MARTIN: Trey Graham, what about you? You know, you were actually telling us that this is an old and painful argument. Talk a little bit more about that if you would.
GRAHAM: It is an argument that I've heard a lot over the years. There's a lot of validity to it. And I think you're absolutely right, Bridget, in that until you can acknowledge that this is painful in some ways, you can't get beyond the beginning of the conversation. One of my favorite responses was from Michelle Garcia, who's the - I think the managing editor of The Advocate magazine. And she's black, female, lesbian. And she...
MARTIN: The Advocate being a gay-oriented publication.
GRAHAM: Yes, yes, a gay news magazine. She points out that, you know, between the poles of outsider solidarity, in which, you know, gay men and black women have some experiences of being marginalized in common, even if they're not identical, and on the other end the kind of oppression Olympics, in which people say, no, I have it much worse than you; therefore, you know, you can't talk to me, there's a common - there's a middle ground where, you know, a little mutual support might be welcome.
MARTIN: Was the piece useful in any way, Trey?
GRAHAM: I think it was probably more useful to her original audience in her college newspaper.
MARTIN: Yeah, she's a - I think that was worth mentioning. She's a rising senior.
GRAHAM: She's a college student.
MARTIN: She's a college student at the University of Mississippi...
MARTIN: Majoring in classics and English. I'm quite impressed with that, so I thought I'd mention that. And she's a contributor to the opinion section of the school's student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian. And that's where the article originally appeared. So thanks for pointing that out. But finish your thought.
GRAHAM: I was just going to say that for a younger audience that may be just beginning to grapple with these some of these issues, it's probably a welcome introduction to them. But I've seen a lot of really interesting - I don't want to say pushback, but reply, especially - I have a lot of gay friends who are in interracial relationships, and the conversation on their Facebook pages has been very interesting.
MARTIN: Interesting. All right, maybe we'll have time to hear more about that. Sarah, what do you think? Sarah Ventre?
VENTRE: I guess I thought a lot about the kind of pushback and the kind of responses that she was getting and why they were so strong because I feel like we've seen a lot of opinion pieces like this lately where people have these very strong responses. And, inevitably, some of the responses are, you know, that the person is unjustified in writing it or that it's not happening to them. And so for me, the kind of takeaway was just that, you know, teasing out the practicalities of this are very, very, very complicated.
And it is, I think, very, very hard for a lot of people, particularly in the millennial generation, to recognize what kind of privilege we come to the table with. And so I felt like, as a white person, the takeaway for me was, like, that I need to be constantly challenging myself with my privilege and constantly understand what I am coming to society with an advantage in, that maybe not everybody else is. And I think that that's an inherently uncomfortable thing to do. And it makes you have to step out of yourself a little bit. So I guess, for me, I was thinking a lot about that and where this discomfort lies for a lot of people.
MARTIN: Well, just to go on, the piece isn't just about, like, Beyonce and weaves and, like, assuming that all black women know how to twerk and want to teach you. But it's also about things like, you know...Another paragraph in the piece says, you know, black people can't have anything; any of these things include, but aren't limited to, a general sense of physical safety, comfort with law enforcement, adequate funding and appreciation for black spaces like schools and neighborhoods, appropriate venues for our voices to be heard about criticism of issues without our race going on trial because of it - which was interesting because one of the responders to this piece that's also gotten a lot of attention said, well, a lot of you all do talk like that, which has, I think, set off a lot of people - a lot of people. Michael, what about you? What about you?
ARCENEAUX: I think, honestly, this is one of these situations where I feel like we could have had a really good discussion, but the teacher picked the wrong person in the class, so all hell broke loose. Respectfully, I understand that she's in college, but I felt like that was a deeply flawed piece. And that has to do a little bit with the editing because on one end, she's talking about appropriation and white, gay men allegedly stealing - white, gay men stealing from black females. But there aren't really specific examples. What I took away from the piece was that she has a problem with certain, white men approaching her and being very stereotypical, which - that is a legitimate complaint. And that's something to discuss.
But, you know, as a gay, black man, I see gay, black, male culture being, like, bitten all the time. And I kind of constantly talk about it. But I think, ultimately, the greater point about this whole appropriation argument that keeps going back and forth is that people want to be seen. And in her case, she just typically wants to be respected and, you know, be treated as an individual, which is fine.
You know, 'cause there are some white, gay men who say - I think Perez Hilton said this a couple months ago on Twitter, that he - inside, he is a black woman. And, you know, there are certain, white, gay men that say that. And they think it's cute, but that's, you know, problematic. Particularly, there's a lot of frustration going around just in general, culturally and racially.
But I just felt like it was a deeply flawed piece. And I just wish it kind of would've been tweaked more 'cause I think it's kind of one of those, like, tell them why you're mad, son, sub-genre of online literature now, where people kind of just rant, rant, rant. It doesn't really let you out. It's like, honestly - and there was a Time response piece on there from a white, gay guy who said, white, gay men, as a group, could be the truest friends black women can have in American society. And that literally made me bust out laughing 'cause I'm like, based on what? - because, to be honest, a lot of white, gay men don't include black, gay men. So what makes you think they're - you know, they're going to be even better to you?
And I think in that - in his case, he needs to step out of his bubble. And in her case, I think she just kind of wants, again, to be respected. And there's a way to articulate that. But it just read like she was very angry and just kind of just, like, all over the place. And - I don't know. Ultimately, Time Magazine trolled us because I kept get getting sent every, single article about this.
MARTIN: It trolled...
ARCENEAUX: So mission accomplished.
MARTIN: OK. Now, see, my black women hackles are rising on - she's so angry. Why is she so angry?
ARCENEAUX: What - I mean, she sounds angry in the piece, though.
MARTIN: Anger is a emotion which is permitted. I mean, people are allowed to be angry. I'm sure she...
ARCENEAUX: Oh, I'm angry all the time, but I think, ultimately, you have to articulate your thoughts thoroughly. And I think in that piece - it was very flawed because it's kind of all over the place and didn't really live up to the title or the premise.
MARTIN: OK, well, just very, very briefly - do you think anything useful was accomplished by the piece - by publishing the piece? Did anything interesting or useful come out of that conversation, Michael?
ARCENEAUX: No. I think sometimes just because something makes a lot of noise, it doesn't necessarily deserve that much attention. I mean, I don't want to, like, knock her, but I just think - I kind of wish someone had worked with her little bit more in getting her thoughts out clearer. She has a right to be upset. I'm not trying to play into, like - why are you so mad? But you can tell there was anger in a piece. And only - it just wasn't channel clearly to me.
MARTIN: OK. Well, speaking of - you were saying - you just saying that people just want to be seen. Well, it's kind of an awkward segue to our next subject. But speaking of which - "Holler If You Hear Me," the musical based on the lyrics of Tupac Shakur is closing after just a month. It wasn't seen. Here's a clip if you missed it and if you don't have time to see before its last performance, which is the Sunday.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HOLLER IF YOU HEAR ME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: (As character) Penny would still be over there alive if it weren't for you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) You're right. The system is locked. They got me trapped. My name's here, but this ain't me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (Singing) Once again, it's an all-out scrap.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 4: (Singing) Keep your hands on your gat.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (Singing) And your boy...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 4: (Singing) Watch your back.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (Singing) 'Cause in the alley out in Cali. I tell you. Mess with the best, and the vest wouldn't help you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 4: (Singing) Scream.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (Singing) Holler if you hear me.
MARTIN: All right. Hold - all right. You've got to unpack this for me. So there were high hopes for this production. It was directed by Kenny Leon, who is renowned...
MARTIN: ...For previous productions, including the revival of "A Raisin In The Sun." It stars poet Saul Williams. Producers say, the financial burdens of Broadway are forcing them to shut down. Trey, as our theater critic here, just - thoughts about it?
GRAHAM: There's so much...
MARTIN: It's only the second time there's been a hip-hop-based musical.
GRAHAM: Yeah, surely. Yes. I mean, if you go back to things like "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk" - that was sort of inspired by hip-hop, but, you know, sort of had this overlay of tap on top of it. But these things can be successful. "In The Heights" was a gigantic hit. "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk" was a good show. It ran. It toured.
This is - I think this suffers from a lot of challenges that come from completely different angles, and it was probably snake bit from the start. The producers have no Broadway experience. They came in from Korea and the West Coast. They undercapitalized the show. If the reporting I've heard is correct, they only put up $8 million to keep it going. It was going to take more than that to let the show settle in and find an audience.
I don't know that if it - I don't know that it was right for Broadway yet. You know, a lot of the shows - "Next To Normal," "Strange" start off-Broadway, find their footing - or in the regionals - find their footing, build an audience, build noise around them and then they go to Broadway. This may have been too ambitious.
I think it also might have suffered from the misapprehension that this was a biography of Tupac, which it is not. You were quite precise in saying it was inspired by Tupac's lyrics, not his life. It's a story - its original story about a block and the people who live on it and their ups and downs. And it just - it mines Tupac's lyrics to tell that story.
MARTIN: Michael, you laughed when I mentioned this - when I played the clip. What are you responding to there?
ARCENEAUX: It just sounds so corny. God bless him and bless their hearts. But I just - first, I initially thought it was about Tupac. So I'm like, oh, OK. I might give it a shot. Then I just kept seeing the commercials, and I read more about it. I was like, oh, I don't want see this. I don't - Like, I think in theory, you know, I'm getting older. Everyone - you know, there's already like an older initial hip-hop generation. I think it'd be interesting to see a rap-based Broadway show, but that ain't it. I just - no.
MARTIN: I was wondering why you hadn't seen it because I was wondering if you hadn't. I know you live in New York, so was easier for you than some. And so thanks for mentioning. Bridget, you did see it. Thoughts about this?
ARMSTRONG: I did see the play, and there's a lot of talk about, you know, whether Broadway was ready for hip-hop. It wasn't about hip-hop. It was this play, in particular. It was not well-done. It just wasn't good. A lot of the characters that didn't really ring true.
As Tray said, it was about, you know, the block and the hood and this gangster. And he wants to do better, but the hood won't let him. And in the end, we have to learn this lesson from his life that, you know, the black man has it bad. Like, that was the storyline. It was very flat. It was something you have seen before. None of the characters even felt like they'd been to the hood, let alone, you know, were of the hood.
MARTIN: They went to the Magic Johnson Starbucks in the hood.
MARTIN: Sat there for awhile.
ARMSTRONG: And I think a lot of it is - you know, the play can't be all things to all people. So you have your typical Broadway audience, who may, you know, be - like the kind of corny hip-hop lyrics. And then you have people are really into hip-hop, who are kind of offended. Like, this isn't authentic. What is this music? Why are they in conversation, then bursting into rap songs. It just makes no sense. And so I think you have to pick one. You know, you have the people who are really into hip-hop. Maybe it's geared towards them. Or people who are just Broadway fans who may have an appreciation for it a little bit, and gear it towards them. But it can't be for both, 'cause someone's going to be mad.
MARTIN: Sarah, before we let you, I want to ask you about this, too, because you're one - as a producer, you're one of the folks who has - sometimes it feels - I think I can say this comfortably - you have to fight for respect of the genre even at this late stage, right? And so I'm just curious - what - do you have any thoughts?
VENTRE: The genre of musicals...
MARTIN: Hip-hop - yeah, hip-hop.
VENTRE: Oh, hip-hop.
MARTIN: No, not musicals, hip-hop. Just thought - do you have any brief thoughts about it?
VENTRE: Yeah. My initial thought was if Tupac is dead, he is rolling in his grave.
VENTRE: Like, I was just - so - full disclosure - I am not a fan of musicals in general. It's very, very hard for me to sit down and watch one all the way through. But I guess I just felt like there was - I think what Bridget said makes a lot of sense. I think, you know, if you were going to do this, like - I don't know. I just thought there was nothing worse that you could do to Tupac's music than sterilize it.
And I think Tray mentioned "In The Heights." And I think, from what I understand, one of the things that "In The Heights" was criticized for it was kind of sterilizing the Heights. That it took this very difficult, very complicated, very - neighborhood that was known for violence, and then kind of sterilized it for a Broadway crowd.
And so just - I don't know that you can do that to Tupac and his music. I don't know that you can sterilize the sound and the story, make it generic, throw in a live orchestra and then charge a couple hundred dollars for tickets. Like, it doesn't feel - keeping in line with Tupac's music and message.
MARTIN: Just before we let you go on that, I do have to say, I talked to Lin-Manuel Miranda about "In The Heights" - who is the creator of it - and he was very clear that he grew up in that neighborhood and that people don't spend all day dodging bullets. And his attitude was that we have relationships. We laugh. We have fun. We do other things.
VENTRE: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: So he was very clear that his intention was not to - that he felt there was enough of that and didn't feel like he needed to have more of that. Just to tie a bow on it. Not arguing with you.
VENTRE: That's very fair.
MARTIN: Just adding other information.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, if you are one of the millions of Americans - millions of Americans who've made football the most-watched sport in America, then you will notice a change in the sidelines this year. Fox sports reporter Pam Oliver is being replaced by Erin Andrews. Oliver's going to move to number two announcing team. She'll be off the sidelines completely after this coming season.
She was pretty - she doesn't seem to have been too happy about it, saying, you know - but Fox insisted Oliver will have an expanded role. Now, this has gotten a lot of attention because, you know, Oliver is 53 and African-American. Erin Andrews is white and in her thirties. Sarah, you are saying briefly, if you would, that you're not surprised. You're not a huge sports fan, either, but you weren't surprised. Thoughts about it?
VENTRE: Right. Right. I'm not hugely surprised. I think that it does not take a lot of sports-watching to know that the people who are on TV talking about sports who are women look a very particular way. And often they're very young and often they're white and often they're blonde and often they have big breasts. So I don't - I guess - and I've - I mean, this is a clear double standard, right? Like the men who are reporting on sports do not need to be sort of photogenic or, you know, conventionally good-looking in a way that women do in order to be on TV. So I was not surprised. It seems like obvious ageism slash...
MARTIN: OK. Bridget, final thought. Bridget Armstrong, final thought. You were thinking - you think Black Twitter might be to blame for this. Why?
ARMSTRONG: Black Twitter said, her hair looked like Chewbacca. And now she doesn't have a job, so - (laughing).
GRAHAM: She had one bad hair day, and it made national news.
ARCENEAUX: She had a bad hair life.
MARTIN: Bad hair life. You think that was responsible for this. You think that they took her off-air for her hair?
ARMSTRONG: I don't think Fox News even knows Black Twitter exists. Or Fox Sports knows Black Twitter exists. Michael thinks it's funny.
MARTIN: You think so? Michael, you think so?
ARCENEAUX: I don't know. They don't care about us. I just - I feel bad for her because that's one of those things. Like, you're fixing some - a problem that didn't exist.
MARTIN: Well, she's very talented, and she will be missed. Michael Arceneaux is a writer and contributor to Complex.com and Ebony.com. He was with us from our bureau in New York. Sarah Ventre is senior producer with the public radio station KJZZ in Arizona. She joined us from their studios in Tempe. Bridget Armstrong is a TELL ME MORE producer, creator of the blog BiggaPicture.com. Trey Graham is a former NPR arts editor and award-winning theater critic. They were both with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you.
ARCENEAUX: Thank you.
VENTRE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.