The Myth of the “Natural” Ally: Why “Because Homophobia” Isn’t an Answer
This was originally published in Black Girl Dangerous on September 18, 2014
I know more than one queer person of color who has been devastated to the core to learn that a queer white person—one she hoped and mistakenly assumed would be an ally in the struggle—neither “got it” nor cared to “get it” when it came to racism and white privilege (privilege: unearned access to a bunch of good stuff and an arbitrarily granted protection from a bunch of bad stuff). I, for one, have never made this assumption of who might be an ally simply based on their own membership in an oppressed group. There’s no such thing as a “natural” ally, and here’s why:
Folks get called out on their biases all of the time. A common reaction is just straight-up defensiveness and denial. “You’re taking my words out of context!” is the boilerplate response that often comes from straight, white, middle class, cisgender men. But a funny thing happens when the people getting taken to task identify with an oppressed group themselves. Instead of just declaring that they weren’t being biased, many of these folks proclaim that they can’t be biased. They use their membership in a community that collectively suffers inequality as a shield to deflect even the possibility that they might have biases of their own. The common denominator: no matter who you are, acknowledging that you might benefit from or play a role in the oppression of others is a really bitter pill to swallow. We will grab on to anything and everything at our disposal to prove that we don’t occupy that space because it’s easier than the alternative.
One example of this—the “I’m gay, so I can’t be insensitive” defense—hit the Internet earlier this summer. Sierra Mannie published a piece at Time.com that challenged the ways popular gay white male culture reduces Black female culture to a handful of phrases and neck rolls and then appropriates that reduction. A digital shit storm ensued. Steve Friess responded, also at Time.com, with “White gay men as a group could be the truest friends black women can have in American society,” and at Thoughtcatalog.com, H. Alan Scott wrote sarcastically about white gay men, “They’ve never, ever been murdered for being gay, or denied housing, or medical care”—presumably to tear down the claims made by Mannie. In one swoop, these white male authors point to their own suffering as the foundation of what should be some natural kinship between gay white men and Black women and use that suffering to dismiss Mannie’s claims of the fact and the harm of cultural appropriation.
There’s more. During a visit to the old Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn—where the sugar sculpture “A Subtlety” was on display—white, queer comedian Lea DeLaria posted a photo of herself posing between the breasts of the Sphinx-like image with the caption “Sugar Tits.” Given that Professor Kara Walker’s larger-than-life sculpture symbolizes the brutality upon which the sugar empire was built and centuries of the violent sexualization of Black women, it comes as no surprise that many of DeLaria’s Instagram followers called her out and suggested that she may have missed the point. Some even dared to say that her actions contributed to a painful history and practice of Black female sexualization. DeLaria’s reaction to her critics: “IT IS ALWAYS A FEMINIST STATEMENT WHEN A LESBIAN EXPRESSES HER SEXUALITY. PERIOD. And being an “artist” myself I shall express that ANYWHERE I CAN.” In an essay in Medium.com, Emma Shakarshy and Cordelia Nailong brilliantly expose DeLaria’s self-righteousness for what it is:
"You can see [DeLaria’s] disrespect both in her lack of engagement with the meanings of Kara Walker’s art and in her defensive insistence that her oppression as a lesbian trumps any other oppression. Her sexualizing gaze makes it clear that no matter the context, DeLaria has the right to consume. That entitlement disguised as sexual liberation is white supremacy."
What DeLaria did is nothing new. She used the privilege afforded her by her membership in dominant groups to dehumanize Black women, then she justified her statement by asserting her identity as a member of oppressed groups.
What these examples of action and reaction do is challenge the very idea of “natural kinship” suggested above by Friess. They show us that being queer neither excludes people from the benefits of white privilege nor prevents them from inflicting racist harm on others. Instead of acknowledging their privilege and using it to support an anti-racist movement, many white queer folks simply deny its existence and dismiss as impossible the idea that they may actually contribute to others’ oppression.
When we talk about allies, what does it mean that queer white people are no more likely to acknowledge their white privilege or any less likely to use that privilege in ways that (at best) trivialize and (at worst) subjugate people of color, than straight white people? Well, it means that many people of color believe that, as Professor Toni Morrison states, in the “final analysis…if the trucks pass and they have to make a choice, they’ll put me on that truck.” The insult to the injury is that it often appears that many believe that their queer identities give them full license to wield this privilege and that if others are offended by their actions, then they’re just being sensitive.
And the “queerness and racism” dynamic is just one part of this “natural kinship” mythology that is important in the conversation about justice and allies. Staying on the queerness tip, being gay also doesn’t strip away cis-gender privilege or make one “naturally” less transphobic. Similarly, one’s experience as a person of color doesn’t make one “naturally” aware of the aggression of misogyny or shut one out of the halls of male privilege. Firsthand knowledge of sexism’s double standards doesn’t “naturally” give anyone insight into poverty or an immigrant experience, and it doesn’t exclude folks from the benefits of middle class or native-born status. The list goes on.
So when Mr. Friess talks about white gay men being the truest friends Black women could have, he needs to understand one thing about true allies: It is not our experience of one type of marginalization that makes us allies of other marginalized people. It is our recognition of someone else’s struggle, the acknowledgement of the role we play in their oppression, and the work we do toward liberation that makes us allies. I’m not saying that alliances can’t be made across groups who are marginalized in different ways. In fact, when we’re able to at once recognize the spaces of power we occupy and draw upon our own oppressions, we can be really powerful allies. I am, however, saying that there’s nothing natural about those alliances. Acknowledging privilege is hard no matter who you are. To those seeking to be true allies, just know that the acknowledgment of privilege in no way diminishes your own experiences of pain and suffering. And, to those looking for an ally, know that evidence, not identity, will be the best indicator of who’s got your back.