In the name of an open dialogue on race, two sides of a divisive opinion try to come together in an online chat
Last month, Time.com posted a piece, “Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away,” by regular contributor Steve Friess responding to University of Mississippi student Sierra Mannie’s op-ed, “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture,” also published on Time.com.
The reaction to both pieces was explosive, proving how large the racial divide remains in America and how different the perspectives are of even well-intended people of both sides.
After engaging with his dissenters, Friess asked one of the women with whom he exchanged emails to have an on-the-record chat, in the name of an “open dialogue about race.” Courtney Jones-Stevens, a 26-year-old who recently earned a master’s degree in college student affairs administration from the University of Georgia.
Their conversation has been edited for space and approved by both parties.
* * *
SF: Good afternoon, Courtney. How are you?
CJS: I’m not feeling especially peaceful today in general considering what all has transpired in Missouri, but I’m ready for some insightful discourse.
SF: So is this a good time to have a dialogue on race relations in America?
CJS: It’s a good time for white allies to get into white communities and do some educating.
SF: Well, that’s a good segue to why we’re talking in the first place. I wrote a piece that I had hoped was a way of describing the commonalities between white gay men and black women and why we ought to be allies. I felt the original writer, Sierra Mannie, singled out a pretty small group of people—white gay men maybe make up one percent of all non-black people— for ridicule and attack.
SF: Please tell me as best you can what you found wrong about what I said.
CJS: I know the title set the tone as directive and patronizing.
SF: I agree the headline was specifically problematic. It was, however, written as a parallel to the title of Mannie’s piece. Do you see the reverse problem of tone and disrespect?
CJS: I do empathize. I can see parallels in the casting out of gay White men and Black women. But for many Black women, race and gender exists in a strange space. What resonated from Mannie’s piece was that, although you may not be one of them, there are plenty of gay White men who at least make attempts to emulate Black women. You felt she was speaking to you even though you say you aren’t one of those men, and that speaks volumes to how privilege works.
SF: The discussion of privilege is frustrating because black people don’t want their world views, worth or ideas boiled down or dismissed based on their color. Yes, I’m white. And male. And gay. And disabled. And Jewish. Why does my perspective become invalid because of some of my traits?
CJS: Not invalid, but you can never understand what it is to be Black in America, to be forever objectified and subjugated. Mannie didn’t come from a place of disdain but exhaustion. I cannot tell you how many experiences I’ve had with microaggressions, with decent white folks who assume things about me and approach me or respond to me accordingly.
SF: You say many white gay guys emulate black women. I don’t believe there are so many, but if there are some, so what? Anyone admiring and celebrating black female culture would seem like people who are not out to harm you.
CJS: Steve, if someone says, “X is offensive and it’s not taken as you might have intended,” and your objective is to forge an alliance, your respond cannot be, “So what?” Do you know how many times I get “Whaddup sistah girl?!” and my white counterparts get a simple, “Hello.” Or how many times I’ve been asked to teach someone how to twerk. It’s just exhausting. This is from white gay men in the work place, in bars and clubs, etc.
SF: You must understand that that sounds completely bizarre and alien to me. And most gay white men I know.
CJS: Maybe it’s regional. I doubt it is. In the South, using blackness and being adjacent to black things is a cash cow.
SF: Do white straight men do this?
CJS: Absolutely. Although from straight white men, it’s more of a sexual objectification and fetishizing.
SF: So it’s a white male thing. Why isolate a very small portion of white men, the gays, for attack? Mannie accuses white gay men who “act” too black-female of being cultural thieves.
CJS: Mannie called out some folks who’ve flown under the radar.
SF: So the sense is there’s been enough written about racist behavior coming from the white world in general and that her piece was about a subset, white gays, who hadn’t been called out?
CJS: Right. The racism that’s rampant in the LGBT community and the cultural appropriation that happens in that community goes unnoticed. Nobody has a problem with gays doing the “Single Ladies” choreography in the club with each other, but there comes a point where we enter territory in which we don’t belong.
SF: One of the great ironies is that I’ve been shopping an essay for more than a year in which I react to Andrew Sullivan and others who are just stunned—stunned— by the head-spinning advances toward gay acceptance. It’s really easy and obvious; white men and women have been so involved. Whites came while having been embedded or secretly on the inside of America’s levers of power. Look at the gay movement through the lens of privilege and it’s pretty easy to see why it has been so successful so fast.
CJS: Okay. This is good. As awful as it is to hide parts of your identity, gays can and have. And to climb to a position of power with whiteness and then come out, I can’t describe it, but I don’t have the luxury of doing it. Who I am, what people think about who I am, and how people treat me on a daily basis is always visible. And that’s what’s so disturbing about folks from all walks of life who pick parts of who I am to use for their own amusement or advancement and tuck those things away when they no longer need them.
SF: Are we trying to determine whose historic burden has been worse? Because going the first 20 years or so of your life in a family that might reject you like a foreign organ is not a way to prepare anyone for a happy life.
CJS: No. I don’t play that game.
SF: But aren’t we? When you or Mannie want to describe why being closeted and fearing everything dear to you could be ruined or taken from you if your identity is known is someone a luxury?
CJS: It would be a luxury to be seen as something other than my color and gender at the outset of every interaction.
SF: For most of my life, I wore gigantic hearing aids. People always treated me as though I was mentally impaired until they got to know me. Anyone with any physical deformity, too, knows how it feels to be judged on sight. It’s not just people of color.
CJS: Yes, but do the police follow you, stop you, frisk you? Do they assume you have a weapon and shoot you? Do you see that?
SF: Yes. I do. Just because I felt called to defend very nelly gay guys doesn’t mean I can’t see the difference.
CJS: Fair enough.
SF: During the firestorm that followed my piece, I was goaded by many people to explain what I had done for black women or what all gays had done. And any time I offered any answer, I was then attacked because that wasn’t good enough or people thought, “Oh, so just because you did this you think…” It was incredibly frustrating.
CJS: I’m trying to think of the best way to say this. It’s multi-pronged. There is never enough to do when a cause is still ongoing. And I am honestly sitting here trying to think of instances where gay White men have stood side by side with Black women in solidarity. I’m stumped. And that’s not to say that it never happens, but I’m at a loss for examples.
SF: Actually, several prominent gay groups and people have spoken out about the Michael Brown death. I just sent you a press release showing a statement from 17 major gay groups condemning the Ferguson police. Are you surprised by that?
CJS: I wouldn’t say surprised I am glad to see it. It is unexpected, but I wasn’t taken aback.
SF: The reaction of the gay community to this incident isn’t as novel as you think. Going back 20 years, I’ve seen gay organizations boycott states that passed anti-black or anti-Hispanic laws. There were columns in the gay press about what Trayvon Martin had to do with gay social justice. I want to believe that you’ve seen pro-gay writing in the black media as well that I’d never have known about. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
CJS: Right and because access to that isn’t as open as it should be, it’s easier to say it doesn’t exist. I guess I have to bear responsibility for not having looked. But, still, the euphoric alliance you wrote about does not exist, and I don’t know many people on either side making an effort to forge it.
SF We can’t solve this or even pretend to represent anyone more than ourselves, but I look at these two groups and I see a lot of commonality. And people were hectoring me, “What? What is there in common?” Do you see it?
CJS: Between white gay men and black women? It’s nothing I’ve ever even considered. I suppose it exists, but I’ve not had a chance to build many relationships on that foundation.
SF: Why? Surely the opportunity has presented itself.
CJS: It’s not an organic thing for me, honestly.
SF: That’s where I’m confused, because it is organic for me. And to say that sounds like I’m going, “some of my best friends are…”
CJS: I don’t feel like being a social justice educator in every single interaction, you know? Sometimes I just want to be. I know several gay white guys and I’ve built great relationships, but they weren’t based on shared experiences of oppression.
SF: Well, no. That’s not a basis, but it is something you learn about one another as you go through life.
CJS: Yes, for sure.
SF: So Mannie wrote from her experience. I wrote from mine. I live near Detroit, I’ve always had a very broad range of close friends not only of races but also of different ages. And because I see it that way, because I feel optimistic that people who get to know one another will like and want to help one another, I walked into a buzzsaw with this piece.
CJS: Yes, yes you did. Your piece seemed to come from a place where gay white men are extending the savior hand and helping us black girls come up from the depths as you all have done so swiftly.
SF: I didn’t mean it that way! I just saw two groups with a lot in common who should be encouraged to help one another. It feels like a delicate line.
CJS: It is. Absolutely.
SF: People of good intentions will step on (and in) it.
CJS: In a way, we have to walk on eggshells with each other until a foundation built on trust has been laid. I believe in treading lightly as a general rule because I never know what life experiences have altered someone’s perspective.
SF: But whenever I hear about the importance of having a “dialogue on race,” I wonder – who is supposed to do this? Who qualifies? How does anyone do it without causing controversy or being attacked? What does it even mean? If the only people who can do it are the people who know precisely how not to misspeak or those who are willing to just cede the entire argument to the other people, what good is it?
CJS: Opening a dialogue should go something like what took place with us. Neither of us started by attacking each other personally. We have very different epistemologies, but we built something before having this conversation.
SF: Take the election of Obama. No, it didn’t end racism. But it was something substantial that showed millions of white people can look beyond race.
CJS: No one wants white people to look beyond race.
SF: Wait. You don’t?
CJS: I want to be seen for who I am. I want my history to be understood. I want my cultural differences to be acknowledged and appreciated without being encroached upon or perverted.
SF: We’re going to need to wrap up. Do you have questions for me.
CJS: We were actually able to cover my questions. The dialogue delved into your thought process. That’s what I wanted to know more about.
SF: Well, let me be clear. My intent was not to issue marching orders. It was not to pretend to be a savior. It was to describe my own reality, the world I dwell in. Mine is as legitimate as that of Mannie’s. But I felt like I was describing ways of coming together and she was trying to divide groups.
CJS: You’re entitled to have a reaction. I genuinely believe in people’s reactions being shaped by their experiences. Much of the way we respond to things is shaded by what we know to be true based on the lives we lead.
SF: Also, I didn’t enjoy being run through the ringer on Twitter, but I couldn’t deny that many people were telling me something hard to hear. I tried to agree with some and explain my differences with others, and that got distorted and amplified. So after this comes out, I am going to try to keep my trap shut and observe regardless of how hurtful and dehumanizing much of the reaction can be there.
CJS: I’m definitely nervous about the response. I’m grateful for this opportunity, but nervous.
SF: Well, here’s a hint I learned a little bit too late: The “mute” button on Twitter is your friend.