“There is a particular positionality of say, white cis straight males allies that can affirm the marginalized folks they are working to help liberate while not ‘speaking for them.’”
“No one listens until the white, cisgender straight male speaks up about it.”
A friend of mine recently posted this article to her Facebook wall, which sparked a heated, complicated, somewhat uncomfortable conversation. The article is about rapper/musician Macklemore – or rather, it is about the white straight privilege of Macklemore and how his racial and sexual identity is in conflict with his identity as an advocate for LGBT rights. In particular, it is a discussion of the hit song Same Love. The article states
Whether it is intentional or not, Macklemore has become the voice of a community to which he doesn’t belong in a genre that already has a queer presence waiting to be heard by mainstream audiences.
Macklemore speaks of hip-hop as if his whiteness is irrelevant when criticizing the genre as a whole for being homophobic. These lyrics are very reminiscent of much of the shaming of people of color that occurred in 2008 after the passing of Prop 8 in California, where Black people and Latin@s were accused of being responsible for the anti-gay legislation passing while seemingly ignoring the millions of dollars raised by white Christians to ban marriage equality. Though Macklemore may not be blaming Black people for homophobia, by focusing on homophobia in Black community spaces as opposed to the pervasiveness of homophobia everywhere, white people get to remove themselves from the problem.
When my friend posted this article on her Facebook wall, she rapidly received many critical responses. She, a mixed-race gay woman, was extremely frustrated with the lack of willingness of some of her friends to recognize and civilly discuss white/straight privilege. I didn’t quite know how to respond either; it is so difficult to discuss such sensitive issues, especially when you are the one with privilege.
Here is the thing, in this course we continuously ask the question: “what makes a text queer?” Is it the author? The reader? The characters? The societal response? How does finding out the author of a seemingly queer text is straight influence one’s reading of the work? What do I, as an inherently privileged white, cis-gendered, straight female, have to contribute to a discussion about queer issues? How can I be an ally while avoiding “taking up space” in a discussion where it can sometimes feel like I don’t belong? It’s one thing to be a straight ally working to understand and support the LGBT community, it is another to be a straight, white ally trying to support a widely racially diverse LGBT community.
To be honest, I even have a little fear writing this post, because I don’t want to mess up my wording with such a sensitive topic. However, I want to open this dialogue—and I think it is directly related to the recent works we have been studying that focus on the intersection of queerness and race. So, please, bear with me, correct me, challenge me. I am continuously working on being an ally for communities that I don’t directly identify with, but that can’t happen without some challenging discussions.
So, let’s get into it.
In Moraga’s autobiographical writings, she said “I have encountered the ‘I’ of ‘character’ who is and who is not me, one which allows me the freedom of incorrect politics and a bravery not realized in my own life.”
I have been mulling over the idea presented in Moraga’s quotation for the past few class sessions, and it has left me with more questions than it has answers. To what extent can we expand the literary “I”? At what point does a work stop being autobiographical and turn into fiction? Why does it matter than James Baldwin’s main character in Giovanni’s Room is a gay white male, when Baldwin is a gay black male? Does the character’s white privilege give the character the freedom not realized in the author’s own life to explore the topic of homosexuality? Does it matter that Chu T’ien-Wen and Chu T’ien-Hsin were not straight women? Are these works just pieces of art, or are the inevitably connected to the social movement for LGBT rights?
I ask that last question because I think it is fundamentally important to our course. Are we just studying literature as literature without a greater intention or purpose? I don’t think so. I think our dialogue about LGBT issues transcends academic discourse. We belong to a dialogue about very real, very pressing social issues discussed through the medium of literature.
Moraga also wrote, “I have for the most part removed myself from conversations with the gay and lesbian feminist activist movement because most of its activists do not share my fears and as such do not share my hopes or strategies for political change.”
Now, I don’t doubt her statement, but even when she removes herself from spoken conversations with the gay and lesbian feminist activist movement, her writing and art still influences the movement, or at least our understanding of the movement. It is a response; it is relevant. Moraga may not identify with the movement, but she is still associated with it. Maybe this is because she is a Xicana lesbian. But, then, what about Macklemore?
It is arguable (as stated in the Racilicious article) that Macklemore is “profiting in a genre that does not belong to them at the expense of queer artists of color.” Does this mean that Chu T’ien-Wen is, too, taking up space and profiting from a genre she does not belong too, seeing as she is not a gay man? What genre do we place Moraga in? Or, an even broader question, what is the value of ethnocentric genres?
Alright, I have laid out a lot of questions and issues about race, sexuality, and privilege on the table; now I have to put myself out there and start talking about this personally, openly, and explicitly.
Let’s ask, what makes a text queer?
We do. The readers. In my first blog post, I discussed the significance of art and argued that the significance is in the interpretation, not the origin. I still stand by that. A text doesn’t have to be written by a queer individual to have value for the queer community. That being said, I don’t think we should dismiss the issue of privilege. I think the issue with “Same Love” is not Macklemore’s personal fault, but rather the fault of a larger societal system in which more fame (and money) is attributed to the artist than the art. I think Macklemore’s song would be received differently if there wasn’t an economic factor involved (the “profiting from a genre”). At a very basic level, the song has at least got people talking, and dialogue is what we need in order to begin changing societal conditions.
Yes, we can critique Macklemore as a white cis-gendered male speaking for a community he doesn’t belong to when he presents fallible parallels between race issues and sexuality issues. But more than that, I think we should critique our culture for being one that focuses so much on the stardom and identity of the artist rather than the art. The art is more relevant to use than they artist. And connecting this back to literature, I think it is important to keep in mind that we don’t need the author’s permission to make a text queer. We can use these works to our advantage; we can use them as tools to discuss universally important social issues.
I briefly want to bring up one more issue. Moraga wrote, “Any woman’s death diminishes me.”
Can I say the same thing? I want to. I want to work for the well-being, the political rights, the freedom of women everywhere. But my saying and doing and believing that “any woman’s death diminishes me” is much different than hers. Moraga writes that she is afraid of genocide of her people. Given my racial privilege, that is a sentiment I will never really know. So, how could I write about such topics with the same seriousness and passion? How far can I extend my own “I” voice when writing? As a straight ally, how can I best read, interpret, and use queer texts in our discussions?
These are all questions I am continuously asking myself, and I know that the answers aren’t easy to formulate. Nonetheless, I want to talk about them. These are discussions that need to be had, whether it be here or on Facebook or through literature or music or art. As long as we keep it respectful, honest, and open, I (and many others) will surely “like” the input and insight you have about privilege, sexuality, race.
The anonymous quotations at the beginning of this post were used with permission.
All quotations from Cherrie Moraga come directly from our in-class reading.