An Open Letter To Steve Friess About Your Plea To Black Women From White Gay Men

steve friess

Steve Friess wrote an article in TIME asking black women not to push white gay men away, because they, too, know what it’s like to be ostracized and pushed down. Preston Mitchum says black women don’t need Friess’ kind of solidarity.

Dear Steve:

It’s me, Preston. A queer, black man writing to explain something critical to anyone who wants to stand in solidarity with others: Faux solidarity is never appreciated, respected, or refreshing.

I know you may be shocked to receive a letter from me as you hardly know me, but unfortunately, I know many people like you. I’ve read your articles, I’ve seen your tweets, and I’ve read your “can’t we all just get along?” responses to a person speaking about lived experience. This is particularly true when it is related to matters that you—your group—feel blamed for and scrutinized about, so you tend to do the reactionary thing of frantically writing a piece, instead of doing something we all must learn: listening first, understanding second, and writing (only when necessary) third.

In standing in solidarity with groups in which one doesn’t inherently belong, one must comprehend that allyship isn’t spoken but acted upon, maintained, and nurtured. When a person screams “I’m an ally, I’m your friend,” that is usually the quickest way of knowing who is not an ally.

I’ve actually grown to dislike the word “ally” because those voices often trump those who face the same oppression people claim to dislike. I was reminded of this very concept when I read your piece “Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away” in TIME last week.

Your article is the epitome of a person not understanding how structural oppression works for those who exist at the intersection of multiple identities.

Your article also presumes that black women and white gay men are similar because they have both experienced some aspect of oppression for their marginalizations, and that neither is innately privileged.

But here’s the thing: Privilege is not necessarily about individual characteristics or attributes, but rather, institutional advantages that occur over a period of time. And although “checking your privilege” seems like a cliché catchphrase, it is the most realistic one we should keep in mind when writing articles about alleged allyship.

I am not a black woman or a white gay man, but two things are pretty clear: First, I am privileged by my manhood, and second, I am simultaneously oppressed by my sexuality. However, my sexuality does not create a privilege-free cloud around my manhood.

And, Steve, I recognize that being a man holds more weight than being a woman, and I also know that being white is more beneficial than being black—and yes I admit these are generalizations. This could only mean one thing: Being black and being a woman is doubly ostracizing.

You hated Sierra Mannie’s article, “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture,” and I get it. It must have been difficult to stomach all 800 words of a person, a black woman no less, asking you to understand the difference between cultural appreciation and outright appropriation.

But, Steve, it is obvious that many black women don’t see you as their ally.

This may be hard to believe, but you can’t force your version of allyship onto someone. And you certainly are in no position to tell someone that you are their ally if they don’t feel you are. This is pretty counterintuitive, counterproductive, and gets solidarity all wrong.

Mannie writes,

The truth is that America is a country that operates on systems of racism in which we all participate, whether consciously or unconsciously, to our benefit or to our detriment, and that system allows white people to succeed. This system also creates barriers so that minorities, such as black people, have a much harder time being able to do things like vote and get houses and not have to deal with racists and stuff.

Even though, to some, this could read as Oppression Olympics, I see this as having an honest conversation about race, race-relations, and systematic oppression. But you, apparently, took this to mean that your oppression isn’t being taken seriously. Because like black women, you and your brethren have faced ostracism due to an immutable characteristic.

No, just no.

Let me be clear, Mannie’s article isn’t devoid of critique. I, too, found it bothersome to read that as a gay man, I could somehow hide my sexuality and not my race. That also deserves a “no, just no” for its failure to properly address intersectionality. But, Steve, something else I found troubling when reading your article, mainly as a person in the LGBT community, was your ironic ability to write in a heteronormative way, unless you were speaking about the struggle of white gay men.

No mention of black transgender women like Mia Henderson or Islan Nettles and their murders? No discussion of black lesbian women like Ashland Johnson or Kimya Afi Ayodele and their experiences of workplace discrimination because of their race and sexual orientation? Are they, too, “just like” white gay men? No nuance? No observation? No complexity? Just a one-dimensional conversation of forged relationships based on liking certain music selections? Now that’s just lazy writing based on hurt feelings. And I know you can do better, particularly if you want people to believe the solidarity is real between you, your brethren, and black women.

The problem here is not just “borrowing language,” like “hey, girlfriend!” The problem is borrowing that language, not admitting you didn’t discover it (Columbusing?), calling it “ghetto” or “hood” when black women say it, and then using and re-using it for profit. That is one of the core issues.

But beyond that, if black women could “push you away” for humbly offering their lived experiences so you can become a better person and ally, then, Steve, you obviously were not a very good ally in the first place.

Sincerely,

A righteously indignant black, queer man

P.S. Don’t listen to John McWhorter either. Believe me, you can steal a culture. It’s been happening since pre-1492.

Preston Mitchum is a regular contributor to Role Reboot. He is a civil rights advocate and legal writing professor in Washington, DC. Preston has written for The Atlantic, theGrio, Huffington Post, Ebony.com, and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter here.

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