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Shame and Appropriation – the Cycle

July 31, 2013

The United States is a country that came into being at a critical juncture in human advance. Technology, popular politics, religious power, and a revolution in economics were combining to push the Western world into a new era, and this continent was rich with resources. But the claiming of them, and of the land surrounding them, involved the systematic destruction of the original inhabitants, the labor of hundreds of thousands of slaves, and the complicity of government and merchantmen to legalize both. This is the legacy of America, and as time went on the country found less blatant but no less exploitative ways to maintain it. In an effort to excuse its ruling class from its own history race, sex, and poverty have been othered, criminalized, and pathologized. Then as the cultural elite seek new methods to express, to explore, and to entertain themselves, those so dehumanized are mined for their experiences in often shameless appropriation. In Queer Testimonio, which I’ll be drawing many passages from in this essay, Cruz-Malavé describes the voyeuristic enjoyment as “that joyous sigh of relief, that jolt that may be experienced at reliving ‘lesser’ lives at a distance,” and that others have called, more succinctly, “poverty porn.”

It is in this context that queer activism—as defined by the struggle for identity, for recognition, and for space in a shared community narrative—has also arisen in the US. And so it is that even within the context of shared marginalization the shunning and exploitation of the Other is as thoroughly used. In Juanito Xtravaganza’s testimonio, and in Cruz-Malavé’s subsequent contextualizing of it through his not-unsympathetic exposé on Keith Haring, the rampant appropriation and exotification of queer men of color is described in some detail. But previous to that appropriation is the shaming, the powerful othering that insists on assimilation to a higher and higher degree of whiteness. It is the shaming that both pushes people of color to relinquish their rights to their own culture while also driving them to find new means of expression. As white society can continue to raise the bar for assimilation and acceptance indefinitely, the cycle of shame and subsequent appropriation can and has continued.

In E. Patrick Johnson’s “Quare” Studies he describes some of the shaming of people of color even (and perhaps, with greater assimilation pressure, especially) in academics. Accusations of “essentialism” and “anti-intellectualism” in an academic sphere boil down to “why do you insist on being different?” This point is brought home in his critique of John Champagne, in which he describes Champagne’s viewing a black man’s tearful reading of bodily autonomy as anti-intellectual and manipulative: “This seems to be an un-self-reflexive, if not unfair, assumption to make when, for the most part, white bodies are discursively and corporeally naturalized…In Champagne’s analysis of ‘blackness,’ bodily ‘whiteness’ goes uninterrogated.”

This shaming of experience and identity has driven many queer people of color to try and band together under either the umbrella of queer activism or racial activism, without being comfortable under either. In the meantime, queer rights leadership is happily adopting and co-opting civil rights leaders and their struggles for their own use. This mirrors work by queer artists, such as Keith Haring, who took the expression of young queer men of color and incorporated it into his own work. Puerto Ricans and black youth, thoroughly segregated from the white gay “disco” scene, were forced to funnel their energy and expression into their own, separate venues, like the Paradise Garage (Cruz-Malavé). There they made their own music, their own dance, their own atmosphere—and there it was that white men, bored with their own culture, came to partake of the other. As examined in both Cruz-Malavé’s book and also in the essay “The Slap of Love” by Michael Cunningham, the objectification of people of color made it possible to commodify their culture. Whether it was the graffiti-esque pop art of the white suburban Haring or the acquisition of “vogueing” by Madonna, places like the Paradise Garage were being mined for their cultural resources without any intention of sharing the profits.

This sort of oppression is compounded once again when one considers, not just people of color or even their queer compatriots but the women along that same intersection. An interesting interlude in Cruz-Malavé’s book is his discussion of the policing and criminalization of women’s sexuality, particularly that of poor women of color. From the baseless zero-sum dichotomy of “unbridled female sexuality, whose logical counterpart was an impotent masculinity” (emphasis mine) to the forced sterilization of poor women documented as recently as 2010 (Marcotte, 2013), women have been shamed and blamed and usually punished for being sexual in the US. Cruz-Malavé’s focus is, given the subject of the book, Puerto Rican women, but he consistently broadens that focus to include all poor women of color, particularly those living in the disenfranchised areas of New York.

This hasn’t been restricted to just queer women, of course. Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider she connects that sexuality—going beyond just ‘sex’ and ‘birth’ and the other biological necessities—to the sense of worth and connection women have with themselves and each other. The “erotic” as she calls it is a source of empowerment and strength, and as such is routinely and systematically attacked by an anti-woman society. The process of reclaiming and reinforcing that sense of self is as important to progress as a woman as it is to a healthy, balanced society. But that same reclamation makes it available to men as a salable resource in the themes of self-betterment, cosmetics, and pornography. Include race and one must consider the white feminist movements of twenty years ago and today, who seek—like Johnson’s description of queer activism—to umbrella all women under a homogenous term to move forward, and ignore the specific empowerment and struggle that different members experience. And then again, with trans-exclusionary feminists such as Cathy Brennan, or wealthy women blaming poor women for being “welfare queens,” the cycle of shaming provides more opportunity for appropriation.

Segregation, shame, infiltration, appropriation—this cycle of oppression drives whole economies forward on the backs of marginalized people. Recognizing this as a root for many of the products sold to the socially dominant is a critical step in attacking the foundations of much of the US’s structure of systemized stigmas such as racism and homophobia and their various intersections. Freedom and balance can only be attained when our experiences, while still different, can be compared evenly, when we all have the same choices and chances and opportunities to be happy and succeed in whatever we see as success. But while there is money in the process, it will continue to be difficult to fight the process that Ani diFranco described as “criminalizing the symptoms while [we] spread the disease.” And as long as people can be removed from society by popular vote, whether that is defined as cultural exclusion or a not-guilty decision in the murder of a black child, there’s still a long struggle ahead to find that balance.

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One Comment
  1. J. Champagne permalink

    If discussion is what you are after, then I wish you would have read my work rather than rely on E. Patrick Johnson’s account. Because this does seem both anti-intellectual and a form of essentialism, the former in that you are not willing to read with care my words but instead rely on someone else’s gloss, the latter in that you assume that Johnson’s color ratifies the truth of his interpretation of my work. And my guess is that it is precisely because someone else told you that I was a racist that you felt you didn’t need to read my work in order to criticize it. As for Johnson’s account, I will ask you one question: if my position represents that of the majority White culture, why is that I am the only one who raised it? No one to my knowledge has ever written a word critical of Tongues Untied, yet somehow my critique manages to stand in for the dominant, racist discourse of the academy. In any case, my critique was precisely not that Hemphill was different; it was that he was too much the same. This was also my critique of Tongues Untied — that, from my vantage point — a vantage point that I did NOT disguise but rather made explicit over and over again — the film borrowed too heavily from a heteronormative discourse that required the demonizing of gay s/m. But rather than engage with the film as carefully as I did, other critics pointed to my Whiteness as evidence of my work’s wrongheadedness (or assumed I was a leather queen). Because, then, as now, queer theory in its most “popular” forms — even when it is claiming to be all bad ass and in the name of the oppressed — is deeply indebted to identity politics and unwilling even to discuss the contradictions that this indebtedness brings. Your own definition of queer theory replicates this logic. BTW, if you are interested in attending to those contradictions, I would recommend Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons, a deeply disturbing, for all the right reasons, book.

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