The imagery of a white woman clutching her purse tightly at the sight of a black boy is one of the most powerful images in society because it tells us everything that we need to know about the way society sees black manhood, black masculinity and black male bodies.
In part 1 of On Blackness and Masculinity* I spoke about sometimes not feeling Black (British) enough and the role that (visible) queerness plays in that phenomenon. I spoke about Black British cultural heritage and difference. One thing I did not mention was the role that (visible) queerness plays in ‘off-setting’ and ‘balancing out’ black masculinity, and how this can serve as both a privilege and a disadvantage depending on the space one occupies.
When I talk about (visible) queerness as a privilege, what I specifically mean is that it can serve as -what I like to call – a visible safety marker. Something that visibly screams, “yes I am a black male but don’t be afraid of me”. For example, a clean-shaven middle-aged bold black man in a suit is immediately marked as ‘safer’ because of the visible safety markers of old age and of smart formal dressing. A black man reading a book is immediately marked as ‘safer’ because of the connotations attached to being educated in our society. Depending on the society one lives in, a visible safety marker is usually something that denotes proximity to socio-economic capital, higher social class, wealth, high education level, whiteness, femininity, and so on. It is no surprise then that the further you are from the things that have come to be associated with Black maleness, the safer you automatically become.
The reason why queerness, and more specifically, gayness, is a visible safety marker is because gayness is seen as the antithesis of manhood. In other words, if you are gay you are not a man. The hypothetical man is always automatically a cis-gendered and heterosexual one, gay men and trans men are always an afterthought. And because black masculinity is masculinity on steroids, queer black men are invisible.
White supremacy has constructed the image of the dangerous black man via centuries of criminalisation and propaganda. Creating a media narrative around young black boys being criminals and growing up to be either dangerous or dependent on the state. This propaganda sometimes creates a self-fulfilling cycle. An education system that writes black boys off from as early as primary school, careers officers that tell black boys they won’t amount to anything, peer-pressure and societal expectations that demand black boys be hyper-masculine (and oftentimes violent), increased policing and stop-and-search in Black neighbourhoods, disproportionate representation of black men in the criminal justice system. All of these things reinforce and justify this image. Probably the most powerful of all these narratives is the image of the black man raping and defiling the white woman. Think about Emmett Till and The Birth of the Nation. Think about the popular white nationalist mantra of ‘we need to protect our white woman from these savages’. Think about modern-day interracial pornography and the beast-like representations of black men. Think about the ‘BBC’ narrative and the idea that black men contaminate the purity of white womanhood. Think about black men as the sexual beast, well-endowed and perpetually aroused.
(image of Emmett Till and his accuser)
What we can gather from this is that, hetero-hypersexuality is inextricably linked with the image of the Black man. (Visible) Queerness is a safety marker because it balances out the perceived threatening nature of black masculinity and black male sexuality. What this means is that the white lady is less likely to clutch her purse so tightly around a black man who is visibly queer. It means that visibly queer black men might have an easier time assimilating into white spaces (the workplace, the all-white university seminar room etc.) In a world where simply existing as a threatening Black man can lead to death at the hands of the state, visible queerness can serve as an evolutionary advantage, as a means to survive.
Gay black men have often told me that in situations where they are being perceived as threatening or being stereotyped as a thief or a criminal or an aggressor, they draw upon their queerness/flamboyance/effeminacy to tip the scales in their favour. They do this so they can scream, “yes I am a black male but don’t be afraid of me” without even having to utter a word. Funnily enough, it works.
“Yes I am a black male but don’t be afraid of me”
I use the term queer black male ‘privilege’ loosely because undoubtedly there are benefits that come along with being marked as ‘safe’, some of which I outlined earlier. However, having to constantly shape yourself to fit a less threatening image takes its toll on you. Contorting yourself to comply with something that invokes less fear means that you are artificially becoming your ‘gay identity’, not authentically but out of guilt and survival. Your identity, your personality and mannerisms then become a product of your desire to appease whiteness. In a weird way, white supremacy moulds you into who you become. Being visibly queer as a black male means being tokenised in every space you occupy: in white spaces as the ‘safe’ one, in LGBT spaces as ‘the black one’ and in black spaces as ‘the gay one’.
Likewise, it means that in the presence of other black men, I draw upon my blackness and my masculinity to fit in (very unconvincingly might I add). There is a desire to be accepted into the presence of other black men. To seek solace and to find a home. I am always aware that I am different. It leads to identity crises, isolation, and being anxious in Black male spaces.
There is a reason why the barbershop can be seen as such a political space. For the traditional masculine Cishet black man, it can be a safe space, a place to just exist freely, a place to talk and to show off, to buss banter and talk about current sports news, to discuss women and trainers. For a queer black man it can be seen as the opposite, another place where he has to try and fit in.
So, is the solution a barbershop equivalent for queer black men?
The vitriol against safe spaces2 is unwarranted. The idea is that those who want safe spaces want a space to be free from conflicting and contrary opinions and have their egos coddled is so far from the truth. Safe spaces are spaces where people can be free from expectations, from being held to a particular standard, from being told who/what to be, from performing. A space to just exist. A space to just float and be suspended in reality. A place to understand who they are and develop their personality authentically.
It would be nice to have a space to call home which is why the idea of a queer black barbershop fills me with overwhelming emotion and joy. I want to live in the world where that queer black 14 year old kid can look up and see himself reflected in the person who is holding the clippers. We must dismantle white supremacy and confront the racist construction of the black man, in the meantime, we must create spaces for queer black boys so that they do not have to live in the shadow of other people’s expectations.
(note: shedding light on the racist construction of the hypersexual ‘dangerous’ black male image does not invalidate the experiences of black (trans) woman who have faced sexual violence at the hands of black men. We need to do better and I acknowledge that.)
(note: I use the term visible before queerness because there are plenty of gay/queer black men who are very masculine and ‘unsuspected’ of being queer/gay. It is similar to the idea of ‘white-passing privilege’ in the sense that there are non-white people who are visibly white and enjoy the privileges that come along with being visibly white.)
1 https://cico3.com/2016/09/08/the-anti-blackness-of-interracial-porn/ by Jimmy Johnson
2 https://www.varsity.co.uk/features/10685 by Jason Okundaye