Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a great younger brother who realized he was gay and came out a few years ago in his mid-twenties, which was met generally with cheerful support by family and friends. Coming out really kickstarted his interest in social justice issues, which is awesome; we both grew up in a fairly liberal region and attended the same famously liberal university, so these ideas weren’t new to him, but his new identification with a marginalized community seemed to have sparked a desire to engage more deeply. All fantastic!
But for the past year or so his interest specifically in black culture has given me and my husband a little cause for concern (my brother and I are white, and my husband is a POC, though not black). His media diet at this point is dominated by black shows, podcasts, music etc, most of it intended for audiences of other black people — which, again, cool! It’s undeniable that the most important and interesting pop culture right now is largely being produced by women and POC and I share a lot of his fandom. As a result, however, he constantly redirects conversations to show off his new insights into black culture or establish his “cred.” He’s in so many Facebook groups designed for the black community that he now just gets invited to others and shows off screencaps of the invitations as “proof” of how legit he is. He has been known to say things like “I’m basically the blackest person at work” — when there are actual black people who work there! And while he can talk a big game about Black Lives Matter, he doesn’t actually like, volunteer or do anything for the black community where he lives or even read much on the issues beyond what’s hip on Tumblr.
From where I stand, it’s pretty clear that my brother sees his recent addition to the queer community as entitling him to be a part of any and all marginalized communities that interest him, and that it allows him to be “one of the good ones” as a white guy. I am sympathetic to that desire, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how institutionalized racism works. When he brings it up, my general tendency is to respond mildly — maybe ask questions about the show he’s interested in while not giving much attention to his preening about how cool he is, or some gentle teasing and a change of subject.
On top of all this my brother has put an “indefinite moratorium” on dating white guys with a strong preference for black dudes. The very few black friends my brother has seem charmed by him, but I am worried he is on a crash course to do or say something really bizarre that will have serious professional or personal consequences for him and I am having grim visions of Quentin Tarantino’s dashiki phase. On the one hand, he’s an adult and maybe the best thing to do is stand back and let this play out however it’s going to. On the other, it might kind of be my duty as his sister and fellow white person to try and check him before he offends someone? I am struggling to envision a version of that conversation that would go well, because these are issues that cause people to get defensive, and he can be a little (a lot) defensive to criticism from his older sister in general. I’m pretty sure whatever I say would be met with a variation of “You don’t get it, sis, because you’re too white.”
Is this worth addressing or should I mind my own beeswax?
– There’s no “I” in Ally
Dear There’s No “I” in Ally:
Hi, it’s Lenée, subbing in for Captain Awkward this week.
As lovely as it is that your brother wants to be a not-awful-gay-white guy, he’s being exactly that. Consumption of Black cultural production — television, movies, and even BLM — does not make him a good person or an ally of any kind. In fact, as you so properly called it, he’s a fetishist. His screenshots and social capital as A Distinguished White Guest means absolutely nothing, as it’s pretty damn clear that Black people are theoretical people to him. He’s trading in Black cultural markers and identifying himself as “the blackest person” at his job because he thinks he can opt into Blackness the same way he chose to be out. I, as a Black queer woman, could not be more exhausted by this behavior. Sadly, it’s pretty standard in my experience with white queers, men especially. Wanting to be a “good white person,” as you so wonderfully observe, doesn’t work like this. Tumblr isn’t political education, though it’s a tool some folks have used to reach people. Facebook groups are not in any way a substitute for working to dismantle white supremacy and/ or using his privilege as a white man to protect and aid Black folks. That entitlement to structurally oppressed people, our culture, et cetera is so damn white. Seriously. It’s so white, it just demanded to speak to my manager. It’s so white it has on Tevas and wool socks in a snowstorm.
So, here’s my take on it:
Don’t be so polite to him anymore. Push back firmly and tell him flat out that he’s wrong. You’re more than welcome to point him to any number of essays or tweet threads on how anti-racism actually works. Introduce him to misogynoir, performative allyship, or the histories (and labor!) of anti-racism. Your brother is latching onto Black people because of the way America exploits our experiences and makes us consumable, which has its roots in settler colonialism and chattel slavery. He’s following the script lain out for the entire world via antiblackness — Black people are flattened in a specific way when antiblackness is unchecked.
Your brother’s dating moratorium should be a general one until he figures himself out — being fetishized by a “good” white person is traumatic and nobody deserves that, even if they’re confused about the value of white validation. There is no way for this conversation to go smoothly. Not a single way. It is your duty, as a white person and as someone close to him to check him. Even if he isn’t receptive, you are doing something about his bullshit. It’s gross of him to continue in this way. I know you can’t control a grown ass person. I know you want him to be his best possible self. He may only learn once someone checks him — someone who’s Black, or someone who’s a non-black person of color. It’s hard to say how this’ll go. I do want you to know that holding your tongue, even though he’s clearly determined to be that guy, sends a message to him that he’s right/ okay. If he pushes back, that’s fine. Encourage him to do some reading and learning that doesn’t involve his online or IRL accessorized Black friends.
Ultimately, you don’t get him because he’s too white. And that shouldn’t be the burden of any Black person who crosses his path. (And tell him to stop calling you “sis,” as the iteration he uses is AAVE and neither of you is Black.)
About the Author: Lenée is a fat, Black, queer femme who lives in Philadelphia. She’s a lover of Black music, Steven Universe, true crime, and doing the electric slide whenever possible. A new plant mom, Lenée writes on occasion and usually tweets as @dopegirlfresh.
P.S. Quick Note From The Captain: Welcome Lenée and thanks for taking on The Case Of The World’s Wokest Man!
For readers who are thinking “I want to be more informed and learn how to push back on racism without doing more harm than good but I’m extremely afraid of messing up,” may I recommend So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Written by a Black writer and anti-racism educator, this book is the best recent one-stop shop I can think of for giving context to important political and cultural discussions while also getting specific about how to do this necessary, urgent work, how to screw up less, and how to handle it when you inevitably do so (that you don’t make it all about yourself instead of correcting injustice in the word).