Recently, Azealia Banks called a white Delta Airlines flight attendant a faggot after he prevented her from getting her bag and removing herself from a situation in which she felt unsafe. Video of the interaction surfaced and Banks became the center of another media firestorm. In a sea of knee-jerk condemnation, too few reports on the incident investigated power dynamics — namely that Banks is a young, bisexual black woman and was confronted by a white (presumably gay) man. That power differential must be overlaid on critique of her use of a homophobic slur in a moment when she felt threatened.
At the height of vitriolic reaction to Banks, she followed up on the initial incident by tweeting that gay men were actually “gay white KKK’s” and that LGBT should more correctly be referenced as GGGG, since gay white men typically run the show and often reenact the misogyny of society writ large rather than counter it. The problem we continue to be missing is that Banks wielding the homophobic slur faggot has always been tied to her critique of the LGBT movement and media as largely led by white gay cisgender men, and the ways they are actively invested in misogynoir as a group. Misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey — one Banks regularly uses to educate on her Twitter feed, bluntly defines society’s hatred of black women. Moreover, it speaks to structural problems, not just individuals. It’s built in.
Everything Azealia Banks says and does, she does from the subject position of a young, bisexual, black woman in a world that goes to great lengths to invalidate, vilify, devalue, and dehumanize those who meet that description. She’s blunt, unapologetic, incendiary, offensive, and yes, sometimes brutally mean. But, the problem isn’t really Azealia Banks. It’s the system.
The Ku Klux Klan as a parallel to mainstream gay media is actually a good one. The KKK’s main intent was/is to terrorize, intimidate, and yes, perpetuate violence against people of color. To keep people of color in an inferior societal position through threat and/or direct action. Banks is saying mainstream gay media does the exact same thing to black women, LGBT people of color, and other marginalized groups that exist at vulnerable intersections of the LGBT movement. She’s not wrong. Critique of Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall for its white- and cis-washing of an important moment in history is yet another example of the same things Banks is saying, but those critiques are rarely met with the same vitriol as her words.
And this is important: Banks is not saying every white gay cisgender man is a problem; she is referring to the underlying structure of the media and political movement — the ways they tacitly sanction whiteness and misogyny as dominant in every conversation. Same is true of her KKK (or, maybe we should say GayGayGay) analogy. KKK members were often also public officials, police officers, the very individuals people of color were told to call on in order to counter the KKK’s explicit oppression. Catch-22. Banks is saying the very gatekeepers of LGBT media, the arbiters of what counts as LGBT news in the mainstream, implicitly reenact a bias towards white gay cisgender men. Very often this bias comes from their own identity and it provides a blindspot to intersectional issues, but it is not specifically exclusive to white gay cisgender men. Others reenact the same implicit bias because that’s how the media is structured: imitate or fade into oblivion. Banks’ analogy is a much more complex critique of power than she receives credit for, in part because she is reduced to a problem due to her use of that pesky f-word.
But her critique is the same then, too. She responds with the word faggot “when [she] feels attacked as a woman,” as she has said and she responds from a feminist place (whether or not we agree). In doing so, she is redefining the word faggot — not reclaiming it. That’s a significant difference. And it should be further qualified that when Banks is attacked as a woman, she is also attacked as a black woman — the pieces of her identity are inseparable. So, her use of faggot is a critique of the white gay KKK. She’s actually responding to whiteness first, not necessarily sexuality, when she uses the word — a kind of whiteness that is actively misogynoiristic.
Banks’ critique seems to be more palatable when spoken of in less incendiary ways. For instance, Derrick Clifton of the Daily Dot has created the important hashtag #GAYstreamMedia to speak back to white- and cis-washing impulses in much of the LGBT mainstream media. Using the hashtag on social media is a way to speak back to power. The same power that centers a white gay cisgender man in a film purporting to tell the story of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, despite the well-document leadership of trans women of color, among other marginalized groups, during the actual event. The same power that deems stories on the Pope and Kim Davis, or a gay white man tricking a pizza parlor into catering his wedding worth centering over the very real structural issues of racism, poverty, homelessness, or misogyny(noir) that affect some LGBT people’s lives in more direct ways. The hashtag does poke the bear, so to speak, but it does so in ways certainly less volatile than invoking the Ku Klux Klan or actively using phrases like “white supremacy” — phrases we know to be true, but many continue to take issue with due to their own relationship to white fragility.
Of course, more palatable or acceptable strategies also run the risk of tempering or scaling down important critical intent. Perhaps, America needs the brash, no-holds-barred, unapologetic language Banks uses to truly understand the point. Banks refuses to temper herself. Her abrasiveness is her armor, which also turns many off. But every time Banks calls out the GGGG movement, largely through Twitter, and and gay white (supremacist) media — the #GAYstreamMedia — immediately center themselves by saying “but not ALL gay white media” at every single turn. Sound familiar? It’s a classic derailing tactic used to disassociate themselves with Banks’ critique instead of sitting in its discomfort and asking if there are actual ways they/we might be doing exactly what she says we’re doing. In this way, nothing gets actively challenged. Gay white tears derails Banks much more complex critique
Her use of incendiary language -- faggot, KKK, etc. -- heightens knee-jerk reactions, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t merit to what she’s saying. It should also be noted that there are actually not words in our language to communicate Banks’ intersectional critique against whiteness with the quickness and ease that the slurs and hyperbolic analogies do. And language is built that way — to protect those already in power and in this case that’s the #GAYstreamMedia or the “gay white KKK.” Language mirrors the system in that power is always already built in.
Put another way, words have power, and the power in language seems to work from the top down only. Slurs exist to lump people in marginalized groups together and hurt them. There is no word available to Banks to throw back at the oppressor that communicates the complete marginalization and oppression she feels as a young, bisexual, black woman. The limits of language and the power and supremacy already built into the words available to us/her, leave no other options. She uses a word already available to wield her political critique. Whether you agree or not, it’s a strategy and should be seen as such, not simply met with outright dismissal. And she chooses a slur because she wants to hurt. Hurting points out the disproportionate amount of hurt black women experience on a daily basis.
Banks continues to be labeled as homophobic, difficult, a problem. We expect a young, bisexual black woman to work harder to communicate her critique rather than holding ourselves to a higher standard and demanding we try harder to hear her critique. Why should she have to use an entire paragraph to explain her critique when those in power use one word to do damage to an entire group? I’m not saying slurs are the way to speak to one another, but the point remains that the differently available language speaks to the ways power is upheld through language itself. The actual problem remains a society that has conditioned someone like Azealia Banks to be abrasive in order to protect herself; a society that demands and expects a certain kind of “polite” interaction from the very people it’s trying to erase. But that critique continues to get derailed.
The KKK/GGGG don’t always show up in white hoods; Banks is saying they also operate through the media more generally. She is trying to survive in a world in which black lesbian warrior poet Audre Lorde claimed people like Banks “were never meant to survive.” Banks might not be creating a nicer, kinder, gentler world, but that’s also not necessarily her job. She’s fighting fire with fire, abrasively and unapologetically. She wants to punch back, and truthfully, I can’t blame her. It’s her right. Our job is to listen to her and to our own discomfort. Banks is just trying to survive one way she knows how. And I, for one, refuse to judge her impulse.