The death of white gay wit: Paula Deen and the problem with the Nail Emporium

My boyfriend burst into laughter and insisted that I was making up the episode, that it sounded too farcical to have actually taken place. I told him to Google it, and he asked what he should search under.

“Paula Deen hit in face with ham,” I told him, prompting another outburst of laughter. My boyfriend’s eyes watered and he struggled to breathe as we watched the video, and he was absolutely adorable for the next half hour as he tried to recover from the hilarity.

That episode immediately came to mind last month when Deen’s career was clobbered by a proverbial ham following the disclosure that she used racial slurs. As disappointing as it was to hear that the jovial and good-hearted television cook had used the n-word, it wasn’t terribly surprising given her Old South pedigree.

But then it emerged that Deen had also promoted the idea of hosting a plantation-style wedding where her black employees would dress up as slaves, and I waited for her career to implode.
I continue to think Paula Deen is a lovely woman and a refreshing spirit. I doubt there is racial malice in her heart, and I’m convinced there are aspects of African-American culture that she appreciates and to which she feels a connection.

However, her inability to recognize how hurtful her caricaturization of black people was is breathtaking, and her willingness to invoke the most painful chapter of the African-American experience for her own amusement was a deservedly fatal blow to her culinary empire.

For intent is not a necessary element of racism. Like Paula Deen, it is easy for many to be oblivious to their own bigotry, which brings the discussion home to gay Atlanta.

As any gay Atlantan with a Facebook account knows, there is a check-in location known as the “Hartsfield-Latoya Jackson Atlanta International Spaceport & Nail Emporium.” I don’t know anything about the overall demographics of people who have visited this check-in, but on my timeline, it is the exclusive habitat of white gay men.

The name contains the ghetto-fabulosity that white gay men fetishize, and while it may seem playful and innocent, it speaks to the mainstream gay community’s willingness to caricature black sassiness. There is a difference between celebrating diversity and mocking it.

I was recently working in a mostly straight, mostly black kitchen at a popular restaurant with a mostly white, mostly gay wait staff (a sociological standard among Atlanta’s popular gay eateries that itself is worth exploration). Anytime the wait staff interacted with the kitchen, the white servers would invariably add a twang to their talk as if they just arrived from the ‘hood.

“Why do all of them talk like that?” one of my kitchen colleagues asked me.

“Because most white gay men wish they could be straight black women,” I replied.

More precisely, most gay white men wish they could express themselves like straight black women, rather than wanting to take on ― or even consider ― what it truly means to be black and female in a white- and male-run society.

That is what is so patronizing about white gay appropriation of black female sassiness: As a white man, you can drop a little ratchet sassitude and then resume your standing as a well-adjusted adult. When an African-American female expresses similar sentiments in similar tones, she is burdened by perceptions of being an Angry Black Woman.

The airport check-in and tendency of the white servers at the restaurant expose what I call the Death of White Gay Wit, as sista-gurl swagg has emerged as the de facto sense of humor among white gay men. That’s not to say that black women ― from your co-worker to Beyonce ― have not re-appropriated elements of gay culture to make themselves more fabulous.

Nor is it impossible for white men to be sassy and sharp-witted without mocking other cultures. The example that immediately comes to mind is Frasier and Niles Crane from the old TV show “Frasier,” who constantly throw shade, who constantly read the kids, and who do so without trying to be something or someone they’re not.

I hate to be the party pooper for such a popular phenomenon, and I honestly have little hope that the trend of white gay men channeling their inner black female stereotypes can be reversed. But if gay people are to improve their ability to build coalitions, we must remember that cultural respect is as important as shared ideology.


Top photo: Paula Deen (via Facebook)