July 5, 2020

On White Gatekeepers

By In Features

I have a lifetime of scattered thoughts (well frustrations) about the current Southern Foodways Alliance issue. If you don’t know, Southern Foodways Alliance founder John T. Edge is currently facing calls to resign due to longstanding racial inequity both within the organization and the southern food culture industry that it represents. Read more about it here

Moving beyond this particular situation, I’m glad folks are now aggressively pushing for equity. Personally, I find it pretty wild that engaging black culture too often involves strategically navigating whiteness. We operate in a system where white gatekeepers present Black culture for the white gaze. 

Black cultural spaces exist in isolation until they produce something that white people desire. White people rarely enter them until there is something they want to enjoy and eventually control. They exploit structural in equalities by using their capital, connections and other resources (like our grants/philanthropic culture) to control artists and art forms. They become gate keepers. Sometimes they’re scholars, experts, agents, managers, documentarians or non-profit heads. Access goes through them. They create organizations for these traditions and then only hire other white people. Imagine being black and having to navigate white folks to engage something that emerged from your community. Imagine some white guy vetting you for access to your kinfolk. 

This is a process of cultural extraction. White gatekeepers use their resources to present these Black traditions to monied white audiences. They present performances, showcases and symposium in spaces far removed from the Black community. And, its not that there’s a lack of spaces in the Black community. It’s because the cultural sector is dependent on the white gaze. The goal is to bring the margins to the mainstream because the mainstream won’t go to the margins. 

The processes of white gatekeeping and cultural extraction perpetuate severe inequalities. Sure, these white-led organizations may have diverse programming, but it means very little to me if Black folks (and other people of color) have little access to it. Black-led organizations are resilient, but “bending but not breaking” is woefully unhealthy. Black culture workers struggle to find any sort of balance between cultural respect, personal fulfillment, and financial stability.

It is a dirty structure that needs to be destroyed and rebuilt. 

None of this means that white people can’t enjoy nor work with Black culture. I have white friends that do both in very respectful ways. I’m talking about a systemic problem rooted in this country’s larger system of white domination. Achieving true equity is going to require some serious sacrifice.

*I wasn’t going to post this, but hell, its time to be open and honest.

Leave a Comment