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We Need To Talk About Keke Palmer And ‘The Gag’

On the spiritual bond that exists — and is sometimes broken — between straight black women and black gay men

A few weekends ago after brunch, I was just buzzed enough to spend money on the film Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Ruining what could have been an otherwise mindless Sunday afternoon at the cineplex, there were characters played by Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick, acting “ghetto” and delivering lines in full-on “blaccents.”

Adopting the persona of a black woman is not uncommon for non-black people who set out to deliver a certain type of ironically racist comedy. Iggy Azalea attempted to make a career out of it. There is Bon Qui Qui. Kylie Jenner struts around with a new black fashion statement from the ’90s every week, and it launches thousands of style pieces. Then there are the white gay men who post Oprah memes on social media and have Grindr profiles with names like “Viola Davis,” “Taraji P. Henson,” and, obviously, “Oprah,” because isn’t it just so funny to identify as a black woman when you aren’t one? When it comes to cultural appropriation, it’s often black women who end up the butt of the joke.

Perhaps this is why there’s always been a symbiotic relationship between black women and black gay men. Straight, masculine men hold society's greatest power and can wield misogyny as a weapon: Women fall prey to that and so do gay men, who are historically seen as effeminate and stereotyped as lesser than. It’s formed a bond with women and gay men for decades. Look at television shows like Will & Grace and Sex and the City. But with black women and gay men, it’s more than just friendship and trading dick jokes masked in pop-culture references: The bond is spiritual. Black gay culture was birthed from that bond.

Nothing captures this more than the documentary Paris Is Burning. The 1990 film that captures the lives of young gay black men on the fringes of society demonstrates how heavily drag culture borrows from black women. While Dorian Corey might have given us the definition of shade and reading, these are things have existed in the black community for years, a coded language between black women taken to exaggeration by black gay men in drag and ball culture that would eventually create a life of its own. Think of it as a spin-off that becomes a series in its own right: the Family Matters to Perfect Strangers or the Frasier to Cheers. Black women may have inspired much of black gay culture, but we’ve certainly made it our own as well.

This isn’t to say that all straight black women and all black gay men are best friends. Spiritual bonds aside, black women can’t fully understand what it's like to be a black gay man. Straight black women are just as capable of homophobia as straight black men. In a popular scene from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, for instance, NeNe Leakes told Cynthia Bailey's husband that he was “acting like a bitch.” And the most recent season involved homophobic jokes about whether or not actress Kim Fields’s husband was gay. It’s those moments, or moments like seeing the gorgeous, extremely talented Keke Palmer on Late Night with Seth Meyers, that feel like a betrayal.

As of late, Keke has been using Snapchat to create memes and engage with her fanbase in a way that’s refreshing for a young actress her age. Instead of chiding Kardashians over how they dress, Keke is busy being a 22-year-old. That means Akeelah is no longer talking about the Bee — now she's talking about the D. In one Snapchat, she says: “My new n**** just fucked up my life, but the gag is, I just called last week’s n**** to clean up his mess.” As a one-off snap it’s funny, but a closer look at Keke’s social media shows that she’s literally trying to make “the gag” into a brand. Every other post is “the gag” this and “the gag” that, with Keke presenting “the gag” as new slang to her young audience. Her explanation of what “the gag” is on Seth Meyers naturally led to white journalists covering it and getting it wrong. “Whenever you're crazy, just put ‘the gag’ in there and it’s all fine. It’s the catch, it’s the coup, it’s the catch, it’s the one thing," Keke explained to Seth like she was reciting Google-translated Amerie lyrics.

“The gag” is a term that’s long been used in black gay culture, with variations of “why you gagging?” and “I'll make them gag” spinning out from it. Words like this, along with “the kids” — a term Keke says she calls all of her “peeps” — originated in ball culture, where “the kids” are the young members of a drag house led by an older, more experienced queen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Keke using these words, but to boil down slang that’s been used in the black gay community for decades as “what the kids are saying on Snapchat” is disingenuous. Even more disingenuous is her response to black gay men, like writer Michael Arceneaux, who pointed out her appropriation on social media and got this response:

First of all, let’s break down the nonsense in that response. “You just limited yourself to a phrase” belies every conversation about cultural appropriation that’s ever been had. Why call out the Kardashians for monetizing black aesthetics that could get an actual black woman fired or referred to as ghetto? It is, after all, just a hairstyle. Why get mad at singers like Nick Jonas using gay culture or blackgrounds to sell records? It is, after all, just music. But then again, this understanding of cultural appropriation is to be expected from the woman who, after being criticized for #AllLivesMatter rhetoric after Ferguson, flew to St. Louis and showed up in high heels and full makeup and posted pictures on social media.

But the gag is, I’m not here to drag Keke. I think she’s great and possibly Angela Bassett’s secret clone, or at least a love child borne from the set of What’s Love Got to Do With It. Seth Meyers? You're not likely to see many black gay men grace his stage to explain “the gag” themselves — certainly none from the cast of Scream Queens, the show Keke‘s currently promoting, because the gag is, rather than have any black gay characters in his shows, Ryan Murphy would rather a Keke Palmer or a NeNe Leakes who can throw shade, serve for the kids, and set fire to Paris all by themselves.