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Darnell L. Moore Headshot
Wade Davis II Headshot

Tongues Untied: Shade Culture -- Throwing Shade, Reflecting Light

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Darnell: I recently read a powerful article titled "A Love Letter to Brothers," published in Mused Magazine Online, written by my friend Dymir Arthur. In it Dymir encourages black gay men to love ourselves (and each other) and to rid our communities of "shade." While it would be wrong to make a generalization that black gay men are somehow "shadier" than others, I do think that it can be quite easy for us to direct the negative energy that is projected at us within a largely homophobic and transphobic, racist society toward one another. I've done it and have been the target of others' shade as well. It seems that shade is the only way some of us know how to relate. Why do you think that it is easier for some of us to give off negativity and shade than positivity and light?

Wade: Shade is an interesting concept, at least to me. When I was growing up in the South, we talked trash, came up with "ya mama" jokes, you know, "played the dozens." The idea of "playing the dozens" was something intended to be lighthearted and jovial, but those same jokes aimed at the wrong person could easily spark some serious altercations. So when I moved to NYC in '05 and started to immerse myself in the "gay scene," I was a little taken aback by the shade culture. Perhaps shade was once intended to be lighthearted like the "dozens." Now, however, it seems that it permeates too many spaces. And within many marginalized communities, I believe there is a lot of pent-up anger, hurt and frustration. Shade is often thrown as a way to release ourselves of the pain and hurt that we've experienced. As I mature, I am more interested in allowing folks in my life who throw "positive shade," who understand the importance of recognizing and embracing the beauty of difference. I believe that one's ability to love and uplift others results from learning how to first love and embrace the fullness of oneself. I think the black gay community still struggles with that.

Darnell: It's worth repeating that shade isn't only practiced in the lives of black gay folks. I do think that we tend to hurt each other because many of us are still working through pain: the pain that has been inflicted upon us by intimates and strangers; the pain of homophobia; the pain of racism; the pain that comes as a result of the restrictive gender boxes that constrain us; the pain of rejection, dismissal, invisibility, spiritual and physical violences. So I get why it is that we may mirror the pain that many of us deal with internally. I also think that there is something to hurting the very thing that we are meant to love. Sometimes I think shade is used as a form of protection. But what are we trying to protect ourselves from except the possibility of connection and love? Maybe shade is the result of our fear that if we are too nice or too open or too vulnerable (God forbid), others will hurt us. In my own life I've been shadiest to folks I really wanted a connection with or folks I secretly admired or envied. Like one of my young "sheroes" recently told me, shade can only exist where there is light. I used to hate on others' light when I should have embraced it. Do you think shade can be positive?

Wade: That's powerful and so true. I don't know if I would consider myself someone who throws shade, but at the same time, I don't believe shade is universally negative. While I consider myself a novice at throwing shade, I use shade with the young people I work with to create forms of commonality or to create conversation or to mock myself, to remove barriers that sometimes leave them believing I'm an unapproachable, judgmental adult. The youth that I work with often use shade as a way to relate to one another, with no real malice intended, but an outside observer may deem their interactions shady. From my experiences, adults and/or mentors can use shade in playful ways with young people if boundaries are established and the shade is meant to create connections. How do you define shade? Does everyone define it the same way? Does the intent have to be negative in order for it to qualify as shade? How do you differentiate between "shade" and "familiar banter"?

Darnell: Shade, as I see it, is incisive and witty jest. It is meant to be "thrown," precisely targeted in another's direction. Shade is an exact, cutting and implicit response to another's exact, cutting and explicit foolishness. The best shade travels in stealth. Shade is also a posture, a cavalier attitude of attack that stings the person it hits precisely because they don't see it coming. Shade can be both offensive and defensive. Shade is some thoughtful, smart-ass type of retaliation and comeback. But can shade ever be good? Maybe. Like you've mentioned earlier (and others before you, like the characters in Paris Is Burning, for example), shade may not always be laced with malice. And even if it is, it is very possible that you can throw shade at the very friend you would otherwise fight to protect. I don't know, however. I do know that I am often exhausted by the presence of negativity in general. I mean, we get enough arrows thrown at us all the time, so I am not sure that creating and throwing more negativity is useful. I joke all the time. I joke about others too. I also am guilty of throwing a good bit of shade every now and then, but there has to be a better posture than one of defense, especially when we use it to defend against other queer and trans brothers and sisters. In your work with LGBT youth, do you notice shade culture shaping behaviors and attitudes for the good or the bad?

Wade: Before I answer your question, dilemma that you posed earlier was something I initially found comical (smart-ass comebacks), but as I began to understand the culture of shade, it started to sadden me a bit, because the shade that is thrown or directed at someone usually comes from the same people or persons we should be embracing and loving, because they may need it most. What breaks my heart is that shade seems to come easier than love for some. To answer your questions, I realized that many of our young people use shade to engage each other because many of them have been kept at a distance by people in their own lives. I found most of their shade performative, meaning they were just doing it to gain favor or the attention of another, and it had very little to do with intentionally wanting to hurt the person being shaded. Though I'm horrible and often get laughed at when attempting to throw shade with the young people, I want to intentionally remain awful at it to show them that throwing shade doesn't always have to result in pain or distance, that it can produce moments and opportunities to connect with folks within and outside their communities and create loving and respectful "fictive kinships."

Darnell: Yes, it can sound sort of kumbayaish, but you are right. The fact that it is often easier for some of us to throw shade or "read" someone than give love or an embrace is a problem. I really do think that shade is nothing more than the projection of our deep hurt back into the world. Too often, though, it consumes friends as opposed to illuminating the real culprit, a society that far too often condones the violations that we endure. I say we begin a campaign to end shade culture. When the sun is out, shade shows up to illuminate our presence, our reflection. Given that, shade says more about the person giving it than anything else. Instead of throwing shade or reading others, we should work hard to give affirmations, positivity and support. I say we turn inward and work on our pain so that others aren't affected negatively by it. I say we use our energy to build community and destroy the systems that would try to keep us from coming together. I say we teach our young folk to wield words that can be used as tools as much as we teach them to use them as weapons.

Wade: When we started this conversation, I thought, "How cool would it be to end this piece by throwing shade, to show how lighthearted it can be?" I'll throw some light instead. So I'd just like to say to you, my brother, that I love you.

Darnell: I love you more. I am tired of hurting others I am meant to love, bro. And I am tired of being hurt just the same. Healing can't happen by using weapons. It can only happen when we use tools to build. Love is one. You teach me that every day.