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Racism and The Power of Performance

If you’re part of the kink or Leather demographics, you’re probably guessing what this post is about, what it’s inspired by. Since my blog has a diverse readership, let me sum up what has happened so they can participate in the conversation should they choose to.

Across the country, there is a brotherhood of bars that call themselves “The Eagle”, which indicates that it is founded, or run, but almost always caters to, the gay Leatherman demographic. Many major cities have one, including DC, and many of them don’t solely cater to the Leather demographic, or hold “Leather nights” in addition to other theme nights. My experience with visiting the DC Eagle is that there is a big demographic of gay men who do not identify as “Leather” who hang out there, but what makes it different from other gay bars is that should a gay leatherman decide to go bedecked in his leathers (or perhaps his “latexes” or his “rubbers”), they would not be looked at askance. The Eagle in question here, the Portland (OR) Eagle, has twice-weekly leather nights, but primarily identify as a gay bar (rather than a Leather bar).

For an upcoming fundraiser, the Portland Eagle booked Shirley Q. Liquor, a drag queen who seems to have a following in drag circles. Unlike most drag performers, the man behind the Shirley character, Chuck Knipp, not only transgresses gender, but is a Caucasian male whose persona is a send-up of some of the worst stereotypes that exist about black women – that they have many children by many different fathers with odd names, that they receive welfare and abuse alcohol/drugs, that they are fat and lazy and uneducated. And if that isn’t enough, he does this while wearing blackface.

If you’re a typical American, your knowledge of black face performances may be limited to Amos and Andy, who were black musicians who (follow me here) used the mechanism of white performers putting on dark makeup (but always leaving just enough off to show that they are actually white) and performing musical and comedy sketches that played on not just the racist stereotypes, but a lot of misinformation and unfounded concepts of what it meant to be a black performer. Amos and Andy basically turned it on it’s ear, putting white rings around their mouths so as to appear white-in-blackface, in order to break through the racism keeping them from any financial success.

But the tradition of blackface is founded in the cultural majority – Caucasians – creating and perpetuating negative attitudes and stereotypes of an oppressed people, because by pretending that all black performers were uneducated, slow witted, and only had worth as performers as a way to laugh at and mock their cultural and racial traditions (like jazz music or tap dance). Needless to say, when we finally started realizing that racism has more to do with the cultural, social, political, and financial oppression than it does about not understanding or particularly liking an ethnic or racial tribe different from our own, we not only stopped the mishagas, but we threw it in the far back recesses of our collective closets and never spoke of it again.

And maybe that’s partly what is causing this to happen now; we’ve pretended so hard that blackface was more about bringing black performance into the spotlight, rather than a bunch of lily white people denegrating the entirety of all the different black races, that when Chuck decided to create this character, he hadn’t been exposed to the gritty and hateful past of black face performance. It probably didn’t help that RuPaul, a household name and drag queen, put Chuck on one of her CDs. (And by CD, in this case, I do not mean “Cross Dresser”.) Ru has stated publicly that anyone who thinks Chuck is a racist is obviously “an idiot”, but I disagree.

When I first read Mollena Williams’ outcry at her revulsion and hurt over a leather bar booking this act, I have to admit that my first response was “But it’s parody.” However, I’m a white person, so what Chuck does doesn’t affect me emotionally. Then I started imagining someone looking at all the stereotypes of fat people, turning into a character that people could laugh at, and I came to a realization. Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to engage in such performance acts, what it really does is allow us to laugh at things that we shouldn’t laugh at. We can’t laugh at the guy with Tourette’s when we see him in the mall, so we wait until some comedian does a joke about how great it would be to shout out random obscenities whenever you felt like it. We can’t deal with our discomfort seeing a fat person using a wheelchair, so we wait until some radio jockey does a riff on how fat people are getting so lazy, now they don’t even walk places. We have this inner tension, and it makes us uncomfortable, and laughter is a cheap and easy way to expel that sensation without actually dealing with it.

Whereas, if we challenged ourselves to examine our discomfort, we might begin to empathize with what we see. We might look for more information. We might google Tourettes, to find out that very few TS sufferers have corprolalia (shouting out obscenities), but most have extremely painful muscle dystonia or other tics that cause permanent physical harm. We might fall down a google hole of reading blogs of people who use wheelchairs, finding out how very difficult it is to be waist high in the world. We might engender a feeling of caring, openness, and informed participation.

But that’s the harder road to take. Laughing it off feels good; laughing is good for us physically, increases feel-good hormones and lightens our mood. But it does nothing to increase our evolution; we laugh it off, as the saying goes. It leaves us and doesn’t return until the next time we see Shirley Q, where we get to continue to release our discomfort.

Where does that lead? It leads to the creation of a synapse in our brain, literally. When we think of black women, we’ll think of Shirley Q, and we’ll laugh. And when we see black women on the news, we will remember all the things Shirley Q portrayed them to be, and believe it of the woman on the television, even if that black woman is the next Pearl Bailey, or Mary McLeod Bethune. And we’ll laugh, instead of taking them seriously, because underneath that laughter is the fear of the unknown, of that which we do not understand, of that which is different from our own experience.

That laughing it off is a form of dismissal. Of communicating to yourself and others that it isn’t horrific, it’s funny. If Chuck Knipp came out as himself and delivered the same routine in a straight delivery, he’d be arrested, or at least thrown out of a gay establishment (one would hope). But at the very least, he would sound like a terrible bigot. And that’s because he is. It doesn’t matter if he has a million black friends and they all think Shirley is a riot; he is a member of a dominant class belittling and insulting someone beneath him, enforcing the negative falsehoods that keep us from understanding and accepting black women as our peers and equals. He is putting them in their place, which is a place of ridicule and mockery.

What would be edgy and interesting is if Chuck put together a character of an upper class white woman CEO, who hates fags and can’t believe she’s found herself in front of a gay audience. That’s satire, because it says something political and interesting about class, money, and gender.

Speaking of gender, when thinking about this business, I started to ask myself and others if this means that all drag is sexist, since it is males (the privledged class) making a mockery of women (the disempowered class). The answer I and my peers came to is that it really depends on how the performer approaches the character. Most drag queens love and revere women, and want nothing more than to show them as powerful, sexy, important people. They dress up as Wonder Woman and kick ass. You don’t see so many drag queens creating characters based on redneck women from the Appalachians, based solely on the negative stereotypes therein; if they do decide on a “farmer’s daughter” type of character, it is almost always with the send-up of the unseen superhero; the woman everyone thinks is capable of nothing but making babies and smoking cigarettes, doing something powerful and empowering.

That’s the difference. Although I still object to Chuck using blackface because of it’s history, if he really wanted to do black female characters (for whatever reason), I’d love to see him do powerful, intelligent, world-changing and ass-kicking black women.

As someone who believes in the spiritual power of performance and storytelling, I think that’s the key. When we are given an audience, do we spend that energy picking on and bullying them? It works for some performers (like Lisa Lampinelli and Don Rickles), but you’ll note that neither of them ever made it as big as Richard Pryor or Billy Chrystal, who used the opportunity to poke fun at their own tribes, while still showing them respect and empowerment. We see people like S. Bear Bergman going out and speaking about trans* experience; sharing the funny foibles that come with living a trans* life – allowing you some release from your own discomfort with gender identity – without making jokes about men wearing dresses so they can lie in wait in women’s bathrooms. We’re even starting to see Pagan comedians, able to find the capricious moments without casting us as black-robe-wearing, baby-eating Satanists living in our mother’s basements.

There is a way to approach negative stereotypes in a performance without enforcing them. John Leguizamo’s one man show “Freak” (a very worthwhile watch) definitely played with the negative stereotypes Latinos face; but what he did that Chuck is failing to do, is to turn the one dimensional into the technicolor. When Leguizamo is standing there imitating his very conservative father, he is also showing you why his father was that way, what lead to his stereotypical behavior. Instead of just encouraging us to laugh it off, he’s encouraging us to laugh it in, to use humor to open our hearts and minds instead of close them. To make us wish we were Latinos, rather than be glad that we’re not.

Although this one performance of Chuck Knipp is closed down, I really hope discussion of his performances linger on; the posts the kink community make will live on the Internet and get the right search results so next to the YouTube videos of his act will stand the commentary of those who find him objectionable and racist. To me, this is why more of us should blog on the subject; not just to stand in solidarity with our sisters of color; but to encourage Knipp to find a new and different way to use the stage he’s been given, regardless of how he got there; to open our minds through laughter, rather than closing our hearts.

There are a lot of articles and blog posts popping up in regards to this issue. I haven’t been able to locate each and every one of them, so if you write one or know of one that should be included, go ahead and add it in the comments.

That last link has a nice collection at the bottom of all the Leatherati posts regarding the Portland show, including one I really wanted to have on the list, but was having too much trouble loading; one by a black female Leatherati correspondant named Tyesha Best, who defended the show.

About Del

A shaman who writes about spiritual things, but not in that namby-pamby "everything is light and fluffy" sort of way.

2 responses to “Racism and The Power of Performance

  1. In my ethics of magick course at Grey School, one essay I had to write on is the ethics of performance magick – theatre. When does it breach ethics and when it doesn’t. I think this post points to the heart of the dilemma – where is the line to be drawn between exploitive performance and sacred theatre. Where I draw the line is the purpose and intent of the performance. Does it help the audience to explore new ideas and expand their ideas of the world? Does it keep them comfortable in their safe niches?

    I am not in the communities that you discuss but I do see the same issues in the Arab/Persian communities. When does the comic help the audience to see these people as humans and when is it a stand-up thing? One Iraniani comic gets a lot of laughs when he presents how slow and full of vowels Persian is and how a Farsi speaker sounds in English. Though he is poking gentle fun at Farsi speakers, he is educating the rest of us as to the cultural differences between Persians and Americans.

    Does this performer in the Leather community help the audience to go into areas that are uncomfortable to them or does he make it safe for them to feel superior? It is a thorny question, and I will be reading the discussion on this. Thanks for the post.

  2. Pingback: Queer Racial Justice PDX Urges Further Action from Eagle on Shirley Q. Liquor Booking | ERIN ROOK

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