5 min

Blackface act sparks outrage and debate

Defenders call it art, but detractors say it's racist

Shirley Q Liquor, who performs in blackface, rejects criticism of her act as ignorance of race-drag history. !Kona (right, with Elaine Miller) calls the act racist, and feels betrayed by those who bought tickets for the show, which was cancelled. Credit: Erin Flegg

Black History Month is over, but !Kona celebrated only 27 minutes of it.

Last month, after presenting at Pecha Kucha Vol 25 at the Vogue Theatre, she found out that a leather bar in Portland called the Eagle had booked a drag queen called Shirley Q Liquor, who performs in blackface.

!Kona was outraged.

The act was cancelled several days later, following an outcry in Portland and in queer and kink communities across North America, but not before the event sold out.

!Kona says she felt betrayed by the people who bought tickets. “The list of rationalizations, normalizations, denials is shocking,” she says. “Gay men, do you stand up for your sisters? They stood up for you. White queers, do you stand up for your black queer sisters and brothers?”

A member of both queer and kink communities in Vancouver, !Kona says supporting a racist act goes against the principles that govern the leather community. “It’s not consensual, it’s not safe and it’s not sane to do this,” she says. “It’s lateral violence. It’s one oppressed group oppressing a group that is also oppressed.”

After about a week of defending, explaining and educating, !Kona decided to take a day off work. While riding the bus that day, she was verbally harassed because of her skin colour. None of her fellow passengers said a word.

“They looked to me like, what was I going to do? The bus driver said nothing, nobody did anything. When the person exited the bus nobody even said, ‘Are you okay?’” She heard them speak to each other about how horrible the scene was and about how they didn’t know what to do about it, but no one addressed her directly. She says this inability to act is often the crux of the issue.

“We’re not taught how to interrupt when shit goes wrong,” she says. “The anti-bullying movement is interesting to me because that begins, for me, to be an entry into how do we witness, how do we interrupt.” She says people often wait for some indication of the moral tenor of a scenario before stepping in, and if no one decides to act as moral compass, the group stays silent.

“I need someone to be the social signifier, to stand up and go, ‘Hey, not fucking acceptable,’ so that the other people who are there have the sense of what the right or wrong thing to do is.”

Some people defend Shirley Q Liquor on the grounds that it was performance art meant to highlight the issue of racism.

Patrick Bradley, also known by his stage name Eunita Biskit, is a drag performer in Virginia who has been vocal on Facebook in support of Shirley Q Liquor. Having seen her perform on previous occasions, he says he feels the vitriol the show inspired in Portland is unfounded.

“It’s not hate speech; nowhere anywhere in her act does she say anything hateful or disrespectful. By taking on race head-on in a comedy act, you’ve got to cross certain lines,” he argues. Bradley calls the responses he received to a post about the show — 373 comments in total — hypocritical, saying detractors are judging the show without seeing it and trampling the performer’s right to free speech.

“I’ve seen a lot of comedy; I don’t think that was too risqué. As a gay person, I’ve seen comedy I find offensive, but I appreciate it for what it is,” he says.

Chuck Knipp, the man behind Shirley Q Liquor, dismisses the criticism as ignorance of the history of race-drag and attributes much of the outrage to the racial makeup of Portland as a city.

“It amuses me that I can perform for mostly black audiences in some cities and get a terrific response, yet the people in Portland have such pent-up racial angst toward one another that even a non-performance by an obscure Texas drag queen is too threatening to handle,” he says in an email.

Knipp says the problem is not the historical implications of blackface, but an inability to recognize that blackface is deeply ingrained in modern culture whether we’re comfortable talking about it or not.

“The real issue people have is that I dare to mock some modern black cultural eccentricities,” he says. “There has been a tacit understanding that black people are either too noble or too weak to withstand parody of any kind, especially by a white person, who is assumed to carry all sorts of societal privileges that make them inherently more powerful and substantial than ‘people of colour.’”

Michael Talley, booking manager at the Eagle, says the bar is no longer commenting on the incident following an apology made on their Facebook page.

Reive Doig, editor of the online magazine Erotic Vancouver, doesn’t buy the arguments defending blackface performances.

“I was stunned at some of the defences coming out of the Portland community,” Doig says. “The unbelievable one was people justifying things by saying he was shining a prism on the issue.”

Doig says he has seen humour that can provoke and offend in the name of illuminating a difficult issue, but this isn’t it. “One thing I said was, would anyone who attended the Eagle have been excusing this if it was a comic at a straight club two blocks down who was saying gays were all pedophiles and looking to rape children?”

Carlos Del Rio, who moved to Vancouver after years of living in both Portland and Seattle, also dismissed the defence of Shirley Q Liquor’s act as art but credited a strong and diverse queer community for getting the act cancelled.

He says the attitude toward people of colour here is one of tolerance but not acceptance, ascribing that in part to underrepresentation in a city he finds less than cosmopolitan. He says he often finds himself being the only brown face at queer events, and it happens even more frequently at kink events.

But, he says it also has to do with the intersections of multiple minority identities.

“There’s a thing where you’re already in an ‘other’ group,” he says. “If you’re already sectioned off by the fact that we’re all the same sex and we’re all looking to meet each other, what’s left? Where you’re from or what you look like.”

He says further divides along social and sexual preferences mean the queer and kinky communities are prone to self-segregation, comparing the effect to the high-school lunchroom. “There are these clusters, and a lot of the time it does go along racial lines.”

When he does see other members of visible minorities, he says, people often travel in relatively insular groups. “It might be in part that we are doing some ghettoization ourselves just to create a safe space or because of some cultural divide.”

He says he feels the effect in different ways, whether it’s the difficulty of finding partners, to being eroticized.

Elaine Miller, owner of East Side Re-Rides, says many of the problems that arise with these incidents come from a fundamental misunderstanding of several key ideas. The first is what it means to be an ally to people of colour. Being an ally, she says, lies not in a decision made, but in an education undertaken.

“By allies, I always mean people who wish to be evaluated as allies by [people of colour] and their communities. So for instance, you can’t just stick a label on yourself and say, ‘I’m an ally. Why can’t we just get over this?’ You can’t put the label on yourself. You have to do the work.”

The second misconception concerns the definition of censorship. Many of those who bought tickets to see the Shirley Q Liquor show in Portland have cried foul on the grounds of free speech.

But Miller says censorship would be “something that came from a powerful agency such as your government, your public libraries.” Pointing out racist behaviour in fellow community members doesn’t count, she contends. “That’s not censorship. That’s our own right to say that shit is racist and has no place in our community.”