Left to right: Eureka O’hara, Alyssa Edwards, RuPaul, Charlie Hides, Laganja Estranja. Credit: Images via laganjaestranja.com, charliehidestv.com, Courtesy VH1, Jake Giles Netter/Netflix, Francesca Roh/Xtra
Pop Culture
9 min

RuPaul’s Drag Race has a racism problem

The show has exposed drag’s troubling traditions of appropriation and blackface

It’s another performance for drag queen Laquisha Jonz. She sings “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” in front of the audience and interacts with them as she prances from the main stage into the crowd wearing a pink vest and a tight purple bodysuit while acting like a caricature of a Black woman. She’s been doing this in different venues across the world for 14 years — she performs song and dance numbers, talks in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and acts based on stereotypes of Black working class women. She seems like a typical drag artist who exaggerates characteristics of womanhood for entertainment. But underneath the layers of dark brown makeup, Laquisha Jonz is Charlie Hides. And Charlie Hides is white.

The drag community has historically been a place where many people, queer or not, can celebrate diversity. It offers a platform for many marginalized people to discuss issues of inequality, oppression and injustice that often plague the LGBTQ2 community. While fun, many Black LGBTQ2 people believe that the community is infected with a malady often pushed to the sidelines. The problem that enables people like Hides to continue to perform as a caricature of a Black woman is the perpetuation of anti-Black racism and blackface.

As a whole, blackface and anti-Black racism permeates throughout the drag community. We see it with people like Hides and Chuck Knipp, who used to douse himself with chocolate-brown foundation once a month to “portray” his Black character, Shirley Q Liquor. Hides, Knipp and other queens who engaged in such behaviours received harsh criticisms that only fizzled over time — that is, until RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show that brought drag to a much wider audience. Along with its popularity, though, the show has also brought drag’s problematic issues of racism and appropriation to light.

In fact, it’s because of the popularity of the show that Hides’ character, Laquisha Jonz, was uncovered. When Hides appeared on the ninth season of Drag Race, someone leaked a video of her performing in her hometown in blackface. Hides has since apologized and has stopped performing as Laquisha Jonz because of the widespread outrage.

As the most mainstream, commercialized version of drag, RuPaul’s Drag Race should assume the responsibility of addressing its anti-Blackness, including its cast members who have performed in blackface. The incident with Hides, for instance, got me — and others — thinking: Is it time that we held Drag Race accountable?

Charlie Hides. Credit: Image via charliehidestv.com, Francesca Roh/Xtra

RuPaul’s Drag Race has always had its fair share of problems tackling issues of race. However, its history of racism, appropriation and anti-Blackness are often left unspoken. For example, when past contestants like Eureka O’Hara and Alyssa Edwards have taken on characteristics of Black women as a part of their characters’ personality, or the recent controversy involving Season 11 queen Brooke Lynn Hytes who defended a friend (another drag queen in blackface) on social media. I continue to wonder why the conversation of appropriation and blackface hasn’t been given more attention by the show’s creators.

While racism and anti-Blackness are indeed a problem on the show, the real issue is how blasé the show’s creator, RuPaul, has been about this subject over time. Even when brought to task about his support of Chuck Knipp (aka Shirley Q Liquor), who was called out for doing blackface while in drag in 2001, RuPaul responded that Knipp was a friend and people need to stop being so sensitive.

The issue of blackface isn’t anything new in the community, but each one of these acts has shed light on the overt anti-Blackness and appropriation found in drag which are perpetuated by artists who take on Black euphemisms and personas and then garner a massive following and career out of it.

When individuals like RuPaul dismiss the issues of cultural appropriation and blackface on and off the show by telling queens to “get over it,” it is a stark reminder that some performers still see Blackness as comedic and a concept that lends itself to entertainment.

Though a new concept for some, the use of blackface dates as far back as 1830. The goal was to depict Black people as laughable, less-than-smart caricatures. It has a long and harmful history of being used in vaudeville and minstrel shows and, later, in films like The Jazz Singer, as a vehicle to further Black stereotypes, specifically exaggerating Black people’s characteristics, mannerisms and their lack of education due, in part, to slavery.

As someone who is both Black and queer, seeing a person perform blackface is a stark reminder that people still see me and my culture not only as less-than, but as something that is laughable. Blackface perpetuates the idea that our struggles as Black people are comedic.

Eureka O'Hara and Alyssa Edwards. Credit: Courtesy VH1, Jake Giles Netter/Netflix, Francesca Roh/Xtra

More than blackface, the problem extends to the ways in which white Drag Race queens appropriate Black culture by using things like AAVE to build characters that engage and entertain viewers. We saw this when former contestant Laganja Estranja used stereotypical Black woman mannerisms and AAVE in each of her performances, often referring to everyone as “Mah-Mah.” When called out for this, Laganja claimed that she felt “personally attacked,” eventually beginning to cry and try to get away from the conversation.

Within the past decade, several things have transpired on Drag Race that have left Black LGBTQ2 viewers questioning the intent of white contestants. Many of these concerns began after Derrick Barry was called out for what viewers called performative Blackness during an Empire-themed challenge in Season 8. Beyond the problematic comments about the scene needing more “soul,” it’s the flippant “it’s just entertainment” attitude that makes so many people believe the show is fueling much of the racism that lives within the LGBTQ2 community.

From problematic challenges like “RuCo’s Empire” to “Why It Gotta Be Black, Panther,” anti-Blackness continues to spread throughout the constructs of the show. The usual breakdown comes when Black Drag Race contestants begin to name covert moments of blackface, like AAVE, and challenge white contestants to take ownership when they engage with a history that has been so harmful to Black people.

Since many of the white contestants have never been challenged, especially when they perform Blackness, they often push back and become very angry or emotional — like when The Vixen, a Black Drag Race contestant, outrightly challenged the ways that white drag performers engaged in acts of racism and anti-Blackness in a conversation on Untucked (RuPaul’s Drag Race’s companion show that features the queens backstage as they wait for RuPaul’s decision). Although the intent was to educate, Black queens garnered a reputation of being combative and argumentative.

This becomes more of an issue when you juxtapose how angry Laganja became when she was brought to task over the ways she engaged her whiteness in covert acts of blackface and how quick she ran away from the conversation. The stark difference in the ways The Vixen and Laganja are portrayed show an uneven balance of power; it shows how white performers are given far more leverage to “learn” from their acts of racism and oppression while Black drag performers are rarely given the proper time and space to be angry about the actions of their white peers.

What complicates things even more is the constant denial that there’s a race issue in the LGBTQ2 community, drag community and in the Drag Race fandom. For example, when RuPaul has been called out regarding contestants participating in blackface or appropriation on or off the show, his statements have been dismissive and victim blaming. It’s as if Black participants and fans are gaslit into believing that these issues do not exist.

What’s tragic, though, is when the media and drag fandoms continue to perpetuate the idea that Black performers are the reason for the acts of racism and oppression they face both on the show and in the drag community, leading many to believe that individuals like RuPaul are complicit with the issue.

Many (including her fellow contestant The Vixen) called out Eureka O’Hara, for the ways in which she weaponized Blackness when, during a makeover challenge, Eureka paired Aquaria with Black social media influencer Kingsley saying that she hoped Aquaria, a white drag performer, wouldn’t be able to do Kingsley’s makeup because of the colour of his skin.

The Vixen attempted to explain the ways in which Eureka operated from a biased lens — like when Eureka commented on The Vixen’s looks or how she would scream and walk away when others mentioned her problematic antics.

All of this came to a head during the Season 10 reunion, when The Vixen openly challenged everyone in her season to think about the ways that Black drag performers experience racism and why it seemed that white performers like Eureka could get away with their acts.

“Everyone is telling me how to react rather than telling them how to act,” exclaimed The Vixen, who eventually left the reunion out of frustration over the conversation.

RuPaul then responded by telling the performers (Black ones, specifically) that they needed to learn how to work through acts of racism because that is, in fact, part of the business.

“People who find themselves in situations similar to The Vixen’s need to be accountable for themselves.”

But this is part of the greater problem: racism, anti-Blackness and white supremacy are all woven into the foundation of drag and very few have yet to step up to try to solve the problem. While it can be said that past contestants like The Vixen have tried to begin the conversation, rarely are these conversations met with open minds. What’s unfortunate is when Black queens receive so much backlash from fans — calling them angry, rude, nasty — when all they want to do is hold their peers accountable for making them feel inferior and for co-opting their culture.

The ways in which RuPaul addresses these racist acts on the show implies that, in order for Black people to heal around issues of racism and anti-Blackness, we must accept these actions as part of the ever-complicated concept of drag.

However, this suggestion tells Black people they are the reason for the injustice they experience and puts the work on marginalized performers to be educators. This furthers the idea that white people are unknowing of the history of racism — and it’s our task to let them know, regardless of the emotional toll.

Laganja Estranja. Credit: Image via laganjaestranja.com, Francesca Roh/Xtra

Many white cisgender Drag Race alumni are dismissive or flippant when challenged about racism and anti-Blackness — others have even won fans while acting like it never happened. For example, both Charlie Hides and Brooke Lynn Hytes have released public statements apologizing for their actions, and they have since not only gone on to be fan favourites of their season, but have also found great success in their post-Drag Race careers.

Meanwhile, Black drag performers and fans are left to make sense of the pain white performers have inflicted upon them. White performers on Drag Race are never fully held accountable for their actions, and the show’s creator often seeks to validate the “intent” of a queen, rather than the impact.

In most cases, certain contestants aren’t held accountable for their actions at all because the “intent” was not to cause harm. And often the LGBTQ2 identity is posited before their race to suggest that being gay means they are somehow less likely to commit acts of racial violence. What must be understood is that there is a responsibility that comes with being a white drag queen, whether it is owned or not.

Just as Black drag queens must live with the pain of blackface, racism and anti-Blackness, white drag performers must live with the historical ramifications of what whiteness has allowed them to experience both in and out of the drag community. White queens often have larger social media platforms and more lucrative deals, and white privilege continues to overshadow the issues that both the show and the community have yet to take on. Black individuals do not feel safe in the LGBTQ2 community, so much so that they’re working to create spaces that are exclusively for Black LGBTQ2 people.

Moments like when Eureka intentionally used Blackness as weapon and means for entertainment, remind us of the ways in which white supremacy works and how it seeps even into a space like drag or a show like Drag Race. Eureka may be part of the LGBTQ2 community, but she is white first. When Black contestant Kennedy Davenport sent white queen Katya home, she received mounds of hate mail. Both Nina Bo’nina Brown and The Vixen have been deemed the “mean queens” in their seasons for naming acts of racism and anti-Blackness.

What’s sadder, though, is how many of these Black queens were scolded by RuPaul for “not knowing how to act” instead of praised for naming each system of oppression and how it continues to manifest both inside and outside of the workroom.

While blackface, racism and anti-Blackness continue to remain a very large issue in the drag community, the producers and the creator of RuPaul’s Drag Race must be willing to change the system in place to confront it. And beyond the structure of the show needing to be more equitable, the fandom — which is mainly the source of many of the issues in the drag community — must be held accountable for their acceptance of acts of racism and discrimination. The legacy of drag won’t change if those who call themselves legendary won’t help to make it happen, and it’s the lack of action that enables characters like Laquisha Jonz and Shirley Q Liquor to exist. It’s time speak up and to tell all acts of racism in Drag Race and in the drag community to sashay away.