the philosophactivist

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Oppression and Austin: Drag Performance, Racism, Misogyny, Transphobia

I'm almost certain that a number of folks of color may have seen a drag show where a white queen may have appropriated someone else's culture. I'm not sure if I'll call it "inevitable" but I'll say that it seems to be a fundamental part of drag culture. Women putting on kimono's, acting out the part of black women like Whitney and Aretha and maybe even Selena or Shakira. In comedy routines folks may even play the part of trans, sex workers or immigrants.

What's wrong with that? Drag is all about being campy, right? Maybe folks were being political? Anyways, art shouldn't have to answer to anyone...

In Austin, TX after two back to back incidences over 100 queers came together in a town hall meeting for a discussion on drag performance and anti-oppression.

The community conversation took place due to two drag performances portraying race and gender in, what some deemed, a very problematic way. One is actually a character, named Christeene, who is a trans, sex worker who, some believe to be portrayed problematically. The other performance happened on Cinco de Mayo and was called Sequin de Mayo and involved drag performers dressing up as cholas. The fliers had cholas behind bars on them.

Here is the letter that helped spark the discussion.

Here's a brief summary of what went down in our "anti-oppression" discussion which had over 100 people:


"Does political correctness divide the queer community? What are the pitfalls of oversensitivity? What are the pitfalls of accusing others of oversensitivity? How can our performances unite our community? How can our performances hurt or oppress members of our community? How can we productively answer these questions together?

Recently, there has been a lot of debate, discussion, and disagreement about queer performance practices (drag, music, etc.) within our community. This event is an opportunity for us to gather in the same space and address concerns that affect us all. The hope is that, by having these conversations, we will reach mutual understandings that benefit all of us in the queer community of Austin. EVERYONE is welcome and encouraged to attend: whether you have a lot to say, or aren't sure what to think; whether you perform all the time, or have only been to one show. Or maybe you've never been to a performance and you're just curious about what's going on in Austin's queer community."


Matt Richardson, Assistant Professor in English and African and African Diaspora Studies

Juniper, an organizer anti-oppression facilitator

Format, Contract and and Working Solutions:

Town Hall update report:

So...I muscled through being mispronouned (the guy apologized 3 times afterward...but it still didn't erase that I had told him my pronouns as part of the intro exercise and he STILL got it wrong in front of over 100 queers or that I will be mispronouned in the community til I die...possibly).[aside: a guy called me "she" in front of the whole queer community when my pronouns are they/them or he/him or more preferably, Toi]

The anti-oppression conversation in a room of predominantly white queer folks was...interesting. Though I would say that we QPOC did establish critical mass. We heard a lot of perspectives. No Jerry Springer stuff popped off and, for the most part, everyone listened to the experience of those 1)who felt empowered by drag performers and 2)those who were hurt at some point by racist things that drag performers had done in our community. Drag performers also talked about their own personal experiences with their art.

I think it only became problematic when folks started saying it was our (POC's) job to come to the table and asking what they could do to fix this (though we QPOC and allies had already said it wasn't our job minutes before).

Other problematic points happened when a few performers said that no one should change their art and that they should be able to represent other cultures if they had good intentions...and a brown person gave license to folks dressing up as cholas but to be the "best chola they could be".

I particularly liked statements by Las Krudas...especially Odamayra when she said it wasn't her fault if white folks thought that their cultures were too boring to portray on stage.

I also liked when folks mentioned that if these (white) folks were so down, why didn't they show up when it was mainly QPOC performing and support in that way instead of "inviting" us or trying to be more "inclusive" in their (predominantly white) spaces.

I hope the conversation continues but I learned in Brooklyn while being concerned about "integrating" mostly white queer radical spaces that that's not what I'm here to do. I am more concerned with helping folks w/in our (POC) community heal from oppression. I am not to be tokenized. There is too much healing to do and I know that white folks need to do their own work with other white folks. (And yes! There are other white folks doing this work: ) And many, many more groups exist that you can google...instead of asking a POC person!

You know, there was one (white and 1/? Native American?) lady who cleared at least 3 QPOC out of the room (and shut down I don't even know how many) because she kept saying hurtful things during her 3 minute schpiel during the discussion. She was crying and saying the system wasn't white folks' fault and asking how could she help us (POC). Folks kept getting up and walking outside to the designated safe space and she even acknowledged this as she talked. Afterward she went into the safe space outside to track down the people who had left to ask what she had done wrong and how she could fix it and telling them that "we" (QPOC)want to be heard but that them leaving the room wasn't going to fix it.


Sigh.Sigh.Sigh. Odamayra also mentioned that it's interesting how all these folks will show up for something like this...but not to build or support anything political (immigration rights, unemployment, etc.).
All in all my assessment is that it was a good step for this community. Folks from the community came up with a list of solutions...there's an email list to set up a way to continue the conversation.There's already a scheduled anti-racist conversation. Sure, folks mingled long after the forum. But...I'm skeptical about what will come from it. I snapped my fingers and clapped my hands at more comments than I tried not to roll my eyes at. But...have I seen this before? Time will tell...I am grateful to the organizers who took a lot of heat and the facilitators for jumping on the skillet and roasting a little bit during 2 1/2 hours of dialogue. They kept composure and made sure this epic (for Austin) dialogue happened in a "civilized" manner.

Click here for one of the organizer's perspectives.

Of course there are still ripples of conversations happening online which are catty, negative, ridiculous, racist and are denigrating what happened the other night. Of course there are.

You see, here's the thing...

Visible queer culture in Austin is largely white. Don't believe me? Visit QueerBomb on June 1st and check out the demographics. That's not to say that there aren't brown queers here. Oh we're here. We have our bubble...we have our own events like the Puro Chingon Social club which hosts the Free and Queer Cinema, and allgo (our statewide QPOC non-profit org) puts on all kinds of workshops, plays by Adelina Anthony, D-Lo, readings by Tim'm West, and holds space for us marginalized and underrepresented in the "larger queer culture" of this not so liberal or progressive city that still thinks they're "weird".

Weirdly conservative despite what they think...wish...hope.

True Counterculture in Austin is brown...

The counterculture here is truly those Q/POC and allies who meet for potlucks in each others homes, and create events like Artivism--

a QPOC poetry event featuring poet activists/artivists and political poetry, and carve unlikely spaces for themselves among the hippies, hipsters, and blind conservatives. 
The truth is- it's really easy to be deemed as liberal and progressive "for the South". Austin holds on to this image of being so avant-garde so tourists will come and maybe even stay awhile. But this doesn't mean that this city or ANY city who proclaims to be progressive is actually progressive. It's all relative? 
Yea. I suppose.

The saving grace of this city is that it is a college town and that the university is (usually) progressive. (At least the brown people and allies there keep it that way) 

 UT Austin has events like Abriendo Brecha

which is designed to bridge the gap between academia/scholarship and social justice work.

There's also the John R. Warfield Center for African American Studies where the awesome QWOC professor Omi Osun Joni L. Jones can be found breaking down barriers, talking about movement and reclamation, and writing her books,plays and poetry.

Deep down however...there is a dark history of segregation starting with laws passed in 1928. Check out the East Austin Gentrification Timeline

There is still housing, employment, and health care discrimination based on race and socioeconomic status. And it is so deep and continues to be written into policies. Oh that's say? It's inevitable, you say...

Oh see, I thought that's what made cities that are liberal and progressive different. I thought they were supposed to be hip to these issues and be set on doing something about some or all of them.

So many times I hear white radicals and hippies talking about institutional and structural racism and patriarchy and the importance of anti-racism and such but rarely do I see much being done about it in a substantial manner.  It's just something cool to talk about with your friends at the coffee shop that was built in what used to be a brown neighborhood until the city wanted to "revitalize" the place which added to displacement, harassment and violence from increased law enforcement against black and brown bodies. But that's good because now there will be all these businesses pumping money into...well oops...not the neighborhood. But ...they're good for the community...ooops...not the "old community". But boy those new homes and "community markets" sure look great...don't they? Oh no..they are getting too suburban and the prices are getting too high so on to the next neighborhood with their privilege and mobility in hand! Don't like it POC...why don't you just move, too?

Because being poor is expensive.

Because the poor are considered a "risky" investment gas, groceries, interest on your house, credit cards, loans, etc. are more expensive.

Why am I saying all this?
Because the queer community is a microcosm of this macrocosm. Things are actually exacerbated when multiple identities and oppressions collide. When a person embodies multiple marginalized identities (queer, brown,female,etc.) and they are part of a "larger community" that fails to see how a performance or an event perpetuates cycles of structural racism (because of the unearned privileges they've earned due to their white skin) it's kind of hard to empathize with their "art" or "movement" or continue to see folks as "radical" or "progressive". And even harder to believe that this "pushing of boundaries" is designed to be transgressive or political. Campy becomes just another way to perpetuate stereotypes. 

This is a great article on that sort of thing.

Just because a person is brown...

And I find it necessary to add that just because a person is brown doesn't mean that they are not invested in white supremacy unconsciously or consciously. We are all dealing with internalized oppression and the color of our skin does not guarantee that we are not perpetuating the oppressive cycles that we have been socialized to take part in and perpetuate. It is really hurtful to our Q/POC communities when a person from our community co-signs onto racist/sexist/transphobic events because they haven't checked what they've internalized or given any sort of analysis to the performance/event. 

Art is art...

Some will say- But art is art. Artists don't have to be held accountable...artists don't need to be responsible. Art doesn't always have to be political.

And I'll say...we Q/POC will continue to hold you responsible and accountable for racist bullshit. We are tired of racism and sexism being perpetuated all "for fun". We are tired of you being able to sleep at night after you've wounded several in our community. We face this And while it's not your duty to make us feel's not our duty to keep you feeling comfortable either. 

As soon as you decide to appropriate or exploit, it's considered political. Whether you want it to be or not.

And we are going to call you on it. And we are going to keep calling you on it until you get that it's not ok to exploit, appropriate and expect us to assimilate into what you deem as entertaining. You keep doing your thing...which is exactly what being privileged and entitled is about...and we'll keep being "angry" and brown and calling you on it. 

These anti-oppression conversations that are popping up around the country are extremely important because they are an attempt to unravel the fabric of a country which has been interwoven with racism, xenophobia and sexism. Don't worry- it will be transformed and restitched. But won't be able to hold on to your oppressive views and get away with it under the guise of "artistic freedom" or "just having fun". You can look at your fellow white artists and ask the token brown one to cosign that your art is ok...but you and I both know that it's not. Never was...never will be.

I know it sucks that now you'll have to think about everyone you may be wounding with your art. But you know what's worst? Being born into a racist system and dealing with racism and other types of oppression on a daily basis in the media, health care, your job, school,etc. and being invisibilized, tokenized,  or told that this oppression doesn't exist or is just for entertainment purposes. Take that shoe and wear it for a while...and then come back and say "art is art" or ask Q/POC to teach you about their pain and what to do to heal it or call us angry because we won't tolerate it anymore...especially within a smaller queer community.

The time has come for queers perpetuating oppression to be called out and for people to be held accountable...plain and simple. This isn't new. It's been happening since the 70s and maybe even long before. But our voices are even louder now with social media and our allies. 

So, instead of expecting folks to re-assimilate into an ancient model that works for the few, it'd be best to just succumb to decolonization and become an ally or just a better human being for it.

This is not POC's work

Though I've written about this here and here
I'd like to reiterate that this anti-oppression and decolonization work, if you're white, needs to largely be done with other white folks.  It is not my job to help anyone "slum it" for a day workshop or help you understand yourself and your place in this system better. Why? Because along with that comes the expectation that I will suck up or invisibilize my own pain to make you feel better. I've seen many an anti-racist workshop that had white folks in tears and brown folks tending to them and telling them they are not a bad person. And you're not. Well I don't know you...but I assume you're not if you are reading this particular blog or have been referred to it by some awesome friend of yours.

The thing is, we as POC have been trained to hide our own feelings and deny our own experiences of pain and put white folks' first whether it's at our jobs or in other daily interactions. It's residual from slavery and I dare you to analyze your everyday interactions ...I mean, really scrutinize them, and see where you can see this taking place.

So's not POC's work to educate. We have our own internalized oppression to heal from and we can't heal you from yours simultaneously. Though, we can be compassionate and be a part of larger conversations like the town hall meeting that happened the other night. But remember, some people left wounded and that's why folks might opt out of these conversations. This should be respected. All anti-oppression work, of course, must have a foundation of compassion, respect and understanding and it may take some time to get there...

but we will get there. 

Paso a step at a time.


  1. So interesting that "art" becomes about "free speech" when it is being racist. QWOCMAP believes that art is political (even the non-political art is political because that is a kind of privilege), despite the fact that "western civilization" has divided art into high (white) vs. low (mostly of color) art. White supremacy also leads us to believe that art somehow doesn't have an impact on the personal and the political. That somehow art is all about free expression apart from the lived experiences and institutionalized oppression that everybody living in reality is living with. So the arguments about cultural appropriation, racism and white supremacy can't be erased by the notion of "art" and "free speech). So these white folks need to come up off their privilege, racism and white supremacy.

    1. Yes! So on point. Thank you for the work you do- giving voice to the voiceless and redefining what "art" is. We don't need a drag queen or comedian to portray us...we don't need to try to be represented in spaces that are not inclusive when we can make our own art and create our own spaces and have been for some time. Film has been one of those places that has been hard to break into for any POC, let alone if you're queer so I am so very thankful for what QWOCMAP does. Who needs to wait around for white execs to approve your script after they've revised it into something you don't believe in anymore? Who needs to pray that someone somewhere (white) will have mercy on you and approve your queer, brown project when you have the skills to create it yourself!

  2. What do you suggest a person do who wants to be part if the solution?

    1. Educate yourself and others who are interested and start conversations and talk solutions in those circles because there's not just one cure-all. Communities can be extremely different.

      There are some anti-racist resources here:

      -some are specific to health care but there are others.

      Also, a google search on anti-oppression or anti-racist organizations and groups should yield some results.