Sex-Positive Racism: Holding Alt Communities Accountable

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Danny Wylde as himself, and in yellowface for his role in Burning Angel's porn parody of The Walking Dead

Two events this month highlighted why alternative sexuality communities, which pride themselves on an ethic of broad tolerance, remain so overwhelmingly white. First, a January 31 story in Jezebel publicized the decision of porn mogul Joanna Angel to portray an Asian character by putting a white actor in yellowface. In Burning Angel's porn parody of The Walking Dead, white actor Danny Wylde was cast in the part of the Korean-American character Glenn, with his complexion yellowed and the skin around his eyes taped back into narrow slits.

shirleyqliquor.jpg
Wikipedia
Chuck Knipp as "Shirley Q. Liquor"

Meanwhile, in Portland, a second controversy exploded when white drag performer Chuck Knipp was booked at the Portland Eagle for a show featuring his alter ego "Shirley Q. Liquor." Knipp's persona as Shirley Liquor has been controversial for years. As Liquor, Knipp enacts the crudest of racial stereotypes about black women: Shirley is a lazy welfare queen with 19 children with names like Chlamydia, Cheeto, and Kmartina, all with different fathers. Shirley is known by her catch phrase "How you durrring?" and performs songs like "Who's My Baby Daddy?"


The most notable thing about both events was not the initial incidents, but how the communities responded to them. People of color were asked to "prove" that Knipp's act was racist; they were told to "lighten up," and be less politically correct; Knipp's supporters ignored the historical legacy of blackface, claiming that it was no different than when black actors like Dave Chappelle portrayed white characters onstage. Much of the conversation took place on the Eagle's Facebook page and has now been deleted. However, Portland activist Emi Koyama has preserved an excellent archive of screenshots preserving some of the most egregious examples.

Just before the Eagle decided to cancel Knipp, they posted an incoherent and resentful tirade against their critics:

Eagle Facebook.jpg
From Emi Koyama's Tumblr

Joanna Angel's response to her critics was similar to that of the Eagle. On her blog, she immediately dismissed people who objected to Danny Wylde's yellowface portrayal as a bunch of oversensitive prudes:

Alright, I know some of you lame asses were offended by me turning someone non-Asian into someone Asian, but Danny is an important member of the BurningAngel family and I really wanted him in this movie -- and he actually has a lot of similar features as Glenn and made the most sense to play him. Around election time, I aged Danny about 60 years and turned him into Joe Biden. In Evil Head, we gave him an '80s-looking wig. I was not doing this to make fun of anyone of any race -- I did this because it was a parody. So all you over-sensitive PC people: calm down.

The same arguments were trotted out to defend Burning Angel as with the Shirley Q. Liquor incident. AVN attempted to "help" the situation by first telling everyone that they should lighten up because it was just a porno. Also, they said, it shouldn't be any big deal because there's lots of anti-Asian racism in porn, as demonstrated by titles like Shrimp Fried Pussy, Dim Sum Pussy, and Yellow Fever.

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Historical racism: On left, Bing Crosby in a still from Holiday Inn (1942); on right, Mickey Rooney in his infamous role as Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

Discussion of both events has died down from Twitter and Tumblr, and some people might think that bringing it up again now is flogging a dead horse. The problem is that it's not dead at all. The racism in LGBT and alt-sex communities is a persistent problem, and it doesn't fade away as quickly as Twitter arguments.

Knipp isn't some random person the Eagle stumbled upon and decided to book for a lark. He's been performing the character since at least 2002, when his act was protested in New York and Boston. In a 2007 Rolling Stone interview, Knipp claimed that his yearly income from Shirley Q. Liquor performances was $70,000 to $90,000. The same article also reported that Knipp (as Shirley) was invited to perform at the wrap party for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Controversy also erupted when he was booked to perform at Southern Decadence in 2008. The real problem is not that the Eagle booked Knipp's act as Shirley Q. Liquor; it's that his act has been nurtured by white LGBT communities for over 10 years. Judging from the response to the Eagle controversy, many are willing to keep him on the stage for another 10 years, at least.

One thing that makes it impossible to discuss racism in queer and kinky communities is that white liberals have crafted their own mythology of racism. Breach this mythology, and you can be dismissed as being "too P.C." or "hysterical." The mythology comes in two parts: First, racism is something that uneducated, poor people living in the South do. It's segregated water fountains and Bull Conner turning the water hoses on black people, and comes from living in trailer parks and listening to too much country music.

The second part is that the solution to racism is to ignore race. Again and again, in discussing the Shirley Q. Liquor and Burning Angel situations, people tried to affect "race neutral" perspectives. After I posted a link to one of the first commentaries on the Eagle, an old friend replied, asking why it was racist for an actor to create a character of another race. To even ask the question that way, of course, requires that you ignore over 100 years of blackface and yellowface performances as staples of white supremacist policies. And yet, variations on that question came up again and again. The Eagle's original response is an excellent example: All history and modern reality is tossed out the window to ask why people don't get angry that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence wear pancake makeup.

One of the most significant responses to the Portland Eagle came from renowned writer and educator Mollena Williams, who served as International Ms. Leather in 2010. In a 13-minute video titled "Blackface is Racist. Period," Williams expressed her fury at the leather community's betrayal of people of color, and women of color specifically:

When I was in the midst of understanding the breadth of what was happening yesterday, I started writing to other people of color and other black women specifically, and what was horrifying to me how many of us just sort of shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, that's how it is." And it's horrifying that that's how it is. And it's horrifying to me that, I for a day tempered my rage because I was too worried about being accused of being pointed at as the angry black woman. This stereotype that because of who we are, we are over-sensitive, we are over-reacting, and that we just need to -- note the irony -- "lighten up" and fucking relax because it's a joke.

The entire video should be watched by every white sex nerd, BDSM perv, queer, and sex-positive person around. It is important not only because of what Mollena says but also that just saying it represented great personal risk. Black people who show anger are routinely dismissed and marginalized by white liberals and conservatives alike.

But an even better reason is that sometimes the best thing white people like myself can do is shut up and listen to those who literally have skin in the game. That can be one of the hardest and most uncomfortable things in the world. But to build a just community, we're not allowed to just show up when it makes us feel good.  We have to be there when it's awkward and uncomfortable and we desperately want to be somewhere else. If we're not willing to take responsibility for the ugliness in our own communities, we'll still be talking about Shirley Q. Liquor in another 10 years.

Chris Hall is a writer on sex, politics, and culture who lives in Berkeley. He has an intermittent blog at LiteratePerversions.com. You can follow him on Twitter @literatepervert.

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20 comments
Gospodin
Gospodin

The blindered folks have one thing right: we need to lighten up a little.  Not because this isn't a serious problem, and not because it isn't justifiable to be upset and angry about this.  But we are losing an audience through our righteous indignation.

There is a case to be made that the origins of drag acts come from an era of oppression and hidden expression.  There was a need to lash out and crank the "outsider" knob to 11.  I'm not going to begrudge someone in this kind of environment reaching for any kind of shock act available to try and deal with the problems of identity.  It was a coping mechanism, and it helped people come to terms with their own shocking feelings.  This is what made it slightly different from Hollywood blackface, once upon a time.

But let's acknowledge that in a historical context, rather than revelling in it today.  The community that once hid from police abuse and losing jobs families and friends is now fighting in the sunlight.  It's time to stop letting the kings come to Purim plays, dressed to mock the peasants.

Every time this kind of argument flares up on the Internet, I am reminded of my favourite quote by the late great Molly Ivins:

“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel–it's vulgar.” 

dvaivd
dvaivd

This article has some useful points about how racism should be called out in all communities. However, I'm not sure I'm really convinced that the Alt-communities it's targeting are particularly more racist? If anything the article points out exactly HOW the communities responded to these acts...."The most notable thing about both events was not the initial incidents, but how the communities responded to them...." yes, the most notable thing about the response was that the events were SHUT DOWN. And that's good! All communities need to be aware of their internal racism, but it's ridiculous to try to pretend that sex-positive/alternative communities hold a significantly large portion of responsibility. 

mailorders
mailorders topcommenter

So, is Knipp's other character, Betty Butterfield also seen as offensive?

lperretta
lperretta

1. Is Knipp making fun of black women or is he mocking a stereotype that was born from 1980's conservatism? I find black-face to be repugnant, but that is an important distinction.

2. Hiring a favored actor for a role and asianing him up for said role in a porn spoofing Walking Dead =/= people in black face. Now, if they're making the role as ridiculous as Mickey Rooney's role in Breakfast at Tiffany's we can talk. We can also have a conversation about how there are very likely talented Asian actors who would love to get roles for Asian characters in porn films. But that is a different and actually relevant conversation, unlike the one we had here.

3. Why am I reading a respected publication and being subjected to blatant strawmen arguments? I know this is "just a blog" but if it's carrying the name of a reputable publication it should hold itself to some standards. I am referring to the description of "white liberalism's" idea of racism. By crafting your strawman, you invite no actual dialogue about which you speak. There is no way to actually respond to that dialogue without first having to correct the premise that is laid forth.



ferdinandmariteaux
ferdinandmariteaux

While it is true that the Eagle Portland comment was made by a former employee, it is a little beside the point. He lost his job roughly a week prior to the posting. He was a person who was trusted by that business for roughly two years to represent them. I had drinks with him once where in the course of getting to know him he made three racist jokes...if after 20 minutes of conversation I was aware of his blatant racism, then the Eagle Portland would have been aware of it in the course of his employment, I'm rather certain. The manager who chose to book Shirley Q. was a current employee. The Eagle Portland should take full responsibility for this incident including their former manager's comments. To their credit they have to some degree taken responsibility made some public apologies and offered to host a community conversation about race that in itself was problematic. Anyway, this issue isn't really about the Eagle Portland, it's a microcosm of the greater LGBT communities that allow blatantly racist behavior to thrive where it wouldn't be tolerated elsewhere.

Billy_McBillerson
Billy_McBillerson

Totally agree with the sentiment 100%, but wanted to make one correction.  The FB comment from the Eagle above was actually made by an ex-employee who used to be an admin for the Eagle FB page.  When the Eagle management saw what was posted on their behalf, they quickly took the comment down.  I think that you should verify this with the Eagle and then correct your article so the facts are preserved.  Of course it would've been rad if Shirley Q. Liquor was never invited to The Eagle, but...

Eric Carlson
Eric Carlson

Two anecdotes. One from the porn world. One from Portland.

Eric Carlson
Eric Carlson

Two anecdotes. One from the porn world. One from Portland.

Benji Cooper
Benji Cooper

Why do they seem predominantly white for you? Because you can't get out of your hetro-normative , San Francisco-centric pig headed point of view. They exist in every culture and every ethnicity around the world. Do a little investigative research. :D :D :D

Benji Cooper
Benji Cooper

Why do they seem predominantly white for you? Because you can't get out of your hetro-normative , San Francisco-centric pig headed point of view. They exist in every culture and every ethnicity around the world. Do a little investigative research. :D :D :D

DanMitchell
DanMitchell

I just want to know why the fact that I don't dress in drag, hook electrodes up to my nipples, or get off on being puked upon, I am by logical implication "sex negative."

XopherH
XopherH

@dfvidaurre As I note in the article, the fact that the Eagle booked Knipp is really only a very small part of the problem. Much more troubling is that Knipp has been openly embraced and supported by LGBT community members for <b>well over ten years.</b> It's not like the Eagle didn't know who he was, or that people of color had been objecting to his act for all of that time. Despite being a blatantly racist act, he's been booked by major events like Southern Decadence and photographed with cast members from <i>Queer Eye</i> at their wrap party. 

So, the Eagle cancelled when people started to object, just like they have every other time Knipp has poked his head up. Good on them. But the community response that I'm talking about is scores of white members of the LGBT communities coming out of the woodwork telling people like Mollena to "lighten up" and get a sense of humor, as if they were just making a big deal out of nothing.

And it's not just Knipp and Burning Angel. We've had stuff like this happen here in San Francisco, and the same thing happened. Remember that Bondage-a-Go-Go held a "White Trash Luau" annually for five years before they were called on the racism and classism inherent in the theme; before that, the Citadel held a Pimps and Hos party and were called on the racism and anti-sex work theme. Critics of both were dismissed as oversensitive and PC.

These things keep happening, and it's vital that we break the cycle if we want the alt-sex communities to live up to their hype as safe places for those who have been ostracized in mainstream society. Again and again, people of color have been forced to say that they don't feel safe in our communites, and instead of being quiet, listening, and trying to do something, the communities just dismiss them. 

----

Kitty Stryker has an excellent post on the White Trash Luau controversy here: %s


XopherH
XopherH

@Eric Carlson There's a lot more where both of those came from, unfortunately. The repeated insistence that "it's just a few assholes" or that "it's just this one incident" is what makes it possible for these things to keep happening.

As I noted in the article, the real problem with Shirley Q. Liquor isn't that the Portland Eagle booked her; the real problem is that Chuck Knipp has been able to make a living by peddling crude racist stereotypes for well over a decade. That's more than a single fuckup; that's an institutional problem.

Here in San Francisco, we have several examples as well, like groups putting on "Pimp and Ho" parties (racism AND misogyny in one great package), and the infamous "White Trash Luau" that Bondage-a-Go-Go put on for five years running. 

As well, the article really wasn't about the incidents themselves, but how the communities rushed to justify them and told critics that they needed to "lighten up" about it.

XopherH
XopherH

@mitchell39 Hmm. The closest I come to any of those things is occasionally wearing fishnets, and yet, I've been sex-positive for years. I think you're misreading the implication, really.

dvaivd
dvaivd

@XopherH "...These things keep happening, and it's vital that we break the cycle if we want the alt-sex communities to live up to their hype as safe places for those who have been ostracized in mainstream society..." But is the focus here on saving face for the alt-sex communities, or stopping racism? Because if it's the latter, why is this discussion so narrow, and so focused on alt-sex communities? I'm just a little confused by what you're trying to do here, and I'm not sure it's productive to pit one marginalized group against another. It's sort of like when the proposition eight thing passed and the media immediately targeted the minority vote. 

It might be more significant if you could point out how alt-sex communities are displaying racist behaviors more often. But instead what you're doing is holding them more accountable, because if they identify as members of alternative communities, they should be less oblivious to or willing to accept racism. But you might be assuming a lot there--that the people ready to excuse this kind of racism necessarily identify as members of alt-sex communities who aspire to create "safe places for those who have been ostracized in mainstream society," unless you want to say that all GLBTQ people do? But I don't think you'd say that. And in fact, I feel like most people who are wanting to create "safe places for those who have been ostracized in mainstream society," in such a conscious way would quickly object to the kinds of behaviors you are condemning. 

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