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The Shirley Q. Liquor Saga: What a Racist Minstrel Show Says About Queer Politics (Long)

Also see Mark's post on Shirley Q. Liquor here.

Charles Knipp is a white gay man who dresses in drag as a black woman, using classical “blackface” themes (dark makeup, huge lips, the most offensive and demeaning stereotypes). Knipp’s show may be worthy of disdain and outrage, but the response to his show from all sides says some important things about the state of politics in the queer community. While the response from Knipp’s defenders is appalling in its naiveté and contempt for black suffering, the response from many of his detractors points to major weaknesses in radical queer organizing.

First, let’s talk about Knipp’s defenders. I have not seen Shirley Q. Liquor live, but I have heard some YouTube clips and, I’m sorry, but Knipp’s performance is unequivocally racist and disgusting. I have heard every excuse and rationalization of Knipp’s performance his apologists could think of. His defenders say that the show is actually inviting us to “laugh” at racist stereotypes (similar to the excuses offered for the Snickers ad campaign). Knipp’s defenders also say that his minstrel show is okay because some black people, especially RuPaul, think it’s funny. Others argue that because his show has some basis in reality (there actually are black women who are similar to Liquor), that the show should go on.

If the gay community represented the cutting edge of anti-racist politics, and my friends and I had not encountered racism in the gay community so much, I might say that these justifications were wrongheaded, but understandable. If the gay community were mature and sophisticated on race issues, I would say, yes, maybe we can laugh at racial stereotypes. But the gay community does have serious problems with racism, and consequently excuses for Knipp have been made by people who do not live in reality, but would rather see the world through the fantasies of American white supremacist discourse.

In white supremacist Candy Land, segregation and racial discrimination are over. In this alternate universe, they ended when Martin Luther King made some speech about “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” subsequently warming the hearts of white people in Congress who out of the goodness of their white hearts bestowed upon us Negroes civil rights. In white supremacist Candy Land, racism and discrimination are so over, in fact, that we can proclaim that “gay is the new black.”

Blacks, who by and large still suffer from segregation in education and housing, experience widespread discrimination in employment, have to deal with a wage and unemployment gap that has not gotten much better since the 1960s, and must continually face injustice in the so-called criminal “justice” system, have simply disappeared from the radar of many gays. Black oppression has taken a back seat to the oppression white gay men, some of whom proclaim that gay oppression is not just comparable to racial oppression, but has supplanted racial oppression!

Now let’s take the Shirley Q. Liquor minstrel show in the context of a world in which blacks still suffer from widespread racism and discrimination. You really do have to take that seriously in order to understand the outrage. Read the comments at Jasmyne Cannick’s website about Shirley Q. Liquor and you will notice that there are few comments about the concrete nature of racism—there may, in fact, be no comments about this. I do not recall a single comment about how the stereotypes promoted by Knipp reinforce a destructive and deadly regime against black Americans in this country. Instead the comments were about how this show “offended” black people and how blacks should not be “offended.”

So I want to say this to the oblivious, uncritical philistines who defend Knipp very clearly: This is not about my feelings or the “feelings” of any other black person. This is about the pernicious culture of racism that still exists in this country. We are pissed off because Knipp is reinforcing a racist culture which has real, concrete effects on the people we love. It is only people who live in the la-la land of white supremacy that talk about being offended and so-called “political correctness” as if these were the only issues.

And it has been well established that the fog of white supremacist ideology blinds everyone, regardless of race or color. Do a little more research on the black experience in America beyond the whitewashed (pun intended), high school black history surveys we are spoon-fed and you will see that black political consciousness is uneven, and in all historical periods there was a segment of the black community that apologized for racism and argued against decisive action to end racism. So citing people of color who support or reinforce racism to justify racism is just silly. I don’t care if RuPaul supports Knipp, and I don’t care how many blacks you trot out to defend him. That show is racist, period. That this pedestrian “some-people-of-color-agree” argument is continually brought up despite its obvious weaknesses is really a testament to the failure of anti-racist activists to make their voices heard.

And that leads me to my point about Liquor’s critics. As angry as I sound, one might think that I approve entirely of the response to Knipp’s minstrel show. I do not. I think the uproar over Shirley Q. Liquor illuminates serious problems among the radical current of the queer movement. Our responses show that radicals have officially prioritized peripheral, cultural expressions of heterosexism in their conceptualization of political activity.

The bulk of queer radical organizing seems to have coalesced around haphazardly attacking cultural expressions and symbols (e.g. Macy’s for removing gay mannequins, Shirley Q. Liquor, Snickers ads, politically wrongheaded events by the LGBT community). The problem is that, traditionally, cultural expressions do not seem to be the focus of political action by radical groups. Historically, successful radical groups such as SNCC, the Black Panthers, ACT UP, etc seem to have coalesced around issues that concretely struck at the heart of the white and heterosexual supremacist superstructures respectively (e.g. voting rights, segregation in businesses, police brutality, urban poverty, and criminal indifference to AIDS).

Radical politics should always entail responses to cultural expressions and sharp critiques of them, but responses to cultural expressions cannot replace work that actually gets at the core of discriminatory and bigoted structures. This kind of work must be our priority, but judging from what I have seen from many radical queer groups, we have it backwards. I am not suggesting that we ignore cultural expressions that disparage people of color or queer people. Rather, I am arguing for a re-prioritization where the cultural field is no longer primary field in which we confront heterosexual supremacy.

And so, abstractly speaking, Shirley Q. Liquor may be worthy of protest. In the context of queer activism, the response looks problematic to me. It reflects a disturbing tendency among radical queers to focus most of our attention on cultural expressions of homophobia and racism. But until we begin organize, in a systematized and consistent fashion, around issues that concretely deal with oppressive structures, we will just be spitting in the wind. We may get clubs to stop hosting Shirley Q. Liquor, but we will do little to address the structures of white supremacy.


Carlo said...

I think the important thing that Brian touches on in this article is our need for a strategy that cuts into the systems of oppression. Small victories involving cultural expression are useful but only so much as they contribute to a larger strategy. For example, marches are great but if you are asking 'what next?' at the end of the march, then I question whether we utilized that tactic as efficiently as possible. In most cases, it should be used in conjunction with another tactic towards a specific goal.

Mark D. Snyder said...

I agree with all of your points Brian, and excellent post indeed.

Some ways QueerToday has and will continue to tackle the core systems of oppression are by first forming relationships and building our reputation with other social justice oriented groups/organizations such as the Rosa Parks Coalition, MTPC, and the various anti-war groups we've marched with and collaborated with.

It's super easy to form a quick protest or blogpost around something like Macy's or Snickers and so I don't see a problem in continuing to do so - it takes lots of time and hardwork to form coalitions and make long meaningful societal change - and we (queertoday members, with the tmie we have) are working on that too.

You're point abuot RuPaul is spot on, I should have thought more before I pointed her out in the way that I did. I am a fan of her music and fun drag performances, and she was quoted in many of the articles about Shirley.

Anonymous said...

Brian - I interpret your statement as calling for a higher level of resistance to oppression, something that takes on the structural engines of oppression.
For me this is the capitalist social-ecoonomic system and the way it decrees multidimensional oppressions of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. But capitalism is a class system and it requires a class struggle response. It must be overturned and replaced.

Racism grew largely out of the slavery system that enriched the plantation-owning class and the cotten factory owning class. All this was meant to exact superprofits for those that didn't work but just owned.

Today corporate owners, through their bosses, managers, the police, the State (as in Lenin) and the politicians, own our labor power and are keen to divide us, workers, by race, sex, and sexual oriatnation, so as to weaken us.The more we are united, the more scared the owners are, as can be observed across a barganinng table during union contract negotiations.

Today Imperialism (the BIG owning class)is losing becasue it can no longer dominate the wealth, resources and people of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Iran, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere

Gay activism cannot supplant ant--racist organizing - the very thought is offensive. Racism is central, period. By believing this I do not diminish or prioritize other oppressions (including my own as a a gay man). It's just that no liberation for anyone can really happen until Black liberation happens. Gay white men, for instance, should not have to wait until a gay racism issue happens to fight racism, gay white men are white and should be about fighting all forms of racism,

Over twenty years ago in Murfreesboro, Tennessee I organized a group of gay white men who marched against the Klan who were going through one of their periodic hate eruptions. We held up proud gay banners that day and when the Klan went away (they were outnumbered 600-20)our little gay group was invited back to the local Black church with everone else and singled out for what we did. What a wonderful moment. True solidarity conquers all. We just need the vehicle and there are a few: IAC, workers wprld party are the groups I work within.

Let's put our queer shoulders to the wheel, Alan Ginsberg declared 50 years ago - I think it works today

Gerry Scoppettuolo