The Return of Blackface: Further Unraveling of the Leftist Coalition
We apologize for the tardiness of this week’s blog. We are in San Francisco with some of our students working on the Race Project and attending the International Communication Association meeting.
In the May 31, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone (#1027), David Holthouse profiles Shirley Q. Liquor, the African American female alter ego of white gay comic and Quaker deacon Chuck Knipp. The shocking act depicting over-the-top stereotypes of black women has led to protests across the country. Liquor is “a welfare mother with nineteen kids who guzzles malt liquor, drives a Caddy and [speaks] in an ‘ignunt’ Gulf Coast black dialect.” Liquor has been entertaining gay white men and celebrities such as Sela Ward, Brooks and Dunn, and RuPaul for the past few years, but as her profile has been raised, the protests are mounting.
There are serious implications of this seemingly benign politically incorrect mockery of America’s troubling tradition of intersecting race and poverty. Holthouse’s story reveals the (increasingly?) deep rifts between the (overwhelmingly white) gay activist community and the black community – a rift that jeopardizes not only an electoral coalition that Democrats have relied upon, but that interferes with prospective civil rights gains by both groups.
On one level, there is the racist and bigoted performances that Knipp acknowledges give him pause: “Wealthy white people are starting to hire me for private parties. . . . From the way they interact with me, I can see that my being there as Shirley makes them feel it’s acceptable to openly mock black people in a way they otherwise would not, and that does give me second thoughts.” On the other hand, Knipp argues that “there is no difference between his donning blackface and Dave Chappelle putting on whiteface to make fun of white folks. . .” It’s a tired false reasoning that we have addressed here before: it’s not possible to “flip the script” and refute charges of racism. There is no racism against white people because racism inherently relies upon the privileged group having access to the power structure, and only whites have such access. Individual-level bigotry can work in any direction, of course; there are plenty of people of color who have hostile attitudes about whites. But those individual-level attitudes must be distinguished from cultural and institutional oppression that only works in one direction (pro-white, pro-heterosexual, pro-male).
On another level, there are the overt claims that members of the LGBT community have no obligation to avoid hateful images and words about the black community, whose members by and large have not been supportive of the struggle for gay rights (and in many ways have contributed to their oppression). In Holthouse’s piece, a black drag queen is quoted as saying, “I’m not offended by Shirley Q. Liquor because my sexuality is more important to my sense of who I am than my skin color is, and I don’t see the so-called black community out in the streets protesting for my right to love. . . who I want. Black comics have been calling people like me a faggot and making jokes at our expense for a long time, and folks just laugh. But now I’m supposed to get all upset because this white man is having a little fun with a black stereotype? I don’t think so. That’s payback, honey.”
And at still another level, Knipp astutely acknowledges that there are aspects of the controversy rooted in communicative norms and traditions (similar to Jamaican patois): “I think sometimes that my act is viewed as a violation of private language. Starting with slave songs that contained multiple meanings and cries for freedom their masters couldn’t comprehend, black slang, or private black-speak, has been a primary social identifier of black culture. For this reason, there are people who feel it’s a violation for white people to talk black, even though there are a lot of people who talk white depending on the situation.”
The winner in all of this? The status quo. Social movements ultimately need allies to join their fight; wedges between marginalized groups serves to keep in place a system that disadvantages both. The black civil rights movement is far from over, and the gay civil rights movement is well underway. Language that reinforces and perpetuates disinterest (at best) or contempt (at worst) between groups that could use each other’s support only results in delaying progress for either or both.