Blackface, Racist Stereotyping and other Sophisticated Humour

gay-blackface-is-still-blackfaceRecently the Portland Eagle bar booked an act: a white cis-male drag artist who does a character called Shirley Q Liquor in blackface, with accompanying racial stereotypes. (Bonus outrage: During Black History Month.) Then a great big chunk of the community had a freaker, and the Portland Eagle cancelled the act.

I’m not addressing the ‘Blackface is racist” topic directly. My friend Mollena covers it nicely in the following article: so drop over there to get some background of the situation. Don’t worry, I’ll wait here ’til you’re done.

Blackface: Still racist, y’all – by Mollena

Back already? Great. Okay, I’d like to talk to the folks who defend blackface acts.

ps. Trigger warning for all sorts of hard stuff, including cruelty to people and animals. Also swearing.

Why are you upset? It’s a comedy act. It’s ironic. It’s funny. You people are too sensitive. You’re ruining our fun.

That’s a boiled-down-the-bare-bones paraphrase of what I keep hearing from so very many places within our leather community. But here’s the thing:

I would like to live in a civilized society, and in a civilized community.

By that I mean, simply, that I want the institutional isms and ‘phobias to fuck right off and allow for some equality of privilege, and I want everyone’s personal isms and ‘phobias to fuck right off and allow for some kindness and understanding between us individual humans. (1)

EDIT: Commenter Rebecca points out below that the word “civilized” has been much used historically by whites to justify colonialism over other cultures. She’s got a damn good point. I’m looking for a suitably large-scale word that does not carry the same colonial baggage, and once I find it, some edits will occur.

It takes work to get civilized

Let’s take racism for instance. Learning how to respect our fellow humans (this is the personal race-based prejudice part), and finding and rooting out the ways in which our larger society institutionalizes power imbalance (that’d be the racist culture that gives us such an uneven playing field) takes a lot of work. It’s not like planting a dandelion on your well-watered lawn in the summer and then coming back in the fall to a swath of pretty flowers, oh no it isn’t.

It’s like rowing a boat upstream.

In this analogy, the greater society is the boat. We are all in it, every one of us. White folks and POCs, gays and straights, kinksters and your grandparents who say those hideous things about Chinese drivers and children and everybody. You can’t swim to civilization or lapse into barbarism by yourself. We all go together, whether you like that or not.

The goal is civilization (3)…  a shining city of gold and skylights where the power isn’t in the hands of any one group or class of people, and where folks aren’t scared or contemptuous of each other, no matter their skin colour or gender or orientation or age or body shape and every door can pass two motherfucking wheelchairs at once, that’s how accessible it is, and you can tell me this is silly, but it’s my analogy and there’s room in here to dream. This is where I wanna go.

We’re rowing upstream. It’s tough because we’re on a river of entropy. Any inspired ideal that isn’t passed on will die with its thinker. Kindness and fairness is more work than cruelty or indifference. Knowledge is fragile, and civilization much more so. It needs to be taught, and taught, and retaught. (2)

Okay, okay, I’m in a boat. Upstream lies civilization. Now what?

Well, three things. You’re either rowing towards the goal, or you’re just sitting there letting it slide, or you’re rowing in the goddamn downstream direction, back towards the less-civilized yesteryear.

And look, I know the row-the-boat-to-civilization analogy doesn’t take into account how hard it is to know which way to exert effort (Hmm… how about I fight with my feminist sisters about sex?), or to tell if what you’re doing is making any fucking difference at all, but that’s the nature of analogies.

Speaking of analogies, let’s head over to the point

Now let’s pick up racism, blackface acts, and comedy… and apply them to the analogy.

Think about one of the archetypical racists, let’s use the ones who are closest to cartoons: the “white power” bunch, who spew hatred, work to make the lives of people of colour miserable, and use violence as a tool of terror. These fuckers are setting up damn outboard motors and trying to drag us all back downriver into the dark ages. What, you’re not one of them? No, I didn’t think you were.

But someone is. And that person is sitting beside you in the bar, I mean boat, listening to you laugh.

Okay, what about the white hotel manager in multifuckingcultural Vancouver, doing his nasty part to make sure that POCs ain’t hired on as doormen for his hotel, because the management is (secretly) making sure than visiting European tourists will be greeted by a white face in a uniform and not a brown one? Oh, you’re not that kind of systemic racist? No, I didn’t think you were.

But someone is. And that person is sitting beside you, listening to you laugh.

Here’s your cheerleading uniform. Put it on and pick up the racist pom-poms.

Har har hee hee, barbarians, you are so funny! Do that thing to make your lips look big again. Oh! Did you see what he did there? Hilar!

What, did I feel the forward progress of our societal boat to civilization fail just a beat? But it can’t be my fault, I’m not rowing backwards. It must be those humourless POCs, activists and feminist lesbians (4), because they’re taking away all our comedians.

And we arrive at the point

If you’re helping create an environment in which racism flourishes, or if you pitch in to make it seem okay, you’re hindering my trip to the golden city of civilization and I want you to turn around and help row upstream instead, please. I speak here to everyone on the societal boat with me; that is to say, every human alive and on the planet.

But I really think blackface is funny and so do my friends. Surely that means it’s okay?

Pretty sure that’s not a good yardstick, nope.

Here’s an interesting (bone-chillingly awful) things about crowds and what they think is funny. Not so very long ago, the height of great good public-spirited fun for some people was to set live cats on fire and gleefully watch them until they died.

Do you imagine that this abhorrent nastiness went away on its own?  Maybe the first few cat owners’ objections were shouted down

Ho ho ho hee hee, people. I don’t know why you’re upset. Look how many of the people around this bonfire are laughing and cheering at these dying cats. Can’t you see that this is funny? Lighten up.

but eventually the pushback of people working towards civilization prevailed, and now people who torture animals just don’t get the same backslaps of approval from the general public as they used to. Dog-fighting is still a hobby, though (Hoo ho hee! Dog entrails are so amusing!) so we’re not too far up the civilization river yet. Keep rowing.

Well, what do you want me to do? I’m just one oar. I mean person.

I know you meant that as a rhetorical question, perhaps because you feel insulted that I said you were retarding civilization by cheering on the racists, or maybe you feel powerless in the face of the juggernaut of the task ahead of us, given that you can’t even help settle the discord in your strata council meetings… but I’m going to take it seriously.

Allies of civilization, here’s what you can do around racism.

1) You learn as much as you can, so you don’t slip into the common pitfalls of illogic. Examine your life and unpack your privilege, and don’t ever forget that it’s a process, and not a magical place where you arrive and are henceforth blameless.

2) You speak up, just as much as the number of ears you have available. Have three friends? Tell each of ’em you don’t like racist behaviour. Have 500 acquaintances? Tell ’em all. And if you’re a community leader? Roar like a fucking lion.

3) Act civilized. You’re the example everyone’s looking at.

I sure wish I had some more things to read

NEW ADDITION:  Andrea Zanin says it better than I do. Read this.    some dos and don’ts for white perverts in our efforts to not be racist:

A brilliant argument against cheerleading rape culture, which I feel is directly analogous:

This is about racism, and is much more in-depth than anything I’ve written here, is written more kindly, and has a bunch more smarty smart links. Read it even if you skipped mine:  A Guide to Racism 101 for Clueless White People, Written by a Slightly Less Clueless White Person

Derailing for Dummies:

Oh, of course there’s footnotes. Fucking lesbians.

(1)There are a great huge lot of isms (like racism) and ‘phobias (like homophobia), and even if you’ve experienced one or more of them, that doesn’t mean you’re an expert on the others, or that you get a free pass to act any of them out, because you, of course, understand.

(2) One interesting point is that each child must travel essentially the same path to being a civilized adult as the culture as a whole must. If the culture ain’t too civilized, the child generally stops there too. This is a great big topic to mention in a passing sentence, but do go forth and Google that shit. It’s kind of the Civilization of Children theory that parallels Recapitulation Theory.

(3) which might be an inaccurate analogy because civilization is a process a society goes through after its members go through it and then in turn teach others how to be civilized.

(4) Folks are always asking plaintive questions about why feminists are so humourless. Well, here’s the thing. If you didn’t act like a child needing patient teaching, we wouldn’t end up having to act like your elementary teacher. But don’t worry about us. When we’re not trying to point out that some shit ain’t civilized, we’re laughing until we pee a little. Mostly at kittens playing. Live ones. Un-immolated ones.
I just thought about softening that statement but… fuck it. As my dear friend says, this “Oh, blackface acts are just so avant garde like Lenny Bruce” shit is working my last nerve.

More here:

This set of opinions is by Elaine Miller, a cisgendered white middle-aged fat kinky poly feminist dyke who is simultaneously ill-educated and well-read, and who will never, ever be done either learning or unlearning, depending.

13 opinions on “Blackface, Racist Stereotyping and other Sophisticated Humour”

  1. I love you SO much. Thank you for standing up by doing more than “liking”. Thanks for taking the step beyond reposting a video or link. I appreciate your visible, active allyship.

  2. I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t see any basis for your definition of “civilized” — every civilization that has ever existed has had its own class structure and biases. You seem to think “civilized” means “ideal.”

  3. Yes. Yes, that’s true. (smile) I do dream of a civil civilization. And I
    work towards it. Will we ever collectively become the perfect ideal?
    No. Is the work worth it? Every single tear’s worth, yes. One linear
    distance increment at a time.

  4. Pingback: Uncommon Curiosity
  5. I’ve had a chance to give this a few good reads now. Thanks Elaine. You make the world a brighter place.

  6. Right now, between research papers and statistics is Elaine Miller. You are such an amazing woman, we who know you are fortunate indeed.
    Thank you for sharing.

  7. Hi.  Great post and points.  I just question the decision to use the word “civilized” in a post about racism.  Calling people “civilized” is often code for white, and is used often in juxtaposition with “savage” or “primitive.”  Supposedly teaching people of color how to be “civilized was explicitly used as part of the rationalization for colonialism and it’s still alive and well in our lurking, collective racist frameworks.  I would choose a different word when asking white people to stop being racist.

  8. Rebecca, that’s a brilliant point; thank you. I’m going to go whip out my thesaurus and see if I can’t find something better.

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