Backlash Blues

This past Friday, a sideshow performer named Rush Aaron Hicks made the decision to perform in blackface at New York’s most well-renowned neo-burlesque palace, the Slipper Room. I did not see the act in question, but witnessed Hicks’ inane defense of his choices and participated in an online discussion that contained James Habacker’s initial private response to the community in a closed forum (read his public response here). A discussion that I cannot post in this article out of respect for the privacy of all who participated. Needless to say, it de-evolved pretty quickly.

It all makes me tired. Really tired.

I’m weary of having these conversations several times over. I’m weary of the assumptions and inferences that performers of color are oversensitive, bitter, histrionic or tilting at windmills of imaginary racism. I’m weary of being told my response to someone’s passive racism is aggressive or graceless. I’m weary of having our bodies or cultures be someone’s punchline or costume. I’m weary of hearing the First Amendment invoked incorrectly and in defense of some complete and utter madness. I’m weary of claims of censorship being used as a shield to avoid being accountable for the creation and promotion of incredibly lazy and offensive art. I’m weary of armchair allies who do just enough to save face, but too little to affect real change. I am weary of a community that claims inclusion and diversity as the party line, but doesn’t back it up with anything of substance.

I am not easily offended. I love truly provocative art and the way it knocks the wind out of you, forces you to look at it and feel something. I don’t believe that we shouldn’t look at our humanity in its entirety. I think it’s part of our job as artists to include it all- the joy, the pain, the truly appalling. We hold a light up to it and lay it bare for others. We tell the truth.

The truth in this instance is that the burlesque community has a problem with racism and how it treats its performers of color. I know it’s hard to hear, because it’s 2014 and we’re supposed to be past it,but it’s true. This most recent incident and the ensuing backlash highlights the issues we have as a community in dealing with racism and demonstrates that diversity is just talk. It’s so disheartening that it takes an extreme case for my white peers to be inspired to move to address or acknowledge what performers of color have been saying for years. And even now that we’re at that point, there’s massive amounts of blame-shifting,denial and lack of true accountability.

While burlesque has claimed diversity, the underlying message that it sends to performers of color is “You are only welcome here if you know your place.” We are expected to show up, smile and put on our best impression of your fantasy colored person. We are told to forgive the grotesque jokes and caricatures of our cultures. We are asked to be representative for all and educate on race when there is years of dialogue,critical thought and analysis readily available at your fingertips. When we speak up or push back, we are admonished for our tone, decorum and lack of proper gratitude.

It’s exhausting.

I started performing burlesque because I was interested in the ways that people of color have historically used entertainment and spectacle as means of resistance, subversion and expression in the face of dehumanization and exploitation. I wanted to continue that legacy and exercise the freedoms that they’d fought so hard to obtain for me and continue paving the way for authentic expression. Blackface and minstrelsy is a part of that legacy and one I haven’t ignored in my work because of its impact in the iconography of people of color. The facepaint may be gone, but black performers still struggle with the tropes and narratives minstrelsy left behind.

Blackface is a part of burlesque history. It is the root of American theatre and representative of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow. When it pops up in popular culture, and, believe me, it still pops up, it is usually used to lampoon and degrade black people. It is a deliberate denial of our humanity, beauty and voices and a symptom of the larger problems we have regarding race. It has popped up before in both burlesque and drag communities and was met with the anti-censorship defense, belittled as a non-issue and swept under the table. Same with really offensive cultural appropriation. Yet producers wonder why they don’t see more performers of color on their stages.

I was scheduled to perform in a show at the Slipper Room at the end of the month and I’ve cancelled my performance. I know other performers of color have also followed suit. I refuse to be complicit in the illusion of diversity. My integrity is worth far more than that. We have to be who we say we are. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions and inaction. We have to do better and be better.

Tangerine Jones

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Further Reading

Race and Burlesque: The Curious Case of the Performer of Colour

Cultural Responsibility in Burlesque

21st Century Burlesque
21st Century Burlesque

Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.

12 Comments
  1. Thank you for your excellent response to this issue. Few people know that I was, in fact, raised by an African American Cherokee (stepdad) civil rights supporter for many years of my 1970s childhood so my perspective is somewhat unique – I am white yes,diversityI was brought up experiencing racism first hand and have deep emotions and education around it.

    I have been pondering the issues you mention (even apart from the recent heinous black face performance) for the past 7 years of my involvement in burlesque. I agree with you wholeheartedly on every point. I feel this issue parallels in some ways with the so-called “fat acceptance” and “body positive” stance our community claims.

    I have noticed, since moving from theatre to burlesque that there is a marked lack of truly understanding these important issues. I have noticed in burlesque land that if anyone stands up against the “big issues” like racism, fat prejudice, appropriation, diversity and misogyny people generally say we are crying wolf, or even try to stop us from expressing ourselves by writing private notes to us and other such “be quiet” measures. Often these people try to make “it” an isolated incident. Well, to me, these are not isolated in the least. I believe we must stand in solidarity with our performers of colour and create and support a community which endeavours to present an evolved provocative art with respectful dialogue. I will not sit by the side lines and keep quiet – I never have and I never will. Tangerine, again, thank you for speaking eloquent powerful truth. ♥

  2. I was looking into the performing at the Slipper Room when I visit NYC for the first time this May and have now decided not to pursue.Thank you for this article.
    Xo

  3. Blackface is the costume of Jim Crow that white America could allow itself to indulge its secret envy of the vibrancy of African American culture in the face of centuries of oppression. Jim Crow himself is a perfect example of a subverted archetype. Originally Jim Crow was like any other jester type character found in cultures all over the world. However, it soon became apparent that the society which relied on slavery could not brook any kind of ridicule or satire, and so it was subverted in a uniquely American way to serve the status quo. Bear in mind that although the jesters of other cultures were often instruments of societal or state control to some degree, critiquing the ruling powers when they were out of bounds but stopping short of advocating reform or overthrow, they nonetheless could criticize and be open to exposing the foolishness of those in power. What makes Jim Crow unique is that instead of being directed at the ruling powers or in a more egalitarian mode all classes of society as it was originally, it was later focused exclusively on the oppressed class, the slaves. Jim Crow is an enforcer, and a diabolically clever one at that. Because of him, trust is a commodity so rare within the African American community with regard to the majority population that its surface appearance is often used as a trap. Those who deride, admonish, or otherwise scold “Black culture” for enabling criminality or counter-productive behavior would do well to study what made that environment possible and serves even today to validate the subtle yet confidently voiced racist messages that persist in the media. Jim Crow serves “to keep the coloreds in their place.” Blackface allows the white culture to safely exploit the culture of the oppressed without showing it genuine respect. Rock & Roll is an example of that genuine respect, despite views to the contrary and the attempts ongoing to subvert it. And let us not forget that it did not stop there with regard to the indigenous nations of this continent and immigrants from Ireland, Asia and the Middle East. I vividly remember in the private Catholic school I attend an episode where the nun made one of two black students engage in minstrelsy for the “benefit” of the class. I did not know it at the time, but even being a first grader, there was something about that that utterly appalled me. I was reminded of it again when Ben Vereen did that ill-considered routine for President Reagan over 30 years ago. There is no excuse for any live performance save for documentary purposes to educate others on how debasing and odious it is.

  4. Jasper Black-

    No.

    Let’s start with this thought ” Art is Art and represents all walks of life.”

    In a perfect world, this would be true. It’s a noble thought that we can all be storytellers and be able to tell the stories laid before us. However, the truth is, one perspective is the one that is most seen, lauded and held up as truth. You cannot ignore that fact. The fact that you were in a show where someone “played a black character from the hood” speaks to privilege and access. Where were the black people who could have played that character? Who determines whether or not the performance is “respectful of the culture”?
    Who gets to determine how that culture is represented and the lens in which it is viewed?

    This is the problem.

    It doesn’t solely depend on the routine and intention. It also speaks to the perpetuation of white supremacy and the othering of people of color. It wouldn’t be an issue if there was equal access, but when the people telling the stories on the most visible stages are always white, you end up shaping an iconography and a culture for someone else. You get to be the loudest voice.

    I don’t think that hard to tell stories or perspectives should be off limits, but I will not pretend that artmaking exists in a utopia where all are equally free.

  5. I think this would depend on the reason behind the routine and the way in which it was handled, no?

    To say that anyone who paints their face black is being rude or racist I think is untrue. I did a show once with a young man who had to play a ‘black’ character from the hood…he used body makeup to make his entire body shades darker so he could better embody the character…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that any more than there is people putting on white makeup to make themselves paler…or playing someone from a different ethnicity. He was respectful of the culture and in no way used it as a gimmick.

    I agree that to do it for the sake of it and without a firm grasp of the backlash it might cause is unwise, but art is art and art represent all walks of life. To say a white person cannot play a black person (or vise versa) is narrowminded and in it’s own way a form of discrimmination.

    Obviously – as with the men raping women as opposed to women raping men debate – there is a majority and a history of abuse that lies more with the one than the other…but that doesn’t make it any less relevent.

    And, technically, anyone who dresses in any kind of outfit that is not of their own race or culture risks being accused of using someone’s body or culture as someone else’s ‘punchline. Because of racial vilification and the like it’s a sensitive topic and has to be handled delicately – you can’t just boulder in there impromptu like that.

    But its part of a bigger issue…what can and can we not represent in art? I mean, technically by this way of thinking women should be outraged by drag queens for pretending to be women and using our gender and our bodies as a ‘punchline.’ Women have suffered at the hands of men for centuries…why are we not angry at them for dressing like us and (in many cases) highlighting our very worst traits?

    It’s a tough one…there are those who do and those who would rather not have the drama of doing. And then will always be those who agree and those who don’t.

    I say do your art and do it with respect and an understanding of what you are portraying…and how it might be taken the wrong way. As long as you are prepared to be called to account…then I see no reason to limit oneself unduly.

    Food for thought anyways, I’d be interested to see what the rest of you think.

    Bless x

  6. I have had so many moments of folks pretending burlesque is the one part of the world where racism somehow doesn’t exit. News flash- IT’S NOT. Furthermore, refusing to address racism in our community is the same as saying racism is totally ok in our community. It’s like ugly weeds growing in a lovely garden- in addition to destroying very beautiful and irreplaceable flowers, it will ruin your entire crop if you leave it running wild. Sure it’s hard to have to constantly hold people accountable, but take it from a hearty, albeit weary flower, it sucks even more having to constantly be targeted by it.

  7. As a performer of colour who was involved in the aforementioned conversation with James Habacker, I applaud Tangerine for addressing this issue and bringing to light what others are trying so hard to deny.

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