Racial tensions and the Drag community

So just recently the Met Gala, also known as the Met Ball, took place. It is an annual for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. Celebrities, writers, directors, rappers and other people of interest follow the theme that was set forth when choosing outfits, and this year the theme was ‘Camp’ (everyone got a book on Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’). Some people got it, others didn’t. Lena Waithe, screenwriter, actress and all-around fucking amazing human wore this:

The back of their suit says, “Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp” (yes the misspelling is intentional). The stripes on her suit were lyrics from “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”

Waithe’s jewelry buttons featured the faces of LGBTQ+ icons RuPaul, Dorian Corey, Freddie Pendavis, Octavia St. Laurent, Paris Dupree, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja; all prominent black drag queens. Watch Paris is Burning and you’ll know: Black drag queens did in fact invent camp and it is a “crucial way of capturing and expressing the zeitgeist of any time period in culture.” (Harper’s Bazaar, Fisher, May 2019)

In the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, Drag Queen RuPaul plays a bit part; a character that goes by the name Rachel Tensions, in where she is wearing a dress resembling the confederate flag. This becomes such an iconic moment in this 1990s comedy.

Both of these instances of iconic fashion open up the conversation of race and queerness within the Drag community. I am a HUGE fan of Drag. The history, the glamor, the gossip, the audacity, the tea. Everything about drag, for me is perfect. It is a culmination of camp, the absurd, but also the honest. Drag will tell you the truth before anyone else will. Which is why season 10’s contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RDPR), The Vixen, is such an iconic queen. 

Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a good place to start talking about the racial tensions in the drag community even though they’ve existed since the time of Marsha P. Johnson. It is a good place to start because this is when the political aspects of Drag were brought into the public sphere. I am positive these conversations had been happening in other facets and pockets within the Drag community, but it was the first time that I feel a huge audience was seeing it; after all, a whopping 468,000 people watched season 10 in 2018. RPDR, in my opinion, has always been good about bringing the stories of LGBTQIA+ to a more mainstream audience. It began to foster understanding about the struggles and triumphs of that community.

The reason that season 10 was different is because the conversation of race came to the forefront of drag.

The Vixen, who is a “militant black queen” was unjustly cast as “a villain” in that season because she was always speaking up for what she believe in. She received so much hate that season for her words and actions. During that season, she got into it a number of times with another white queen who is known for her racial remarks (all lives matter and BS like that posted on her Instagram).

During her eight-episode arc on RPDR, she always firmly stood her ground and was always the one to speak up to defend herself, which people on and off the show began to refer to as “poking the bear” because she was always at a 10 and was always advocating for herself and for what she believed in. She, in her own words, choose to be “herself despite the repercussions.” but it seemed like anything she said was met with repercussions. She couldn’t get a word in edgewise without someone clapping back and tone-policing her.

At the end of RPDR, before the finale of crowning a new queen, there is always a reunion that invites all the queens back for a sit-down with RuPaul to discuss the season. It was during this segment that the multiple conflicts with other queens and The Vixen was brought up and it sent The Vixen to utter the iconic phrase “Everybody’s telling me how I should react but nobody’s telling her how to act” and promptly storm off the stage. The reason this phrase is so iconic is because it clearly shows the disparity of believing people of color and actually admitting that racism exists! All throughout season 10 and probably The Vixen’s own life, has she been met with hostility. Which is why she protects herself. She advocated and stands up for herself. Because she has too, nobody else will.

In light of all of the tensions that season 10 brought, there was amazing things to come out of it. Since 2016, The Vixen has had a successful show in Chicago called Black Girl Magic, which features other Black queens, that still runs today. It also showed the disparity and vitriol that is spewed at the Black queens from the RPDR fandom and how other Queens (white, Latina, Asian) are stepping up against it. It is bringing this Drag community together and realizing that it does have problems that need to be addressed. Even Ru herself has had to be confronted with the issue of race, because of the disparity of Black queens and Black-centric challenges on the show.

The Vixen is an all-around memorable part of RPDR, but she should be remembered for bringing this conversation of race to the forefront of everyone’s minds (and for being an all around beautiful and talented queen). Not for being a “villain” but for being a hero that championed herself and her thoughts and feelings to vulnerably open this conversation on race even further.

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The violence against Black and Brown women is real

Trigger warning: violence

Safety and security. These words conjure up different feelings and images for people of different races. For white people to feel safe, they must police Black and Brown people daily with tactics such as the paper bag test and stop-and-frisk. For Black and Brown people, it is vastly different.

Black and Brown people, especially women, have been the target of some heinous crimes perpetrated by white people for centuries. Safety and security exist, but both are few and far between. The CDC reports that Black women die by homicide at nearly three times the rate that white women do. Crimes committed against Black women and Black women that are missing due to the result of crimes/violence are hardly investigated; they are regularly brushed aside to make room for finding the missing white women. (Doreen St. Felix writes about the above issue and more here.) Jay Pitter writes in her article “Black Women need to be Protected in Public Spaces” about who’s most at risk to be murdered in America:

A recent report found that of all women, Black women were the most likely to be murdered in America. Also, a national street harassment report found that along with Latinx women, Black women experienced higher levels of street-based harassment overall and were at the most risk of that harassment escalating into physical aggression. Black women, often sole providers within the home, are over-represented in the homeless population, which is directly spurred by changes in cities.

It often seems that nobody has the back of Black women except other Black women.

The most recent illustration of this that comes to mind—although sadly there are countless instances like this—is the recent murder of Nia Wilson and attack of her sister, Lahtifa, who was injured but thankfully not fatally. It was a totally unprovoked attack by a white man.

Now I, a white-passing Latinx, can’t comment on how hate crimes perpetuated against Black and Brown women and safety within such communities affect the women in those communities; However, I want to ensure the safety and security of Black and Brown people around me and talk about the ways that it can be safer.

I decided I needed to talk with artist Jay Katelansky about this issue. Katelansky is an artist living in California and her work focuses on blackness as well as racial issues and tensions. I asked her because as I was scrolling through Instagram one day, I came across this piece of hers (see image below).

We subsequently had an email conversation about the following work and subsequently about the safety and security of Black women, homelessness and other things:

Veronica Perez (VP): I was struck by this piece of yours while I was scrolling through Instagram. I had just read a New Yorker article about the death of Nia Wilson and, as the news came in, about the three church bombings in Louisiana in the span of ten days, which are now being classified as racially motivated attacks. I am struck by the sincerity of the message and the cadence in which it’s written; I can feel the emotion entangled in it. Where did this piece arise from?

Jay Katelansky (JK): For the last two years I’ve been thinking deeply about the safety and what does that word even mean. So most of the pieces that I make are around me trying to wrap my head around this word/idea. This piece stemmed from a few different things happening in my life. I’m planning to see my mom in late April when I’m on the East Coast for work and it’s been giving me a lot of anxiety. My mother and I have a very complicated relationship but regardless I love her and I constantly worry about her. Ever since I found out as a kid that my mom was homeless, I’ve worried about her safety. I remember one year at day camp, it was storming and I just started to ball hysterically. One of the counselors asked me what was wrong and I told her my mom is somewhere outside in this storm without a place to go. Up to this day, I worry about her because she doesn’t have stable secure housing and she deals with a variety of mental illnesses. Homelessness is everywhere here in Oakland it’s a difficult thing to see. There’s so much money here there should be no reason for a crisis like this. Humans deserve housing everywhere. The piece also stems from my general anxiety with how Black bodies, especially queer Black bodies, navigate space. I worry a lot. I worry about my friends. I worry about my family. I worry about strangers. The world is scary and we are constantly seeing/reading/hearing people do terrible things to Black and Brown people for existing.

VP: What are the ways you’ve felt unsafe?

JK: I’ve felt unsafe in so many ways and in so many places. I feel the most unsafe in predominantly white spaces. I talk about this often but the three years I lived in Wisconsin were the hardest years for me as far as feeling safe. Most days I couldn’t get myself out of my apartment because of how unsafe the environment felt. I feel unsafe in spaces that don’t hold people accountable like I refuse to be in a room with anyone who defends R Kelly. I feel unsafe anytime I pass a police officer. I think it’s important to also mention when I do feel safe. I feel the safest in spaces with Black women. I feel the safest around my friends and loved ones.

VP: How is safety and security dealt with in the Black and Brown communities?

JK: I think it honestly depends on the community. The most successful way it’s dealt with to me is showing up for each other. I know when Nia Wilson was murdered at BART, Black and Brown folks who had access to vehicles offered rides to anyone who felt unsafe riding BART. I also saw people who had the funds offer money towards ride shares or people offered to BART together. When I was in Wisconsin during my first week [Katelansky received her MFA from The University of Wisconsin Madison] a Black woman told me what streets not to walk down at night and offered to walk with me whenever I needed company. I think back to the Black Panther Party and why it was created. One of the reasons was to protect the Black community from police brutality…police the police. All these instances are us showing up for us because

at the end of the day we all we got.

All these instances are us showing up for us because at the end of the day we all we got.

because at the end of the day we all we got.

we all we got.

This specific line resonated within me at the end of Katelansky’s statement. we all we got. Black and Brown folks are showing up for each other and protecting each other because as she says frankly, nobody else is going to.

As a white-passing Latinx though, there are ways white people and others can and need to show up as allies for Black and Brown women. One of the ways is learning the histories of Black people and the oppression they’ve faced throughout history up until now. Realize that is not something new that is taking place, but that this is a systemic issue that has been happening for a very long time now. Begin to reframe your thinking around systematic oppression and how it seeps into your everyday life. How your implicit bias impacts your thinking in the most minute ways. Y’all need to also listen when Black people are talking. Dismissing Black people when they speak is a form of violence. Excluding lived experiences additionally just because you haven’t experienced a racist cop is shitty. Just take a backseat and truly hear what they are saying they need.

The safety and security of Black and Brown women and men in our community matter so much more than we can see. We shouldn’t let them fight this battle alone—as they have for so long.

I just want to thank Jay for opening up and speaking about these difficult issues. You can see more of her work here: https://jaykatelansky.com/ and on her Instagram account: shiftingself

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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The college admission scandal is just one blossom from a deeper set of roots

(Following up on the recent post here at BGIM Media, a piece by one of our contributors on the pervasive inequities throughout the educational system that hold people back, often because of race)

So I’m sure y’all have heard by now about this college admissions bribery/scandal/mess with this white dude, William Singer, the two white actresses, and the other 50 parents, administrators, and coaches in the thick of it. To summarize, Singer, for about 10 years, had been falsifying documents, doctoring photographs, rounding up test scores and hiring his own proctors to control tests—all to get students into prestigious programs in exchange for money from the parents (who knew what he was doing). And I’m sure some of you are surprised by this.

Well, if you are, that means you’ve been privileged by the education system.

The education system in America privileges you if you are white, wealthy, and have connections (and yet so many of those people still have to cheat to get in—using a whole extra layer of privilege and connection allowed by wealth). Anyone else attempting the right way to get in by working hard? Good luck.

Black and Brown people have been fighting the education system that ultimately privileges wealth and whiteness (Think all the way back to Ruby Bridges). And what’s happened to these families? One Black mother, Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio, falsified her address to send her children to another, better school than the one in her district. When she was found out, she was told to pay over $30,000 in back tuition and when she couldn’t, they made an example of her by throwing her into jail for 10 days and giving her three years probation, along with community service. All for attempting to enrich her child’s educational experience because the system disadvantaged her kids by ignoring the schools where she lived.

There is blatant inequality because of race and wealth in education. It sadly does not matter if these Black and Brown students work hard. Privilege can get you far when you’re white and wealthy. Ashely Alese Edward writes in their article “This Mom Went To Prison For Enrolling Her Son In A School Outside Her District”about another Black mother, Tanya McDowell, who “falsified” her address about where she was staying (her and her son were homeless at the time).

Edwards writes: “All public education in the U.S. is not created equal, which oftentimes forces parents from low-income backgrounds to use the addresses of friends and family members to get their child into a better school district. It should come as no surprise that those most impacted by this disparity in funding are people of color: A recent study found that white school districts have gotten $23 billion more in state and local funding than predominately nonwhite districts”

This sums it up perfectly. Underfunded school districts force parents to intercede in their child’s education. They have no choice. Williams-Bolar and McDowell’s move of falsifying their address isn’t hurting anyone; what these other parents did is, they had a choice. Their choice is keeping brighter and more capable students out. It’s fixing the system in their favor. These Black women should have never been charged; their children should have been given an equal chance at education.

There is so much I could go on about within this topic: how the hardworking student of color lost a spot to a privileged but less deserving white student, how the student of color might be lost in student loan debt because of all of the loans they had to take out, how the student of color isn’t heard at their university with regards to their experience,  how the student of color is passed over for job opportunities in the future…

However, what we need to start with is educational opportunities suited for all students. We need to reward hardworking students, instead of letting them down. The whole educational system needs an overhaul with all parents, instructors, administrators, coaches, and the community working towards the betterment of the students’ education. Every student. The education system is far from equal when it comes to race and wealth. This need to change.

Referenced articles:

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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