On the first of February, I awoke to quite the stir on Facebook. A popular local gay bar in my town, Eagle Portland, had booked a drag performance by Shirley Q. Liquor for March. The people of Portland were angry.
As a person who must be in the know, I started to Google Shirley Q. Liquor to see what I could find. I learned that Shirley Q. Liquor is played by Texas comedian Chuck Knipp, who describes his drag character as “an inarticulate black welfare mother with 19 children.” Her fictional kids children have names like Orangello and Chlamydia and she also drives a Cadillac. Stereotypes abound! As I kept watching Shirley Q. Liquor’s videos, the tropes continue. Shirley is overweight, loud, and—everyone’s favorite—sassy. To my eyes, his performances are incredibly racist.
As a Black woman, these stereotypes still hurt and in many spaces I feel I have to live them down. I have been called “an angry Black woman” while expressing opinions and I’ve been told, “Don’t name your kid one of those Black names.” On the flipside I get the ideal compliment, “You are so articulate!” It’s like living the live version of “Shit White Girls say to Black Girls.”
These things change the way I behave, the people I trust, and the ways I express myself. I want to be seen as whole person. And I feel thrown back by performers like Shirley Q. Liquor. Was I surprised there was a performer out in the world who plays on Black stereotypes for laughs? No. Was I surprised that there is a White man who performs in blackface, calls it drag, and is able to book shows at gay bars? Yes.
Now the people of Portland were angry, but not for the reasons you might guess. Certainly some were angry because a potentially racist performance was coming to Eagle, but some people in the community were angry because there were calls to cancel the show. Defenders of the Eagles’ decision to Shirley Q. Liquor argued that the show was art, saying that shutting down the show would amount to censorship. In the long, messy online debate, some people posted claims of “reverse racism” in the brewing move to boycott the bar.
The issue of Shirley Q. Liquor raises an interesting and ever-growing discussion: The overlap of race and LGBTQ issues and how minority groups often do not come to the aid of one another. The Eagle Portland has cancelled the show in light of the controversy. The Q Center—a LGBTQ community center in North Portland—has stepped into this discussion and will host a community dialogue on February 27 called “Race, Racism and the LGBTQ Community.” Like many conversations like this, the event seems poised to have people of color have to prove their offense once again—check out the event’s Facebook page for several vocal critiques.
Here’s my question: When people like me say that something is potentially racist, why do we have to defend ourselves to White people who act as the final jurist of the opinion? I want to discuss racial issues and the implications and stories behind them. Those are great conversations to have. What bothers me is that I often have to mount these discussions as a defense. I have to prove that I have a race-based point. In more times than not, it’s a detriment to my relationships and I will often just drop it because I don’t want a fight.
A few months ago I said to a friend, “I wonder if I would have gotten that job if I wasn’t black.”
She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “White people have a hard time getting jobs, too.” Well, yes, but Black and Latino unemployment is 14 percent, almost twice the amount of the national rate.
More recently I was expressing my frustration around couples casually mentioning they’d like to adopt Black babies. I was met with, “Why? Shouldn’t all babies be adopted?” Well, certainly, but babies aren’t accessories and you don’t get to pick colors of children like you are buying a purse to match your shoes. Think of the amount to of Black parents who’ve been allowed to adopt White babies. I certainly can’t think of any—famous or otherwise.
These experiences in my life relate to this debate over Shirley Q in this way: When a person says they take offense about something dealing in race, gender, or sexual identity, believe them first. She’s the only one who knows what she is experiencing in a moment. Do not make them defend themselves for something you have not experienced. Listen first, and then have a great conversation.