Many of us are dealing with the aftermath of a series of racist incidents in Portland, OR, DACP’s home community. On January 30, 2013, the Eagle Bar booked a notorious drag performer, Charles Knipp. Knipp performs his most famous and racist character, “Shirley Q. Liquor,” in blackface, and perpetuates the incredibly ugly “Welfare Queen” stereotype of poor Black women. LGBTQ people of color and allies organized to put pressure on the bar to cancel the performance. The bar did cancel the performance on February 1, and there was a backlash against the cancellation. Some volunteers with the Portland Q Center tried to set up a community dialogue to help Portlanders deal with the incident at the Eagle Bar. They did not consult queer communities of color beforehand, though, and framed the issue in a way that gave complaints of “censorship” equal weight to people of color naming racism; this minimized the concerns of anti-racist organizers. Activists again worked to center the voices of African American women in the conversation, to hold the Q Center accountable to queer people of color, and to reframe the community discussion to have an anti-racist, anti-oppression lens. The community dialogues were postponed because of these critiques. The discussion about how to deal with all of these incidents continues among Portland’s queer communities of color, in comment fields on the Q Center’s website, and in the Portland community outside of the Q Center or Eagle Bar.
Disability Art and Culture Project wishes to join all of the incredible writers and activists who have already worked on this issue to state that blackface is unacceptable. It is racism in action. We are artists and activists, writers and performers, and we know about how devastating censorship is to those speaking from the margins; however, “censorship” is not the right frame to explain the work of keeping Charles Knipp’s racist minstrelsy out of our community. We are invested in a definition of disability justice that is inextricably linked with racial justice. We echo Karol Collymore’s recent piece in Bitch Media to say that one of the most basic, and most important, aspects of anti-oppression work is to listen to the people who experience oppression, believe what they say, and look to them for leadership in ending that oppression. By making this statement, we wish to offer our support to people of color who are feeling the effects of racism particularly strongly. We are also in solidarity with the white people and people of color who have been organizing and agitating to keep the leadership and voices of queer women of color at the center of the community response to this incident of racism—who have said: It’s time to LISTEN to people of color in Portland, and act accordingly.
Members of the disability community often speak up against nondisabled actors playing disabled characters in the media. Not only does the practice keep Disabled performers from working in the entertainment industry, but it keeps us from setting the terms of our own representation. When we are prevented from determining the ways that we are portrayed, the old, pervasive, ableist stereotypes about us continue to inform the ways that dominant culture understands disability and Disabled people. “Crip drag” tells us more about the dominant culture’s failure of imagination than it tells us about actual Disabled people’s lives—but it still affects Disabled people every time Disabled dancers are erased from popular culture, every time Disabled performers can’t find an inclusive dance class or an accessible stage, every time disabled writers’ and artists’ work are reduced to “inspiration” rather than powerful works of art unto themselves, every time Disabled people’s voices are ignored.
Though racism and ableism are not the same, the fact is that blackface tells us more about white supremacy culture than anything about actual Black people, and still affects the everyday lives of people of color. Likewise, depictions of welfare recipients as lazy, ignorant, unworthy of societal support, and subhuman hit disability communities hard, and people of color disability communities even harder. In our current society, which does not value the interdependence that disability communities cultivate and celebrate, many Disabled people cannot survive without some kind of government support. One of the reasons that attacks on poor people, fat people, and disabled people who receive government benefits are so effective in politics is that such attacks invoke the specter of the “Welfare Queen,” a racist trope about Black women that can be traced back to older stereotypes about Black people. People perceived as undeserving of support are devalued by racist and ableist systems of culture and policy—so the social safety net keeps disappearing, ADA is eroded, affordable housing disappears and gives rise to more homelessness, everyone suffers, and we have to fight for our own and each other’s liberation.
Well, we have always had to fight for our own and each other’s liberation. We celebrate disability and racial justice movements that work to de-institutionalize us, to do away with subminimum wages and barriers to work. We celebrate the people who work to challenge the school-to-prison pipeline that targets young disabled men of color, remove barriers to full participation in society, and end environmental racism that creates disproportional chronic illness in communities of color and poor communities. We celebrate the people who have worked to keep Knipp’s racism out of their communities in years past (e.g. Imani Henry, a trans Caribbean activist, artist, and performer, wrote a mass e-mail that galvanized thousands of people in Boston and New York as early as 2002—and Jasmyne Cannick ran a website calling for communities to ban Knipp and collecting news about successful organizing in cities all over the U.S. that was active until 2008). We celebrate the African American women, the LGBTQ and same gender loving and Two Spirit people, drag performers, the communities of color and the white folks in solidarity, the leather folks (especially leather people of color), and the Disabled and nondisabled people who have spoken, written, and organized around this issue in our city and in other communities. We are with you.*
Emi Koyama’s archive of news articles about and screen captures of the original Eagle event page and subsequent Q Center event page:
Karol Collymore’s article on Bitch Media:
Mollena Williams’s first piece:
Second piece for allies with a lot of links to others’ statements against racism:
Elaine Miller’s piece (with extensive links to anti-racism resources):
Ongoing conversation and organizing on Q Center blog:
Jasmyne Cannick’s website, banshirleyqliquor, last active in 2008:
Building Radical Accessible Communities blog post:
PQ Monthly Article “The state of race: LGBTQ community leaders weigh in”:
*This statement was written by Sarah Doherty on behalf of Disability Art and Culture Project. Thanks to our community members and partners for their help in crafting this statement, especially Angeline Ferdinand, Rupert Kinnard, and Galadriel Mozee.