This is a guest post by Cordelia Nailong & Emma Shakarshy
Queer communities have a long way to go to be the welcoming places that we would like them to be, especially when it comes to racism.
Orange is The New Black’s “Big Boo”, Lea Delaria, recently viewed Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”, an exhibit in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory that highlights the legacies of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, anti-blackness, slavery, and patriarchy that have shaped the past 500 years. The Domino Sugar Factory was chosen as a venue for this piece for a number of reasons including the fact that enslaved folks were the foundation of the sugar economy that Domino rose from and were the enslaved labor of the sugar plantations. This is not to mention that factories like this one literally processed sugar from brown to white. Walker’s exhibit features sculptures of enslaved children made of molasses to highlight the sugar factory’s, as well as many other industries’, reliance on black labor to benefit white capitalistic goals.
The center of Walker’s exhibit is a 40 foot-tall sphinx created out of sugar, with the head of the black “mammy” stereotype, representing the racist iconography of the black female domestic servant at the hands of white families. The sphinx’s body is that of the oversexualized black woman, often seen as props in music videos (think Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop”) and TV and film.
Many white viewers of Walker’s piece have made the news by taking racist, misogynistic selfies with the piece, cupping, licking, and generally abusing the work.. In his piece, “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,”Nicholas Powers writes that the pornographic jokes are recreations of the very racism that the art is meant to critique.
Lea Delaria, queer comedienne and celeb with an Instagram following of 167,000 users, unfortunately offered no exception. DeLaria posed with the piece, positioned between the sphinx’s breasts, with the head of the work cut off, and the caption “Sugar Tits.” Her next photo is of her looking smugly from beneath the buttocks and vulva of the sphinx, with the caption, “That’s what I call looking into the face of god. #karawalkerdomino #theeffectsofgammaraysonmaninthemooncunt.” This is incredibly disrespectful. In viewing a sculpture critiquing the over sexualization and white exploitation of black bodies, DeLaria is perpetuating that same sexualization and encouraging her followers to do so as well.
When some of her Instagram followers tried to start a dialogue around the implications of her photos, she responded with a heated defense of her photos. The point of her comment, which was deleted minutes later, was that “IT IS ALWAYS A FEMINIST STATEMENT WHEN A LESBIAN EXPRESSES HER SEXUALITY. PERIOD. And being an “artist” myself I shall express that ANYWHERE I CAN.” You can see her disrespect both in her lack of engagement with the meanings of Kara Walker’s art and in her defensive insistence that her oppression as a lesbian trumps any other oppression. Her sexualizing gaze makes it clear that no matter the context, DeLaria has the right to consume. That entitlement disguised as sexual liberation is white supremacy.
Through her photos and public comments, DeLaria is a prime example of the ways in which we white queers oppress queer people of color without even being aware of the impact of our behavior. By ignoring the message of the piece, her comments show a distinct lack of respect for Kara Walker as an artist. Her comments and subsequent “artistic freedom” excuses perpetuate the violence that Walker’s art means to critique. Sadly, it’s not a new story, but one that can be told over and over again.
As queer white folks, it’s easy to focus on the homophobia we experience to the exclusion of other oppressions we don’t (eg. racism, transphobia for cis folks). It’s easy to think that all bodies are ours to consume. Such entitlement is sadly a common microaggression. DeLaria’s defensive use of lesbianism and artistic license is not only insulting to Kara Walker as an artist but is also ignorant of the ways that multiple oppressions overlap and inform one another. DeLaria makes the mistake of thinking her oppression as a lesbian gives her automatic insight into the oppressions of black women without having actually done any of the emotional and intellectual work to gain such insight. Like so many others who attended the exhibit, it shows an ignorance and a fundamental disrespect for works created by artists of color.
As Aaminah Shakur, a queer WOC artist, writer, and social critic, notes, “DeLaria in the comments also says that she loved the installation and stood in line for over an hour to see it. “Where were you?” she asks.” This question disregards the privilege that allowed her to attend the exhibit. While her career and schedule gave her the freedom to wait in line for hours, others may not have had that luxury. Also, many people of color did not attend the exhibit not out of any lack of commitment to the issues but to avoid having a viewing experience that would be hurtful and stressful because of people like DeLaria. Aaminah Shakur further states “many people of color made a conscious choice not to attend while white people would be the majority present. In fact, many Black women organized a day in which Black people would attend the exhibit en masse to represent and feel supported by each other. This day was created because of the issues inherent in viewing the exhibit surrounded by white people, particularly white people who were taking disrespectful photos with the pieces.”
So, yes, DeLaria was present but it’s simply not enough to show up. It’s not about how much time you waited or the pictures that you took to prove that you were there. It’s about more than being present. It’s about how you interact with the art. As queer white folks, we need to make sure that we approach the art with respect for the histories behind it. We need to approach folks of color with an awareness and respect for the ways in which we can perpetuate oppression.
If DeLaria’s intention was to respect Kara Walker’s piece, there needed to be context behind the photos, or no photos at all. Her lack of context about the violent and oppressive history behind the piece elicited misogynistic comments from her followers, which DeLaria did nothing to address. “Nice tits”, “I just wanna lick them lol”, “You are such a badass”, folks commented on the first photo of the Sphinx’s breasts. And the second drew comments like “Lmao oh my god” “Biggest set of lips I have ever seen” and “That is some big ass pussy”. The rest of the comments are declarations of awe and envy for DeLaria, who essentially used Walker’s piece to score queer celebrity points with her adoring fans.
This kind of disrespect is not new but is a good example of how us white folks reinforce white supremacy by refusing to listen to voices of folks of color. It is stating that whatever a white lesbian artist is saying is more important than anything the black artist is saying. It says that the white lesbian artistic license has ownership over the ways that black bodies are portrayed.
Unfortunately, in our own communities we are “recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique,” all the time. We sexually objectify folks of color, ignore their voices and mock the cultures of communities of color. We even mock things that disproportionately affect communities of color. The communities we are building are complicit in recreating white supremacy.
We need to stop. We need to stop making jokes at the expense of others’ bodies and stories. When people try to engage in meaningful dialogue, we need to stop telling them to “grow a sense of humor.” We need to hold ourselves and others accountable. We need to genuinely hear criticism and not revert to being defensive when others interrupt our oppressiveness. We need to be ok with admitting when we’re wrong and we need to work to be better. We need to engage in serious discussions, unlearn everything our privilege has taught us, and focus on our actions, not just words.
Emma Shakarshy is a queer writer, teaching artist, and feminist youth worker from the sandy dunes of South Jersey. Middle Eastern hard femme, zumba queen, and Bette Midler enthusiast, she can typically be found thinking about and trying to build intentional, anti-oppressive communities in and outside the classroom. She resides in Brooklyn with her silver tabby kitten Laverne Cox.
Cordelia Nailong is a queer aliagender trans lady femme who is also super kinky, a spiritual specialist, and a New Orleanian trans-feminist trickster.
In addition, Cordelia is a writer, a poet, a visual artist, an information activist, a producer, and a draglesque performer. She is most known for her passionate politics, workshops, poetry, innovative performance style, and nonbinary spiritually focused erotica. You can find her website at cordelianailong.com
Emma and Cordelia would like to thank: Creatrix Tiara, Emily Smith, Aaminah Shakur, Brittany Brathwaite, the Femme Secret Society Antiracism working group, and many many other beta readers and inspirations for their undying support and contributions to this piece.