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5 ways to amplify BIPOC voices in Drag

anti-racism drag drag king kings of joy making a difference queer the king coach Jan 28, 2023

Photo credit: Jamie James

This article is written by a white person predominately for other non-BIPOC people to talk about racially problematic assumptions and approaches, particularly within the well-meaning educated community of leftist, alternative and so-called politically aware ideologies. I include myself in this.

Speaking about race and racism as a white person is an important conversation that requires deep thinking, intellectual effort and emotionally confronting uncomfortable topics. Why? Because white people are often blind to race - we just don't see it. So where to begin?

Well, starting with the premise of 'I'm not racist' is a mistake. Whether we say it out loud or not, having that position as our starting point will render us blind to where we actually are racist or where we engage in racially problematic thinking and acting. We cannot escape the systemic racism we have grown up in and everyone has inherited it. Racism is not a personal phenomenon, it's in the structures and systems of how we operate as a group and how individuals behave. 

Recognising one's own racism, therefore, means nothing about whether you're a good person or a bad person. It's about being responsible as a human being living on the planet in this era. Begin with owning our own racism. When we can start with 'I am racist', then we can see where racism lives and shows up where we are and we can then be responsible for it. We can't be responsible for something we cannot see. Either we are complicit with systemic racism or we are being responsible for interrupting it and actively not perpetuating systemic racism.

White people are lazy in our thinking

Asking BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) people to do the emotional processing and intellectual effort of thinking through these issues - especially around days such as Survival Day/so-called 'Australia Day'/Invasion Day is in itself problematic.

The impact of being the one that white people come to whenever there's an issue of race, to 'check in' about the appropriateness of something or even messages of solidarity can become a burden. The heavy responsibility of being a spokesperson for your entire race, many of which include a diverse range of opinions and perspectives, can also result in a deep weariness.

Here are 5 ways I practice challenging the systemic nature of racism:

1. Be a white person who speaks about race and names racism. Talk about the history of racism in your community. Don't leave it up to BIPOC people to have to bring up issues of racially problematic all the time. Name it and make a safe space for the conversation. I do this during every introduction to Kings of Joy.

2. In Drag, create a persona vs a character. I coach first-time Drag Kings to create a persona vs a character. A persona is an exaggerated, expansive version of yourself that you lean into. A character is created outside of yourself and then stepped into like putting on a jumpsuit. In creating a persona, the only cultural heritage to draw upon is your own. This avoids cultural appropriation which is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs and practices of one people or society by members of another people or society that are typically dominant. It also tends to include a tone that is derogatory, makes fun of, and takes advantage of others.

3. Prioritise BIPOC people. I prioritise BIPOC people and trans and gender-diverse people on the Kings of Joy waiting list. Sometimes this has meant other people have had to wait until the next round to participate. When you are performing or speaking, check out the line-up. Is it dominated by white people? Is there only one or no people of colour? Be willing to say something and step aside to make room for voices other than the dominant ones we automatically always hear. Recently, I stepped aside as a speaker on a panel to make room to amplify BIPOC voices. I didn't withdraw my support, I simply changed my role to be a contributor. Representation matters more than my personal gain.

4. Center BIPOC people. In my choreography, I center BIPOC Kings, placing them front and center and ensuring they have moments within the performance to take up space and express themselves. I don't leave anyone out, but I do look at who's skin is represented visually on stage. Representation of BIPOC people matters. I'll never forget my niece at 7 putting her hand into mine as we walked along and excitedly telling me about the movie she'd just seen in the cinema - Moana. "And she had brown skin - just like me! And curly hair - just like me!" Seeing yourself reflected on screen or on stage, in the world, matters. It really matters.

5. Song choice: think deeply about it.

When you lip sync, be aware that you are literally implying that the voice is coming out of your self/body. Choosing a song to perform to therefore requires deep thinking.

There is an important distinction between impersonation and moving and lip-syncing as yourself or your persona. Impersonation means taking on cultural aesthetics, characteristics and appearance. Within the context of drag, this is problematic and results in cultural appropriation.

Unfortunately, like all communities, drag has its own history of racism including white Drag Queens who have dressed up as 'Aboriginal' in a derogatory and disrespectful manner, causing harm and perpetuating a tolerance for racism. Similarly, white Drag Kings impersonating black rappers has also been harmful and problematic. Read more about drag history in this article written by Madhuraa Prakash aka Mannish Interest, 'Drag Race Down Under' Has Quickly Exposed A Racism Problem in Australian Drag.

So does that mean I shouldn't perform to any BIPOC voices? If the answer was yes to that, then that would mean continuing to amplify only white voices and artists. This is not a great solution. Amplify means to increase the volume of, to enlarge upon. We do want to amplify BIPOC voices, musicians and artists - queer artists too! So think deeply about how to do that in appropriate and respectful ways that do not impersonate.

Don't rely on the fact that you have good intentions. Being non-BIPOC and having good intentions is completely insufficient to ensure that you are amplifying BIPOC voices versus appropriating. In the end, you are the one responsible for your performance, so go in eyes wide open, having done the deep thinking and research (typically from pre-written, pre-recorded sources- see below for some resources) and be ready to deal with any consequences.

Ultimately, drag is for entertainment and community, not for fuelling conversations that perpetuate systemic racism. There are not many rules in Drag but perpetuating systemic racism on stage is always unacceptable. Stay open to being in the inquiry about systemic racism and your own participation in it. Notice where you stop listening or think you've got it handled. Stay open. 



P.S Here are some Anti-Racism Resources for non-BIPOC people:

1. Racial and Social Justice 101 by Erika Hart

2. White Fragility: Why it's so Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

3. Read these 6 books to help you be an anti-racism activist: Curated by Anita Heiss

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