Rift in Queer Community Begs Question: Is Portland as Progressive as It Thinks It Is?
Booking of blackface performer brings racial tensions to the forefront
Bruce Poinsette Of The Skanner News
March 04, 2013Intent vs. Content
Gentrification, the intersection of race and gender, and white privilege have all come to the forefront as the fallout continues from a Northeast Portland bar booking a blackface drag queen.
After the Q Center cancelled a dialogue and deleted its corresponding Facebook page, members of Portland’s Black, queer community voiced their frustration over the disregard of their voices and their suffering.
“I, unlike some of my peers, think the Q Center was trying to open space for conversation,” says Aine, a longtime Northeast Portland resident who didn’t want to use her real name for security concerns. “I think intent was good. One of the things I think is hard for white liberals in Portland is that they’re unwilling to distinguish between intent and content.”
The controversy began when the Eagle, a local gay bar, announced that it was bringing in comedian Chuck Knipp, who performs in blackface as Shirley Q. Liquor. He has described the character as an “inarticulate black welfare mother with 19 children."
After the event was announced, community members protested, expressing shock and outrage. Many felt the scheduling showed a continued disregard for the pain Black, queer women, and Black women in general, experience in the community on a regular basis. On Feb. 1, the Eagle announced it was cancelling the performance.
Following the cancellation, some members of the white, queer community fired back, asserting that their freedom of speech was being violated and that because the performance was entertainment, it wasn’t racism.
Logan Lynn, the public relations and innovations manager for the Q Center, says the organization saw this conversation taking place and decided to create a dialogue to bring all the voices involved together.
“How do you stay inclusive and not exclude anyone?” asks Lynn. “How do we get these people being hurt by this performance being booked and these people that have bought these tickets to see this performer -- all queer people living in the same community -- how do we get them in the same room to talk about this stuff?
“Q Center, part of what we do is to walk in the fire and take a seat. Let it burn. Let it become what it is and look at the truth around this stuff, no matter how uncomfortable it is.”
Perspectives on the event’s Facebook page varied with many QPOC (queer people of color) as well as many white queer people expressing frustration with some white respondent’s inability to see that blackface performances are racist. Some took offense to the framing of the event and called the Q Center’s credibility into question, noting it’s a relatively new organization located in a gentrified, historically Black neighborhood.
One poster, named Cory Briana, wrote, “My desire and the desire of others here posting [is] to see a stated informed commitment and action to create safety, inclusion, stated anti-racist practices, and public accountability is not a desire born out of want but born out of need. To fall deaf to these needs continues to foster a well known community fact that the Q Center caters to the needs only of white queers. I’m not willing to accept that an event such this with all its deficits is enough or worthy of accolades. I am not willing to concede that something is better than nothing. As far as I’m concerned as this event stands it can not and does not serve communities of color and only positions this racist assault on our folks of color as theoretical and equally experienced by white folks and folks of color.”
The Q Center is located in the historically Black Mississippi neighborhood. According to Lynn, in 2002-03 then Commissioner Sam Adams released a survey on what was needed, what people were looking for in a community center or in general LGBT services, and where that center would be located. At the time, the center was located on South Water Ave. but Lynn says they outgrew it. The location on Mississippi was seen as valuable because it was part of an “emerging neighborhood”.
“We’re on the bus line,” says Lynn. “We’re right by the MAX. This seemed like a central location and was part of a neighborhood.
“We’re actually a pretty young organization with a pretty small staff. For the people that say they don’t see themselves at Q Center, my response is always please show up. Represent that voice. Bring your lived experience to the table.”
Aine says that’s not so easy. She believes the Q Center hasn’t owned its privilege, which is a sentiment that appears frequently in the captured conversation.
“No matter what they say, they participate in gentrification,” says Aine. “They built it there.
“There were actually people in conversation saying gentrification has nothing to do with it, which says people coming into conversation didn’t have enough education.”
White Privilege Evasiveness
Tim Wise lecturing on white privilege
Aine says the framing exemplified white privilege by equating the sentiments of Black women who felt harmed by the Eagle’s event to the hurt feelings of some white respondents who didn’t appreciate being called racist.
Aleksandr Peikrishvili, who works as a therapist, was one of the facilitators for the proposed event and says that the framing was meant to bring all sides of the debate to the table.
“My framing was intentional, even though I was perceived as ignorant by leaving the question open of whether blackface is racist, he says. “In my mind there is no question. The way I framed the event was to reflect what was happening in our community. In my mind, there were 100 people that bought tickets to this performance. There must be a question in their mind of whether blackface is racist or not."
Peikrishvili, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1993 and is half Georgian and half Armenian, says his experiences with racial profiling by those who perceived him to be a person of color motivated him to put on an event dealing with racism. He is quick to point out that his experiences pale in comparison to African-Americans.
Both the unintended pain people felt from the framing and some of the criticisms that resulted were painful, he says. However, if he could go back and do things differently, he says he would only make minor tweaks.
“I would still like to have that framing. Maybe change it just a little, but I wouldn’t want to say that I believe blackface isn’t racist, because in doing so, people that really believe that would think I’m saying, ‘don’t come to this,’” Peikrishvili says. “As a facilitator, I want to invite the conversation. What I believe is what’s guiding me that it’s dehumanizing is a lived experience of women of color. With the reaction that was there, I think it is what’s happening in the community. I wish it wasn’t happening but that’s why I’m facilitating the event. To create an awareness and create a different culture. Rather than prohibiting something that is atrocious, we look at it together and learn from it because otherwise I feel it goes underground and we end up booking another performance like this. I want to move beyond political correctness.”
While Facebook comments from both sides often strayed away from what is commonly perceived as politically correct, some particular racist comments brought calls for moderators to step in. Some respondents contended that if the comments in question were going to be regulated then people mentioning white privilege should be regulated too, because they were engaging in bullying.
To Peikrishvili, some of the assumptions made about the panelists were unfair. For example, he notes that some respondents were asserting that all the facilitators were white when in fact, one was a women of color. He thinks some of the assumptions may have come from the woman not having a Facebook account.
“We didn’t advertise that,” says Peikrishvili. “As a result, there were assumptions made.”
Lynn takes it a step further and admits the Q Center didn’t engage with some of these comments because they were assumptions.
“Some of that was painful,” he says. “Assuming all of the facilitators were white for example. You read somebody’s name and assume they’re white. What is that about? What word do you use for that? How did that make those facilitators that weren’t white feel?”
Aine finds it disheartening that instead of engaging with a discussion on white privilege, some white queer respondents simply dismissed use of the term as name calling.
“To me, this question of having to justify racism is a form of privilege evasiveness,” she says. “You have the privilege to not know what racism is. Then you have the privilege to say to someone that’s experiencing racism, maybe there’s another reason. Then you have the privilege to interrogate someone based on your experience which doesn’t include experiencing racism. You make yourself the arbiter of what is true and real and valid.
“When you say, ‘We hear your concerns but could you say it in a way that doesn’t make me feel bad,’ are you really inviting them to the table? When the safety of white cisgendered men is considered as important -- that we need to build structures around their safety -- as queer women of color, both cis and Trans, there really is a lack of understanding of what racism is. White queer men don’t need protection from queer black women that might call them racist. Why do they feel that they have the right to be protected from being called racist?”
Aine also takes issue with the proposed model for the conversation. To her, the process group model doesn’t demonstrate cultural competency because it doesn’t ensure the safety of those most harmed.
Lynn stands by the model and says the Q Center will go forward with it when they find a new date for the conversation.
“Instead of community forum or action plan meeting, it’s a chance for all community voices to come in,” he says. “It’s more of a therapy model. People can talk with trained therapists. We figured it would be a good idea since the conversation was happening to bring it in here so it wasn’t just an anonymous, virtual discussion so we could create a dialogue.”
Aine contends that these theories are great but are seldom culturally informed. The result, she says, is the kind of chaos that has ensued.
“You have people of color saying, ‘We’re hurting,’ and the Q Center responds, ‘We hear you have strong feelings,’” says Aine. “You’re using two second tools to respond to me. Conflict resolution is not always culturally competent. A culturally competent person would say, ‘I see that this is heated and I see that you were harmed and I see that right now the structure of this conversation is harming you again. And I would like to know, if I’m too dumb to figure it out, what is needed in the structure of this conversation that is harming you, to shift it.’”
Colonizing a Conversation?
A lack of competency was validated in the minds of some, after the Q Center cancelled its dialogue and deleted the corresponding Facebook page.
Lynn says this was a technical issue. Due to the Q Center cancelling the event, he says they had to delete the Facebook event page. He notes that the Q Center captured the dialogue and posted it on their website a couple of days later. Users can read all of the posts and continue the discussion in the comments section.
“If we could’ve taken the event page down and kept the conversation up, we would have,” says Lynn. “The intention was never to silence voices. That’s what’s so sad. These voices were feeling unheard and finally had a platform to speak and that got taken down. I totally get that frustration and did everything in my power to get that conversation back up.”
Aine contends that this was a show of power. She says she wasn’t able to engage in the conversation in the same way as she did on the Facebook event page. To her, the decision smacked of white privilege.
“They essentially, colonized the conversation,” she says. “Bottom line is, thinking you can take a conversation about racism where you are being called out for your participation in it away from the people involved, and retain the rights to it and how it looks is about power and privilege, and in this case, privilege evasiveness.”
Organizing Going Forward
The Q Center hasn’t announced a new date for the conversation yet. It released a statement on Feb. 28, laying out plans for an elder panel and opportunities for other community groups to come and educate people involved with the Q Center.
“What we are doing differently, is realizing it’s not an incident response,” says Lynn. “It’s a systemic, larger conversation event. This event sparked a conversation and triggered a lot of people. I think it’s to be expected that people are going to be pissed, upset and hurt. The thing we’re doing differently is including more people.”
He adds that if people don’t feel they are being represented, they can get involved by emailing the information desk at the Q Center, which will connect them with facilitators and space programmers. By getting involved, people will have the opportunity to become a panelist, create an event of their own, or simply speak their minds.
“I don’t want people to think we’re brushing off this voice that says, ‘I don’t feel welcome there at Q Center. I don’t see myself there. I don’t feel safe. I’m not welcome,’” says Lynn. “Whatever that feeling is, is coming from a real place so we at Q Center need and want to address that. We’re trying to open these doors in a way that people can come and be themselves and represent themselves.”
Despite these efforts, there are still reservations from those that don’t think the Q Center reached out enough to people of color, and Black queer women in particular.
Aine expresses frustration with the assumption of some that people of color aren’t organizing. She points to organizations like Black Pflag and resources like Portland State University’s Queer Students of Color Conference as spaces where queer people of color can have their voices heard in a more authentic way. PQ Monthly also recently released a piece compiling the thoughts of local LGBT community leaders.
“One of egregious things about Q Center event is many people posit it as either it happens at Q Center or not at all,” says Aine. “Somehow, if we don’t have white leadership or if white people aren’t involved, then the conversation isn’t happening.”
A False Sense of Wholeness
She says that ultimately, an authentic conversation is important because race based trauma negatively affects people on both sides.
“There’s a false sense of wholeness in whiteness,” says Aine. “White people who do racist things see the racism outside of themselves and are therefore, unable to internalize the parts of themselves that they don’t like. It’s that Freudian shadow.”
She points to an article on the socialization of white children to address the origins of these feelings. According to the article’s study, children were given a choice of doing the right or wrong thing. For example, one choice might be to hold a Black friend’s hand or cut a Black person in line. Aine says that almost every white child had a moment where they had to choose between their parents/a respected figure and doing what was right for a person of color.
“They learned that in order to be accepted in the culture they had to choose whiteness,” she says. “Those moments are traumatic. They run counter to spirit and soul. You internalize them as real. When you have to make choices as an adult that run counter to that little child and someone calls you on it, you’re not fighting the fight between you and the person that called you on it. You’re fighting with the little kid who didn’t have the power to choose something else. You’re saying, ‘I’m not that bad person.’”