Queer communities have a long way to go to be the inclusive 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, anti-blackness, slavery, and patriarchy that have shaped the past 500 years. Walker’s piece 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 95,000 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.”
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.”
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, its 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). 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 each other. Like so many other who attended the exhibit, it shows an ignorance and a fundamental disrespect for POC art.
In her comment, DeLaria also says that she loved the installation and stood in line for over an hour to see it. “Where were you?” she asks. 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 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.
If DeLaria’s intention was to respect the 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 POC voices. It is stating that whatever a white lesbian artist is saying is more important than anything the POC 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 POC folks, ignore POC voices, decide that they are “not queer enough”, and appropriate POC culture. 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 actions, not just words.