FBQ Cawfee Talk XII

Our Evolving President

The Queen is still trying to figure out how I feel about this. Not the statement itself (YAY). But the concept of “evolving” into it.(*Big Scooby Doo “RRRUH RRROH!”*)

Based on what I know of his stance on the issue, this topic seems to be the clearest indicator of the fact that he’s a politician. I would like to think that Obama the Man is progressive enough to have ALWAYS been okay with same-sex marriage. But Obama the Politician was shrewd enough to know better.

However we do evolve.

As a black, gay man brought up in the Southern Church, it took me a long while to feel comfortable with the idea of two men or two women marrying. We won’t get too religious all up in heah right now, but I definitely got caught up in the bible as the “go-to” book for all answers to all questions. It wasn’t until I was exposed to more schools of thought and historical context that I began to see how absurd it was having one source for the whole of humanity’s “Rules for Living.”

It’s funny to the Queen how we shape ideas and events to fit into our need structure and world view. Most of the black folk that I know who are against the idea of gay marriage, have or know a set of women in their mid 70’s who have lived together almost their entire lives. “Oh Miss Thea and Miss Abigail? They just live together to share expenses.” When you know damn well they’ve been rockin’ the rafters and living fabulous, loving lives for over half a century. What do the people against Civil Rights for All think America will look like when the entire country allows same-sex marriage?

Needles’ “Nigger”

Get ready Miss Things. Take a deep breath.

The Queen wanted to bring up a topic that a thoughtful, FIERCE, (and honorary Black) Queen brought up on my Facebook Page about Ms. Needles and journalist Zach Stafford’s allegations of racism.

photo by Caldwell

I don’t know Mr. Stafford. However from the images I’ve seen, he seems to be a fairly young man. I imagine that the Queen has a few years on him. And though that means little in terms of the validity of my words over his, it does allow me to have experienced elements of the Civil Rights movement of the late sixties and early seventies that the gentleman may not. I do not know in what kind of cultural environment Mr. Stafford was raised (Afri-centric, Euro-centric, etc.); but I would advise caution in his hypothesis of racism in regards to Ms. Needles. Sharon Needles is an artist. An artist’s job is to push the boundaries–to make us think. To start a dialogue. While I might question the thought process behind some of her statements, I never question the intent. It is obvious to THIS Queen that her intent is always positive and her compassion for humanity inherently clear.

What I’ve learned through my fifty or so years is that the first step in America’s new dialogue regarding racism needs to be a collective discussion on the meaning of the word itself. It gets bandied about haphazardly like a tennis ball in the hands of novice players.

Webster’s defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

Webster’s definition for kids is much more succinct:
belief that certain races of people are by birth and nature superior to others

I’d like to know from Mr. Stafford what about Sharon’s statements mentioned in the article made him: “…unsettled and a tad angry.”? What about them–using the above definitions as parameters–made him use the term racist to describe her? There is no question that this country’s dialogue on race is really just beginning. Now that the blatant stuff is dealt with (slavery, Jim Crow, institutional segregation, etc.), we can start to deal with the much more pervasive and mendacious forms of the phenomenon.

The same may be said for the word “nigger.”

In terms of the word itself, I absolutely agree with Sharon: if you’re going to reference the word–then say it. Every time the Queen hears a newscaster–or any other adult for that matter say “the ‘N’ word” instead of nigger, I feel like I’m back in kindergarten. “Ooooh Miss Crabtree! Titus said the ‘N’ word!!!” What? Are we in Harry Potter now, with the Word That Must Not Be Named?

We are not going to solve our race issues by trying to pretend they don’t exist. We only give words power when we make them taboo. Be it nigger or Voldemort: neither has power when you stop feeding into their infamy and take away the source of strength.

Was Sharon being too cavalier with such a volatile topic?

Was Mr. Stafford being too sensitive and exclusive in his thinking?

C’mon on you White Miss Things and Miss Things of Color and Gay Miss Things and Straight Miss Things and Bi Miss Things and Transgendered Miss Things, and all the other Miss Things that I’ve missed in categorizing…weigh in! Don’t be a’scaired!

THIS’LL make you wake up in the morning!

UPDATE: Please read this comment by mefein1, regarding Sharon’s alleged statements.

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16 thoughts on “FBQ Cawfee Talk XII

  1. Oh, yes–I’m awake now. You’re better than a double shot of espresso and a caffeine IV, hon. 🙂

    I’ll start with the “racist” issue, since that’s got me worked up more. I’m not a fan of the HuffPost, as I’ve found that its articles tend to be journalistic junk food, and this piece fits the definition to a T. It seems to me that Mr. Stafford is grasping at some very thin straws and making some largely sweeping judgments based on those straws. How do two comments from drag queens make all drag queens “racist”? Personally, I can understand people being offended by either comment, but I would not say those comments would earn either Phi Phi or Sharon a KKK membership. At best, they were slightly thoughtless; at worst, a bit ignorant of the impact their words could have on people. For myself, the “n-word” is something I cannot and will not say; I grew up in a time when that word was said with an intent that makes me hugely uncomfortable, and so I cannot bring myself to speak it. This goes for a number of words that have been used to mock people for being different, whether it be their sexual preference or their nationality. I’m just not comfortable with them, so I avoid them.

    As for our president, the finger-pointing and “OMG, he’s being a politician!” response from people highly amuses me. OF COURSE he’s a politician, that is what politicians do! Do people think that women and blacks got the right to vote because it was the right thing to do? No, it was because some politicians realized that if they supported the idea, they would get those votes for themselves–and they did. If President Obama is suddenly embracing the idea of marriage as a civil right for everyone (and I HATE calling it “gay marriage”, it’s “MARRIAGE” no matter who’s getting married), who cares why? The important part is to make sure he runs with it and works towards making it a reality and isn’t just paying lip service to the people who want it. It doesn’t matter why he’s doing it as long as he’s really doing it.

    Okay, NOW I’m needing some coffee. 🙂

  2. Oh, I’m glad you brought the Sharon Needles racist issue up. And actually, the specific comments Staffords was referencing Sharon has denied:

    “I’m known for my filthy mouth, and I wish I could take credit for this one, but this is an obvious forgery. A very famous black man in a blonde wig once said that what other people think of me is none of my business, but in rare form I feel compelled to respond to this false Facebook post. It disheartens me to think that anyone would think I have any negative views on race, sex, creed, weight, or any other “label” . I am too smart and too inspired by all levels of pop culture to hate anyone on something as simple as race. To whomever created this fabricated Facebook post, I applaud you for serving social media realness, but I suggest you spend your free time on something more productive.”

    Not that there haven’t been other allegations of racism on HuffPost and elsewhere, even accepting that she didn’t make those particular statements. And she has used the word as well as shock imagery like Klan hoods and swastikas, to clearly (to me at least) non-racist intent. And you’re right, some of us over 50-year olds may have a different cultural perspective. I remember so well John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” And it WAS controversial at the time, and with reason, although activist Dick Gregory, among others defended him. But whether or not it was considered too offensive to use, in the context of the times it was pretty much understood where he was coming from. He had adopted a tactic from the radical Left, who used the word with deliberate intent, to make a point. But nobody was really accusing John Lennon of being racist or promoting racism, just of questionable judgment. And Sharon has said what can very well apply here: you can call something offensive, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it racist. And intent matters.

    And I think Sharon knows her history and her herstory very well, and she seems very intent on reviving and promoting just this kind of provocative art, deliberately using shock and offense, pushing boundaries, as you say. On the other hand, in one interview she also talks about Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger,” and how meaningful the song was, but then Marilyn Manson came along and covered the song, and all the meaning was gone, it was JUST about shock, look at me in my black lipstick. Clearly Sharon wants to use the shock as a tool and not an end in itself, especially now that she has a large audience. She just seems SO thoughtful and aware about all of this that it is going to be REALLY interesting to see what she does. I’m sure she’ll have to walk a fine line a lot. But I agree with you: I’m prepared to question her judgment on occasion, but I haven’t seen anything yet to doubt her motive or intent.

    What I also enjoy about her is that for all her being a transgressive and outsider artist, as she says, she’s something of a populist one. And not in the sense of “dumbing down.” But you were never going to hear her moan that the judges just didn’t understand her artistry, that it was just too “conceptual” for them (like Santino whenever he sent crap down the runway…). And I always thought that, you know, unless you want your audience to be limited to some graduate students in cultural studies who will argue about you in their dissertations, then you’ve just failed. She puts real wit and humor into what she does, then describes the kind of artist she is, and doesn’t let a microphone near her mouth without rattling off all the people who have influenced her (which I’m sure has led to some nice Google search spikes for all of them, which is a rather cool thing for a reality show contestant to accomplish). Maybe it’s better to say she’s a Pittsburgh transgressive artist rather than a New York one. Her audience doesn’t have to know all her references: if they’re smart, curious, and hungry, they’ll look them up. They’re not proprietary secrets. Sharon seems to really care that she’s educating and providing sustenance to all the “weird” kids she wants to reach, not just thriving on controversy. As much as she likes to push buttons, I don’t think she’ll settle for being misconstrued either. So far I think she’s handling the controversy pretty well.

      • It’s so hard to know how to function without a “like” button. Thank you so much for this well-stated reply & for Scotty’s insightful blog, which I never would’ve discovered without Sharon’s links. I look forward every week to the articulate, interesting, and insightful posts & comments related to both pop & queer culture, as well as relevant discussions of race, class & age in a world that typically ignores all three. Here I have opportunity to read, laugh, and think and each of those actions are more enjoyable when the other two are present. A heartfelt thanks to our blog host and the readers who comment.

    • Holy cow. What an eloquent and very clear analysis of Ms. Needles and her work.

      I AM a graduate student, as well as being old enough to share the perspective on “race in america” of someone over 50, and I have to admit that I struggle in academic circles to *care* about a lot of perfectly valid (and very interesting) thought regarding race, ethnicity, feminism, “outsiders,” etc. simply because the discussion is SO inaccessible to 90-some percent of the population. I can’t say it’s really accessible to me, because I’m not a specialist in those areas and can’t meet the expected standards of vocabulary or even fully grasp the decades of bitterly fought internal debates which that vocabulary reflects .

      And I see a ton of disconnect between academically-trained activists and the people they want to work with and support – sometimes even if those activists are working with “their own.”

      What that means is that I think what Ms. Needles does – and what Mefein does here – to make some of that thought more accessible – is really important.

  3. I can have an opinion on “the N word” and on when racism is or isn’t present. But if I learned one thing as part of a multi-racial family as well as a woman working in a male-dominated field, a white american can’t tell an american of color when something is or is not racist. Period. Because the object of racism or misogyny or any other prejudice or bias that is deeply rooted in our culture isn’t seeing the world through the same lenses as someone who has never been the object of that prejudice.

    This is not to say that people don’t sometimes believe they observe racism or misogyny or homophobia or anti-Semitism or etc. where none exists – but even then, it is often more accurate to say “where none was consciously intended – but is embedded in our institutions, our modes of expression, in the way we *think* about things.” If you’ve never been the object of the prejudice, you ARE going to miss occasions when it exists and is intended – and you are going to miss many, many, many instances when it is simply embedded in the institutions and the unconscious ways of thinking of the culture.

    I think the way that many well-meaning people take their attempts to be “politically correct” to ridiculous and cumbersome extremes is simply evidence that even if someone is taking you by the hand and showing you the embedded prejudices of our culture, it’s still very hard to see them – and in trying to be sensitive one doesn’t always know what is significant and what is not.

    Which is why I might say “I really think X was said in a sincere attempt to achieve Y and not intentionally to be racist.” Or I might say “We can work to change that based on its racism, or based on this-other-problem-with-it which might provide a more accessible way to leverage our influence, or both.” I can say “Well, I’d describe that behavior as X no matter who was exhibiting it. But maybe I’m using a loaded word and should change it.” But I have to try very, very hard not to say “Oh that’s not a racist statement.” Or “That’s not about race, that’s about X.” Because from where I stand as a white American I can’t see the whole picture.

    Which is why I’m gonna let you folk of African-American extraction figure out when somebody can say “nigger.” And if I live long enough for that usage to become uncontroversial & ordinary I may someday let the word pass my lips.

  4. And dear Lord, if our President WEREN’T a politician first he’d have never been the nominee last time around. I’d really love to see him in action as a second term president – though even then, he’d probably be trying to actually get some legislation passed which with Congress as it’s been functioning could really cramp his style.

    I do wonder how delusional I am about that second term.

    • Formallyamom for President. With Mefein1 as her Running Mate.

      I SWEAR to you that if only ONE TENTH of the “white” people (white being defined in my eyes as folks of primarily European descent who consciously or unconsciously identify with mainstream American culture and mores as their norm) had expressed your objective way of thinking about this subject, I’d truly…truly be a different person.

      I don’t know if you noticed, but I didn’t pose my query about Sharon’s alleged comments as “Do you think what Sharon said was racist?” for the very reasons that you mentioned. I personally think that people from other ethnicities, backgrounds and ideals aren’t always the best to define what is racist (or sexist, or ageist etc.) to another culture or group. My flags go up whenever I hear someone say “I’m not a racist.” I start thinking to myself: “How do you know? By what standards (other than ego) are you making that statement?

      I think I may need to do another post on this simply to make the point that I don’t advocate bringing nigger back into the entire country’s daily lexicon. While I don’t mind entering the debate about whether “nigger” vs. “nigga” is just semantics, or if the younger generation–African-American youths, in particular–have successfully appropriated the former and turned it into a new word with a different meaning; I’m smart enough to know that “nigger” itself is too deeply embedded into the fabric of a very volatile moment in American History to be seen as “just a word.” However I would love to be a part of a movement to take away its power.

      But what I REALLY want is to get a national dialogue around the very points that you are making. How about you being the head facilitator? 😀 We’ll start with Romney and George Zimmerman…what do you say?

      • You are so kind. I’m not up to that kind of a challenge. I do think, were the stakes not so high and he not so likely to be locked in a defensive posture (well, yeah, killing an unarmed kid might do that to ya, you think?), an honest look at the thoughts, beliefs and feelings that Zimmerman has could be quite educational for some of those who think the problems of race relations are mostly black & white (in both senses).

        I have quit following the election news closely, I needed a break. But if even half of what I’ve gleaned about alleged bullying when he was a young man is true, it reinforces the worst things I fear about his entrenchment in a place of privilege & entitlement. (BTW, have you seen: http://kotaku.com/5910857/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/ ? Not really world changing but mildly amusing.)

      • Oops, my second paragraph (above? below? I don’t know how this’ll stack) obviously is about Romney. Though I left that out.

  5. I just read this posting today and the quote “she also talks about Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger,” and how meaningful the song was, but then Marilyn Manson came along and covered the song, and all the meaning was gone, it was JUST about shock, look at me in my black lipstick.” echoed something I have been saying all along. Media whore does not equal artist.

    As a woman of challah, I ain’t gonna stir the “N-word” pot. Much. I don’t use that word, or any of the several inflammatory terms to describe black folk. My choice of terminology stems from “Are you a bitch, or are you an idiot” moreso than “Does your color vary from mine.” (And yes, some folks find bitch offensive….we don’t need them reproducing now, do we?)

    Sorry, I digress. I respect what Sharon is doing and how she presents herself. I respect her willingness to stretch and her ability to choose her words and opinions in a graceful and thoughtful manner. (check out her YouTube video on fat acceptance!) She’s fierce, funny and brainy. That’s my kind of Pittsburgher.

  6. Hi there – I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, first for the Drag Race posts, and then for all the other stuff too, so thanks for the interesting and intelligent posts! I have been sorta-following this Sharon controversy for a while and so was interested to see your take on it. I have some thoughts on the entire situation (moreso than about whatever Sharon actually did/said, which remains vague and out-of-context – I read that Sharon’s clarification, cited in the update, was actually to counter a made-up claim that she called Sahara Davenport a ‘nigger,’ and that the original Facebook back-and-forth was indeed real….) So here’s my somewhat-rambling take on the matter, if you’ll bear with me:

    The problem with the way Sharon has discussed race/racism/offending people in interviews, and with the way Webster defines racism above, is that both reduce racism to an individual belief or act, abstracted from society, thereby ignoring the power inequalities within society. For it is not merely a question of one person offending another, but rather that racial inequality makes the use of a word such as nigger by a white person an ugly exercise of privilege and power that reenacts and reinforces that power dynamic. And while Sharon says, “Intent matters,” in a radio interview, intent is certainly not all that matters. Because “Intent matters” is the sort of excuse used to cover up all sorts of atrocities as well as privileges and inequalities – and intents can easily be invented or faked (not necessarily by Sharon, but often by, say, the U.S. government when it wants to go to war).

    Both race, and its correlate racism, are powerful social realities that go far beyond Webster’s limited definition – a definition which falls squarely into a specific, individualistic, capitalist, and ultimately white-centered view of the world. This definition is what leads people to regularly say “But I’m not racist!”, because as far as they are aware, they harbor no such beliefs that one’s skin color makes one superior or inferior to another. But this ignores that racism exists not in the abstract, but fundamentally as an unequal power relation. Racism exists in institutionalized forms (the way our economy, prison system, and other aspects of society are structured – the prison system being an especially dramatic and appalling example), as well as in habits and attachments that are more deeply ingrained than what we see as “beliefs.” It requires recognizing these elements and actively fighting against them to remove racism, not just cleansing one’s own personal beliefs. Racism, as well as the entire notion of race, was constructed, and continues to be constructed, in specific historical and cultural contexts, and to undo their force, we can’t just deny individual culpability, or tell people that the pain and anger felt from a historically-loaded word is just “being offended too easily.” Instead, racism needs to be understood as something that exists right now in society, and that it is something that, if you’re white, you’re continuing to benefit from as a privilege, whether or not you meet the criteria of Webster’s definition.

    Which is why Sharon, regardless of her intelligence, talent, and good heart (none of which I doubt), needs to take seriously the power of language, and recognize that ‘shock art’ can be deeply conservative if it re-stages the sort of power inequality that I believe Sharon would like to subvert. Of course, specifics matter, and context matters, which is why this whole situation is somewhat maddening. But to discuss the most prominently-cited examples of her performance art: I think using a swastika in performance, as a gay man, in a deeply queer art form, to refer to an event which attempted to wipe out gay men, is extremely different from throwing around the word nigger as a white performer, when racism and racial privilege are huge parts of the present-day fabric of this community.

    Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far – I wanted to throw out a different understanding of racism, one common in social justice circles, than what I had seen posted above.

    • Damn Brother (and I call you brother no matter what your racial makeup because I feel strongly connected to your passion; your ideology on many levels, and the powerful articulation of your point of view)! What a first post! I am so honored that you took the time and energy to share another needed perspective.

      I agree with you on almost all levels. However this is a very touchy subject. As you can see, not everyone is ready to jump into the fray. It is a mine field. The idea of White Privilege does not sit well with all people. In my experience, unless there is a level of perspective (such as with posters like our dear, indefatigable Miss Things mefein1, formallyamom and others) there tends to be a level of defense that’s hard to break. I fear we may have lost a regular contributor a while back for that very reason. People are genuinely afraid to talk about this stuff.

      So with great interest and willingness to hear your point of view on this subject, I ask:

      Since I believe that you are correct in the assessment that this is a societal and institutional issue first and foremost: how do you think we successfully and respectfully introduce and address the idea of White Privilege in a way that doesn’t alienate the very society and institutions that need to own the concept?

  7. Oh, N-word puleeze. 😉

    I remember my Sharon telling Phi-Phi that there was a way to deliver “that type” of humor without offending. I’m paraphrasing, of course but that’s the gist of it.

    Sharon isn’t racist. She’s too empathic a soul. What she is, is not afraid to put it on the table for dissection , which is what we’re doing now.

    As for white privilege, it is what needs to have its power revoked, not word reclaimation. How that will be accomplished is the $1,000,000 question.

    • Like all change there needs to be multiple forces/influences at work. I think one of the strongest, over the long term, will be the demographic changes as the U.S. is decreasingly white and interracial partnerships – both business and personal, including marriage, become more common and more accepted. As a corollary, I think one of the MOST important educational efforts for those hoping to promote a more even playing field will be the extremely blunt and straightforward examination of “honorary whiteness” [as claimed and as granted by those of color and those who are white, respectively] and racism among those of color.

      Of course (or, to me it’s of course) probably the single most powerful thing any racial or ethnic group can do in this country is to get rich. Getting educated is vitally important (& far dearer to my heart) & carries some power, but in a lot of ways it’s just a stepping stone to affluence if you’re looking at how a group might really claim power and influence. All the barriers that exist notwithstanding, even if it sounds as realistic a vector for societal change as an NBA career is for personal change, I still think this needs to be articulated – it’s o.k. to make money and it’s o.k. to learn how to make a lot of money into an unimaginable amount of money. (As well as the historical lesson that if your fortune is made in some “shady” way, it takes a generation or two to remove the taint – it’s gonna be your kids & grandkids who might be the inside players.)

      And there’s probably some other really important factors that will come into play – but they aren’t going to be identified by a white person born back when “Negro” was the enlightened term. The perfect illustration of this is my theories, above. You’ll note they’re all about how those of color will claim their privilege. They’re not about how white privilege can be revoked. Because from my white perspective, that looks like “too big a goal” or even “unrealistic.” Even though I know that for many, it IS the goal.

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