I like to think that we are all intelligent individuals here. I also like to think that by this point and time, in this day and age, with aaaaaaaalllllllll the issues relating to race, equality, LGBTQIA, fighting misogyny and the patriarchy on all fronts, and so on and so forth, we know how to a: not be a dipshit, b: be socially conscious (aka #STAYWOKE), and c: be an ally. If we don’t know, we at least have the common sense and decency not to engage in things that call the exact number of our brain cells into question.
Sadly, I’ve been mistaken.
So, by now you all know that I do burlesque. You also already know that I have a child with disabilities. In the illustrious words of Biggie, “And if ya don’t know, now ya know”. All are things I am deeply passionate about (burlesque, my child, and disability advocacy work), and because of that, what I am writing today could get me blackballed from the burlesque community. Please believe me when I tell you that is a risk I am willing to take.
The 2016 Burlesque Hall of Fame showcase took place in Las Vegas earlier this month, and to put it lightly, it’s where all the burlesquers in all the land who dream of being burlesque royalty go to strut their stuff. There are performances and competitions, workshops, meet and greets and (from what I hear) killer after parties. You meet burlesque legends, get inspiration for new acts, and learn performance skills to step up the ass-tassel ante. This year, it was also the place you went to see appropriation, gross ignorance, and for the sake of giving the benefit of the doubt, the absolute wrong way to prove that you are, in fact, an ally.
I present you with this video.
Now, just looking at it, it looks pretty harmless. A woman with a disability, performing sexily, using both her crutches and her leg braces. What could be bad about that? She’s showing that people with disabilities can still be sexy. Maybe you want to give her a “Go head, girl!” shout out! Fabulous, right?
This woman is not disabled. She was not disabled when she conceptualized and choreographed this act. Now before you get all “How do you know, Adiba? You weren’t even there!”, my very close friend (and fellow performer) Jacqueline Boxx was there, and she spoke directly to this performer after being sickened to her stomach by the act. She asked her pointedly if she was now, or when she choreographed this act, disabled. Her answer to both questions - “no”. Jacqueline Boxx is.
Let that one sink in. I’m sure you can see how this might become problematic.
This my friends, is exactly where the problem lies. This is where ignorance, privilege, and appropriation meet to form the most gigantic sparkly ball of fuckery, all in the name of “art”. This is why I am livid. In what world is it ever okay to appropriate the issues of another group of people for your own damn benefit? It wasn’t okay when “you’re-white-no-I’m-not” Rachel Dolezal did it, so what made this performer think she could get a pass? Because she’s cute? Because she’s being “sexy”? Because she’s a “performer” (and yes, I did put that in quotation marks because I refuse to actually label this b.s. a performance)? No. She doesn’t get a pass. She doesn’t get a pass because she performed in fetish boots. She doesn’t get a pass because she’s White. She doesn’t get a pass because she’s a woman. She doesn’t get a pass because (as rumor has it) she was in a bad accident a long time ago.
SHE. DOES. NOT. GET. A. PASS.
Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ten years from now. NEVER. The same way you can’t put on blackface and call yourself “playing the part of a black person”, is the same way you cannot put on crutches and leg braces and fetish booths and call yourself “playing the part of a sexy disabled girl”. Know why? Because the same way there are a million Black people who can actually play themselves, there are a million sexy disabled women out there who can also play themselves. Putting on this act, knowing full well that she is not disabled not only caused performers who actually are disabled to have their disability status questioned, but it also acted as a metaphorical rhinestone muzzle for those same performers. The performers who have struggled, and fought tooth and nail for visibility, not only in the burlesque world, but the world at large, now have to question the very need for them to do what they do. Jacqueline Boxx performs and teaches workshops to not only spread awareness about the abilities of the disabled, but also to encourage and advocate (for) other disabled performers. She performs to make you question what you think you know about the disabled community, and to challenge the social norms of beauty and sex and sensuality. If there is a woman who isn’t disabled, performing as though she is disabled, well, do I need to point out where the fallacy lies?
The Incredible Jacqueline Boxx
In the words of Jacqueline Boxx:
“I just feel silenced. I've never felt like that to this extent before. I feel like the entire world of people who can walk are just literally holding their hands over my mouth and stopping my voice”.
This is exactly how it feels when you appropriate another culture, another race, another marginalized group, and YOU are praised for it, while the actual people of the group you appropriate continue to be marginalized. In case you’re still not sure you get it, I’m going to do you a solid and break it down.
Kylie Jenner wears cornrows = Oh! Look at this amazing new hair trend! Here’s how you can get it!
Queen Latifah wears cornrows = Eek! Dirty braids!
Get it now?
Now because I am sure there is at least one person out there sucking her teeth, giving me a nasty side eye and saying in a huff “oh, so what, I can’t wear cornrows now?”, No Becky, that’s not what I’m saying, but congratulations for making it about you once again. What I am saying is this - if you are going to be an ally, stand next to or behind your group, NEVER in front of. You cannot speak FOR the group if you are not OF the group. Just like there is no honorary Black Card (though we *might* invite you to the cookout), there is no honorary handicapped parking placard. If you think for one second you might want to make a provocative statement about a group you are not a part of, maybe check with a member of that group? Maybe? Maybe hear them when they tell you “No girl. Just....No”. And then maybe, just don’t do it. Maybe just sit and listen. Maybe try and learn something.
Maybe take a seat at the back of the bus. It’s not your stop.
Psssstttt….if after all of this you decide you DO want to be an ally, read these words from Jacqueline Boxx, and watch this clip below.