Orange Is the New Black Star Missed the Entire Point of Kara Walker’s Art
Some notes for our fellow white queers
Queer communities have a long way to go to be the welcoming places we would like them to be, especially when it comes to racism.
In 2014, Orange is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria (who plays Big Boo) visited Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” an exhibit in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory that highlighted the legacies of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, anti-blackness, slavery, and patriarchy that have shaped the past 500 years. (The exhibit closed July 6, 2014.)
The Domino Sugar Factory was chosen as a venue for Walker’s piece because enslaved people, the primary labor force for sugar plantations, served as the foundation of the sugar economy from which Domino rose. This is not to mention that factories like this literally processed sugar from brown to white. Walker’s exhibit featured sculptures of enslaved children made of molasses to highlight the sugar factories’ (and other industries’) reliance on black labor to benefit white capitalistic goals.
The center of Walker’s exhibit was a 40-foot-tall sphinx created out of sugar, with a head of the mammy stereotype, representing the racist iconography of the black female domestic servant at the hands of white families. The sphinx’s body was that of the over-sexualized black woman, often seen as props in music videos like Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” and on TV and in film.
Throughout the summer of 2014, many white viewers of Walker’s piece made the news by taking racist, misogynistic selfies with the piece — cupping, licking, and generally abusing the work. Some patrons (rightly) responded to these displays in anger. For example, in “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,” Nicholas Powers wrote that he cried out to rude patrons, “You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique.” The offenders allegedly lowered their cameras.
Lea DeLaria — white, queer comedienne and actress with an Instagram following of 167,000 at the time — unfortunately offered no exception. In an Instagram picture, DeLaria posed with Walker’s piece. She positioned herself between the sphinx’s breasts with the head of the work cut off, and entitled her picture “Sugar Tits.” In her next photo, DeLaria looked smugly from beneath the buttocks and vulva of the sphinx and captioned the image, “That’s what I call looking into the face of god.”
This is incredibly disrespectful. In viewing a sculpture critiquing the over-sexualization and white exploitation of black bodies, DeLaria perpetuates that same sexualization — and encourages her followers to do so as well.
When some of DeLaria’s Instagram fans tried to start a dialogue around the implications of her photos, she responded with a heated defense, which was deleted minutes later:
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. — @realleadelaria
In this statement, we can see DeLaria’s disrespect first, in her lack of engagement with the meanings of Kara Walker’s art and second, in her defensive insistence that her oppression as a lesbian trumps any other oppression. Her sexualizing gaze makes it clear that no matter the context, DeLaria has the right to consume. That entitlement disguised as sexual liberation is white supremacy.
Through her Instagram photos and public comments, Lea DeLaria is a prime example of the ways in which we white queers sometimes oppress queer people of color without even being aware of the impact of our behavior. As queer white folks, it’s easy to focus on the homophobia we experience and then exclude other oppressions like racism or transphobia for cis folks. It’s easy to think that all bodies are ours to consume. But such entitlement is a common microaggression.
Again, DeLaria’s defensive use of lesbianism and “artistic license” ignores ways multiple oppressions overlap and inform one another. The comedienne/actor makes the mistake of thinking her oppression as a lesbian gives her automatic insight into the oppressions of black women without having actually done any of the emotional and intellectual work to gain such insight. Like so many others who attended Kara Walker’s exhibit, it shows an ignorance of and a fundamental disrespect for works created by artists of color.
Queer WOC artist, writer, and social critic Aaminah Shakur wrote further about the situation: “DeLaria, in [her Instagram] comments, also says she loved the installation and stood in line for over an hour to see it.” And then, Shakur noted, the Orange Is the New Black star snapped back at her followers, “Where were you?”
First, this question disregards the privilege that allows DeLaria to attend the exhibit. While her career and schedule gave her the freedom to wait in line for hours, others may not have had that luxury.
Second and perhaps more significantly, many people of color chose not to attend Walker’s exhibit — not out of a lack of commitment to the issues, but to avoid a viewing experience that would be hurtful and stressful because of white people like DeLaria. This is why, Aaminah Shakur notes, “Many Black women organized a day in which Black people would attend the exhibit en masse to represent and feel supported by each other.”
So, yes, DeLaria was present. But it’s not enough just to show up. It’s not about how much time you waited or the pictures you took to prove you were there. It’s about how you interact with the art.
If DeLaria’s intention was to respect Kara Walker’s piece, there needed to be context behind the photos — or no photos at all. Unfortunately, her lack of context about the violent and oppressive history behind the piece elicited misogynistic comments from her followers like these, which DeLaria did nothing to address:
- “Nice tits.”
- “I just wanna lick them lol.”
- “You are such a badass.”
- “Lmao oh my god.”
- “Biggest set of lips I have ever seen.”
- “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 it is a good example of how we white folks sometimes reinforce white supremacy by refusing to listen to voices of people of color. It is stating that whatever a white lesbian artist is saying is more important than anything the black artist is saying, and that she has some sort of ownership over the ways black bodies are portrayed.
We need to stop this. 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 hear criticism and not revert to being defensive when others interrupt our oppressiveness. We need to be okay 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.
Emma Shakarshy is a queer writer, teaching artist, and feminist youth worker from the sandy dunes of South Jersey. Middle Eastern hard femme, zumba queen, and Bette Midler enthusiast, she can typically be found thinking about and trying to build intentional, anti-oppressive communities in and outside the classroom. She resides in Brooklyn with her silver tabby kitten Laverne Cox.
Cordelia Nailong is a queer aliagender trans lady femme who is also super kinky, a spiritual specialist, and a New Orleanian trans-feminist trickster. In addition, Cordelia is a writer, a poet, a visual artist, an information activist, a producer, and a draglesque performer. She is most known for her passionate politics, workshops, poetry, innovative performance style, and nonbinary spiritually focused erotica.
Emma and Cordelia would like to thank Creatrix Tiara, Emily Smith, Aaminah Shakur, Brittany Brathwaite, the Femme Secret Society Antiracism working group, and many many other beta readers and inspirations for their undying support and contributions to this piece. Find Emma and Cordelia at cordelianailong.com.
This article is also cross-posted to Disrupting Dinner Parties.
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