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Shawn Vestal: Don’t compare a drag queen to a blackfaced minstrel

Minstrelsy blackface, it is sometimes claimed, was one of the first uniquely – and uniquely awful – American forms of artistic expression.

For decades and decades, on stages and then in movies, white Americans darkened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish, exaggerated their features and mannerisms, and pretended to be black Americans – lazy, oafish, superstitious, sexually rapacious, illiterate, stupid, inferior black Americans.

It was a direct outgrowth of the nation’s history of slavery and racism, a white-supremacist reflection of a majority culture ridiculing the very people it was oppressing. It flourished in the years after slavery was abolished – a knee-jerk cultural reaction by white Americans who were clearly uncomfortable with the social ramifications of free black Americans.

That is why blackface remains so offensive today. It’s not just the burnt cork. It’s the history and context.

So when people try to co-opt blackface for their own unrelated political aims – by, say, comparing drag queens to blackface performers – it cynically reduces the historical crime of blackface to little more than a selfish, opportunistic political strategy. It’s like comparing a hangnail to the Holocaust.

If drag queens freak you out, you should at least not pretend it’s because you’re so dang woke.

That’s the tack a couple of Spokane women are taking to rally opposition to a Drag Queen Story Hour at the South Hill library. They have launched a “500 Mom Strong” Facebook page, which – judging by the number of likes, comments and shares – is a vast overstatement of the number of people involved.

Here’s part of one post: “We could all be enjoying a Saturday at the library without being accosted by cross dressing, over the top, overly sexual people who want to indoctrinate little kids into the LGBTQ community.”

Pretty standard sex-panic stuff, really. What’s weirdly, grossly off-putting in this case is the group’s attempt to critique drag on grounds of racism and misogyny.

Another post says: “A Drag Queen is no different than a racist donning black face. They mock women and debase our womanhood and femininity. The event is a sexist minstrel show teaching our sons that women are just sexual objects and it (sic) teaching our daughters that they must be overly sexualized to be desired. Enough is Enough. WE say NO MORE to a political agenda aimed at degrading women and sexualizing children. We say NO to gender appropriation!”

A group calling itself 500 Drag Queens on Facebook is planning a counterprotest, which should be much more fun.

Drag is not blackface. It is not based on depicting women as comically subhuman for the delight of the nation’s majority population. It is not a vestige of a century of vigorous punching down by the powerful against the powerless. If anything, it’s the opposite – an expression of individuality and freedom from a population that has itself been historically powerless.

Drag Queen Story Hour will consist of drag queens reading stories to those children whose parents decide to bring them. Parents who decide not to take their children will be utterly unaffected, if they just take a deep breath and try to remember they live in a world of differences, a world in which expanding your ability to respect and tolerate differences is a positive step, a world in which conservative sex panics – over gay marriage, over trans people in bathrooms, over sex ed, over drag queen story hours – are happily losing their hold over the culture at large.

The opponents of Drag Queen Story Hour are going to protest, which is their right. They are also trying to block the event from occurring at all, which is not. It is heartening that in the face of this freakout, the library has stood its ground. If this makes you happy, too, be sure to let the library know it.

Drag is not blackface, and the 500 – or 50, or 5 – Mom Strong are not victims of centuries of overt and covert and continuing discrimination at the hands of drag queens. It will do children no harm to hear a story by a drag queen, and the event will not – probably – turn into an indoctrination orgy in the library conference room.

It will also do children no harm if their parents simply and calmly decide to keep them home. They could use that time productively, to do some family research on the history of blackface.