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Blackface in Burlesque (Updated)

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Last night I came across some old images from a burlesque gala in another state. The photos seemed harmless enough at first. I saw a black woman onstage, beautiful and glowing. Nothing wrong with that at all!

I clicked the name tagged in the image, expecting to see more images of this fellow black burlesque performer. I was shocked and a bit confused when I could find no other photos of a black woman. I clicked back multiple times, thinking the tag had been wrong. And then it hit me: this woman was in blackface for her performance! The blackface was applied thoroughly and in moderation, and was almost unnoticeable until I viewed normal photos of the woman's very non-black skin. I was excited because I thought this performer looked like early Janelle Monae, but she had suddenly morphed into someone completely different and definitely not black. It seems that, once again, my skin (that I cannot wash away after a gig) was a temporary fun costume for a burlesque performer.

I was offended. I immediately wondered how this photo had slipped under the radar for so long. Usually when something like this happens, social media retribution is swift and merciless. There are people who don't hesitate to publicly warn the community about problematic performers, producers, and shows, and I'm not all the way mad at it - with such transparency, it's hard to sweep bad behavior under the rug. But for some reason, this particular performer's misstep evaded public scorn -- at least to my knowledge.

I don't like to engage in call-outs. Not saying that I judge those who do, but I just don't have the spoons for online wars anymore. Activism and social justice make up a huge part of my Muggle life -- at the risk of outing my true identity a bit, I will share that I have founded a legal aid non-profit, spent many a sleepless night working on indigent defense and death penalty cases, run annual legal clinics to help sex workers, immigrants, recently released prisoners, etc., and the list goes on. Fighting real fights in real life for real people who are demanding help (and sometimes not nicely because they are stressed the fuck out) has given me serious battle fatigue, and I use burlesque as my escape. I know people are fucked up, because I've looked at medical examiner photos of murder victims and I spend many days calming down crying domestic violence survivors or helping wrongfully convicted ex-prisoners try to rebuild their lives. That's my everyday, y'all -- burlesque is my escape, not my main job.

With that being said, it's inevitable that real life will make its way into my "escape." Since I started kittening in 2012, I have heard so many horrible stories about racism, sexism, sexual assault, bullying, harassment, theft, gaslighting, and the list goes on and on. These are huge issues, and it would be silly and dangerous of me to bury my head in the sand and pretend they don't exist.

So what can I do? At this point, I have a few options:

  • Talk with my community first. This way I can work out any anger and frustration I am feeling about this issue without outside judgment or tone policing, but also without immediately launching into a personal attack of the offending performer. Trust, a couple of my House of Knyle sisters have already seen this photo and have been wtf-ing with me in private, and I plan on showing my burlesque mother. I think this is a 100% must.

  • Talk with the offending performer. I could go ahead and Facebook her if she seems approachable, and let her know how hurtful the act and photo is to me, with no expectations of an apology or even understanding because let's be real: people can be obtuse.

  • Call her ass out. I could post the photo and tag her, and let the world know how hurt I am. This may feel good (really good), but my reservations about doing this are: 1) what if she has already addressed this, being that this picture is years old? This is why talking with more established community members is important - this could already be old news, and just new to us burlesque newbies! 2) what if she has tried her hardest to remove all the photos of this blackface act (I doubt no one has confronted her yet), and my stalking ass just has a knack for unearthing EVERYTHING (seriously, it's a librarian superpower)?

Ugh. So many thoughts going through my head. All these options actually make me feel even more crappy because somehow the onus is on US as black people to figure out how to respond, rather than on the performer to apologize and just, I don't know, not do this horrible thing that offends us so greatly?!

I'll keep working through this on my own, but I definitely wanted to let everyone know that cultural appropriation, racism, and blackface are still rampant in burlesque and we, as a community, are still figuring out how to solve this issue (much like the entire country).


After speaking with members of my burlesque family (in particular, my burlesque mother/mentor and a couple of my House of Knyle sisters), I decided to not call the performer out and just work through my own feelings about why the photo bothered me so much. Another performer, did, in fact open up discourse on Facebook about this incident, and I am relieved -- I just didn't have the spoons for a big fight or dialogue. This type of stuff can be infuriating for people of color, and we often feel like a broken record trying to explain to others that their actions are dehumanizing.There are many reasons I made the decision to stay somewhat mum on the specifics -- including what I've already shared -- but right now I want to mention a couple of discussion points I think could be helpful to hash out within our burlesque community:

  • Subtle differences between blackface and blackfishing. Many know that changing one's skin to be several shades darker or even pitch-black is extremely distasteful and racist. However, a new phenomenon is occurring where social media influencers blur the lines between "bronzer and a tan" and "blackface." They use make-up to change their appearance to look as if they are from somewhere within the African Diaspora - for instance, some Instagram models long to look Afro-Latina or mixed, much like the performer in question on this blog post. Their skin is not as dark as it could be, but they have definitely darkened it to look different. I personally call this "the Kardashian effect," where very pale people turn into racially ambiguous people, all for profit and social media followers, with the help of wigs and make-up.

  • POC Self-Care. I've felt pretty deflated ever since writing this post, mostly out of fear that I will be ostracized or punished for talking about this openly. I have been re-evaluating why I perform, and whether or not it is possible to be a successful performer without buy-in and validation from people + organizations who may not value me or my experiences as a black woman, and therefore, do not value me fully as even human. I made a conscious decision not to participate in certain fields of the legal profession for the very reason that doing so would openly and actively diminish my humanity, and this incident has made me fearful that burlesque will only do the same. Where do I go from here? How do I keep my head down and power through, knowing that there may be no upward mobility and I may never achieve the kind of success I dream of, all because I am physically fucking unable to stomach watching people trample on the humanity of myself and others?

As a final note for this post, I think it's important that we all fight battles and work against oppression in different ways. This blog is my way of working through things right now -- cerebral and wordy and circular, I know, but it's all I can manage emotionally right now!

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