Outtakes: Anthony Hudson on Racism, Art, and Accountability

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By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
Performance artist Anthony Hudson (aka Carla Rossi) found himself near the epicenter of an intense debate after protests erupted in response to a local gay bar's booking of the controversial blackface drag performer Shirley Q. Liquor -- Hudson was scheduled as the opening act for the show. The bar's booking manager apologized and cancelled the show, but the incident raised larger questions about racism, performance art, and accountability. PQ Monthly explored a variety of perspectives on this issue in "Race Drag: Debate continues over booking of blackface performer" (April 2013). Like everyone else we spoke to, Hudson had much more to say than we could fit in print. So we're sharing extended outtakes from his interview here. (More outtakes will be posted soon.) PQ: How do you identify?
Hudson: I'm not entirely sure; lately I've been trying to figure how to form new language around identity, as I find myself haunted by historicized, politicized terms for identity that reinscribe the effects of their own construction.  At the moment I identify as a queer, a feminist, an anti-racist, and an artist. Some part of me identifies as my alter ego Carla Rossi, drag clown extraordinaire. [Hudson later added that he is also a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.]
PQ: What role did you have in the Shirley Q Liquor show?
Hudson: I asked to open for the Shirley Q. Liquor show. I'm perplexed by the racism that informs (if not drives) Chuck Knipp's characterization of SQL, yet in some of Knipp's YouTube videos like "homosexicals" or "White People on TV," Knipp alludes to some amount of critical thinking -- on his part -- around the issues that he uses SQL to talk about, at least in those specific videos.  I planned to open for Knipp as Carla Rossi, performing a new song I had written that lampoons whiteness and "post-racial" discourse. [See video of Carla Rossi performing this song below.]  I hoped that in the process I would get to meet with Knipp and ask him why he does what he does.
PQ: Where you surprised by how passionately folks opposed it?
Hudson: Not at all. A few years ago I read a book by John Strausbaugh, "Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture" (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006), that opened with a section on Knipp/Liquor, focusing around the protests that shut down a planned SQL show in New York.  For whatever reason, though, I was more surprised that I hadn't prepared myself for the fact that by association with the show, I would be implicated in acts of racism that were attributed to the Eagle and its patrons.  I was horrified the night that the controversy really exploded on Facebook.  I knew I had to draw out of the show because I couldn't stomach the idea of causing pain to people I care about.
PQ: What do you think of the letter Queer Racial Justice PDX delivered to the Eagle?
Hudson: I'm not entirely sure. But I think my next answers touches on it.
PQ: Whether you agree with the concerns of Queer Racial Justice PDX, what do you think would be the most appropriate and effective response to an LGBTQ business or organization that offends some segment of the community? Does the best response differ when the "guilty" party is a mainstream business/organization perceived to be perpetuating homophobia/transphobia?
Hudson: I think an apology -- a sincere apology -- is all that we can realistically expect. The effects of bad choices will materialize whether we, the public, see them or not; restitution can be demanded, but does complying with a request for restitution inspire sincerity or contrition on the part of a guilty party who complies with that request? Compliance via restitution may signify nothing more than a spectacle, a show for the sake of remaining in good standing in the public eye; if that's the case, then what is won in the end is not some kind of resolution toward righting wrongs, or a victory in civil rights, but simply an act of business, a trade.
Furthermore, who makes restitution? The abstract entity of the business, the booking agent, Chuck Knipp, the employees, those working at the show, those who decided to buy a ticket, or those who resorted to blatant sexism and racism when engaging with protestors on Facebook, or all of the above? It's sometimes easier to criticize an abstraction -- in this case, a bar -- than individuals, but what does that achieve?
Education and conversation may be the best response to wrongdoing. My mentor shared with me a story about reparations made in South Africa after Apartheid. Guilty parties were pardoned for murder and similar wrongdoing on the condition that they met with the families and victims who experienced wrongdoing and injury, explained what they did to their victims, and apologized. There's something beautiful and vulnerable about that, I think, though it sounds absurd to American disciplinary society.
As for the second question here, I'm not sure how to go about it. This would be a case where -- well, like any case should really be handled -- such an occurrence calls for individual investigation.
PQ: Do you think performers should be free to do what they want without criticism or consequence or is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? Who decides where that line is and how?
Hudson: Some lines shouldn't be crossed.  But that doesn't mean that people won't cross them anyway.  All one can truly do in response is speak up, speak out, and harvest an oppositional consciousness that works to counteract the effects of such actions.  Any good performer should go into a piece with a willingness to engage with whatever criticisms or consequences their work will incur.  To reject criticism or consequence, or to simply defer to intention rather than acknowleging the actual effects of one's work (regardless of intention), is bullshit -- and the sign of a lazy artist.
This is one of the issues I had with one popular defense of SQL that I saw on Facebook, that it was "just comedy." I think if you're going to try and defend SQL, one could at least try and ask how conventional drag -- or "womanface" -- is any less problematic (and thereby any more acceptable) than blackface, and bring Chuck Knipp & SQL into that conversation.  I was suprised I didn't see that argument anywhere on Facebook when the controversy was at its apex.  But to say "get over it, it's just comedy," like I saw so many people saying -- that's just masking unacknowledged racism and sexism. Many of these sentiments were followed by phrases like "get your panties out of a wad" or "untwist your panties," as if the inability to appreciate "comedy" was exclusive to women, as if comedy, any kind of comedy, from any source, somehow trumps genuine anti-racist concerns. Watch Hudson perform "I Should Be So Lucky" as Carla Rossi at Place Gallery below.