**I am a privileged white passing Tahltan, Chinese, and mixed heritage (mostly European) cis queer woman and I am still learning a lot about what that even means and the intersectional politics of both myself and the world. I am by no means the voice for BIPOC performers and I make the wrong choices to learn from all the time. We all have our own biases to deconstruct to make burlesque and the performing arts better for everyone. This article relates just as much to me as it does to everyone who needs to take the time to reflect on burlesque, both with their local communities and on a whole.**
Burlesque is often labelled as an industry that pushes for inclusion and diversity. This is not always the case, not even close... and the longer I’m a part of burlesque, the more gaps and areas of improvement I see. But there are times when I get a glimpse of the people who are trying to be better and are trying to make our industry better. That is the burlesque that I love. And now, like many times before, more performers and community figures are speaking up and supporting Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Sovereignty. That’s a great first step, but as a community and industry, we gotta push further.
We're all adults, we shouldn't need people (BIPOC or not) to hold our hands or to tell us directly that something is not okay. At times, we do because so many thought processes and ideas are incredibly ingrained in us that we don’t realize inappropriate or problematic behaviour on our own. There are many times when something has been happening straight in our faces for so long, even after it was brought to our attention, and it still goes ignored. We all have our own biases and internalized beliefs to dismantle and fix. Sometimes they are difficult to address, but it is always needed.
Inclusion and pushing against oppression are not only about "listening to Black, Indigenous and other BIPOC voices." It's about paying attention. Being inclusive goes beyond having a mission statement that mentions a show’s inclusivity of people from marginalized communities. We need to actively work and think critically about our own spaces, communities and actions that we create. And likewise, we need to pay attention to the atmosphere and actions in other spaces that we visit. Burlesque is a direct reflection of the world magnified. Because of this, we tend to feel the effects of the world vastly. To better serve the many people in our industry, we need to be aware and actively learning about the global systems that we are also responsible for within our performing arts communities.
If you are educating yourself around Black Lives, Indigenous Sovereignty and history, you need to also learn about immigration laws and ICE, immigration and the Chinese Head Tax, exoticism in burlesque (both past and present) of Pan-Asian, Latinx, and BIPOC performers, the history and racism within the Police, the history and racism within the medical system, incarceration, laws around transgender lives, financial and physical accessibility, tokenism, consent, popular culturally appropriative spaces (I.e. tiki, certain dance styles/spaces, and a lot of spiritual practices), sex work, language, the intersectionality of literally everything from being part of the LGBTQ+ community to being on the scale of knowing your culture or trying to figure it out. These are some of the areas to delve into. The more you begin to look into one thing, the more that opens up for you to dig into. This is why learning is never ending... because there are so many topics that you can’t discover them all from looking at the surface. You will be shocked. You will be lost on where to sit at times. And you will probably experience some pretty heavy emotions. These are all normal feelings and I encourage anyone who’s learning to give yourself the space to just sit in those feelings and absorb what is happening. We cannot be afraid of our own internalized grief or we will never open ourselves up to change.
A lot of the points of education that I mentioned have different impacts and degrees of harm. But if you are someone who wants to be an ally to anyone, you need to learn from all levels: this isn’t an “all or nothing” experience. You can’t choose to speak up only when it’s as extreme as people dying. The more you learn, the more you will hopefully see things before they get extreme. And hopefully (fingers crossed), you will begin to notice your own biases and problematic reactions or behaviour when they happen, because honestly, we’re tired of needing to point it out.
When you do the work to learn, you may start to notice things on your own, like the producers or teachers who constantly make excuses or cry out “I’m doing all of these things but it’s not working,” people who keep receipts of every single thing they are doing “for the community,” who is/isn’t sharing a particular concept or article, or those who preach diversity but rarely hire their local BIPOC. A lot of being a support figure is in the shadows. As producers, teachers or performers, it’s not our responsibility to be in the spotlight with what we are doing within the community every time it’s done. This is not about a self-righteous pat on the back or to showcase that others should be doing the same. If we’re doing the work, people will notice. When we learn to pay attention, we are more aware of the true state of our communities and where work needs to be done. When we see the gaps, then we can create solutions to address harmful behaviour or spaces.
As producers, we are the ones responsible for listening and upholding the standards our community and industry expects of us. As performers, we are the ones responsible for holding our producers accountable. We are currently, and have always been, in a place where everyone should be listening and absorbing anything that is brought up for our community's safety and standards. If you are someone who does not experience racism, ableism, homophobia, fatphobia, or any other form of prejudice, you need to take a seat when the people who do experience any of those biases say something. With each wave of more people becoming "woke," more performers and producers are held accountable. This is not a time for excuses or to deflect. Now is the time to reflect on how this behavior or idea has been okay for so long either without people noticing or without caring. As producers, a lot of us are doing our best, but we can all always do better. No producer or teacher is perfect, but that's not a reason to not listen and change our practices and shows. Being complacent with ourselves or others in the community is dangerous. If we don’t hold people accountable, then we are promoting a culture where people from marginalized communities are not safe. As performers, we are also responsible for absorbing these lessons.
A lot of learning is going to be on your own. There will be times when you can’t reach out for support or discuss with your friends what you’ve been learning, because you will need time to sit with your feelings for a while and unpack your own stuff. And there will be other times when you will need to speak with a paid professional to help you put it all together.
In burlesque and many performing arts communities, we have a long way to go. We have many people with good intentions and who want to learn and do better but that can only go so far. This goes beyond learning and listening. This is about paying attention.