- Ilsa Govan
Prioritizing Justice over Comfort: Afrodisiacs, Please Change Your Costumes Already!
I’m taking a day off!
It was December 27th and I was looking forward to two of my favorite forms of self-care, soaking at Olympus Spa and visiting with my dear friend Jenn. We’d also reserved a room at the Tulalip Casino; a mini-vacation of sorts, halfway between our homes in Seattle and Bellingham.
When we got to the casino, we saw there was a disco cover band playing, The Afrodisiacs. I was super excited because that meant I got to dance up a sweat later, one of my other favorite things to do to relieve stress. I’m pretty sure one day I’ll be like my dad after retirement, dancing to cover bands at different casinos several nights a week.
We got to the bar early, so we saw the band setting up and flirted with the bartender. This was important, because we noticed all of the guys in the band appeared to be White. Yet when they took the stage, they looked like this:
Now, in case you can’t tell, that’s two White guys in wigs, one with a huge Afro and another with locks (the lead singer, in his Travolta style, is a good example of what non-appropriative disco style could look like). Jenn and I looked at each other in disbelief. Are we too sensitive, or is this band essentially in blackface?
We asked the bartender, who confirmed they are White guys who have been playing at the casino for years. When we mentioned they appeared to be in blackface, he said that was just the lighting, not understanding that what we meant wasn’t that they darkened their skin, but that they were appropriating Blackness. Is this what a minstrel show looks like today? We told the bartender we couldn’t stay and condone the band’s racist actions and asked who to complain to.
Damn it, why does racism have to ruin everything? We just wanted to dance and take a day off.
As I walked out of the bar, I was literally shaking. I could feel my heart racing and I kept confirming with Jenn that we were right this was NOT OKAY. As someone who has conversations about racism for a living, I was surprised at just how uncomfortable I felt. I had no reason to feel bad, but here I was, questioning myself and worried about offending someone. The urge to just go to our room and text Caprice about this was strong, but instead we went to the front desk of the hotel and asked to speak to the manager.
The manager’s response was to be expected. The band has been performing for years with a diverse audience and apparently, we’re the first to ever complain about this. Jenn was stellar in her response, “Well, in this day and age, people should know better than to dress up like another culture. It wouldn’t be okay for someone to be on stage dressed as Native Americans, so why is it okay for them to be dressed like they’re Black?” The manager agreed to pass our message on to the band and booking agent and we retired to our room.
I’m pretty sure I lost our rummy game because I was still shaking from the whole incident (although I’m betting Jenn will be upset I wrote this sentence).
This left me thinking how challenging and how important it is to confront the everyday acts of racism that are the backbone of stereotypes persisting in our society. Cultural change only happens when we are collectively less comfortable with racism than we are with confronting racism.
Last I checked, the Afrodisiacs are still wearing the same costumes, haven’t changed their name, and still perform every Thursday night at the Tulalip Casino. Below is the email I sent them. When I messaged them on Facebook, they said, “Thank you for your feedback. We take into consideration all perspectives regarding our show.”
The message I sent is below. If you’d like to join me in contacting the band and/or the Casino, here’s their information. Maybe when it is more than one person they’ll start to listen. And even if they don’t, I know I’ve lived another night aligned with my value of justice, rather than caving to the pull of White racist collusion.
Booking agent: Roger Sause at 661-268-1997 (ext.222)
My friend and I were super excited to dance to a great disco cover band a few weeks ago at the Tulalip Casino. We got there early and saw you all setting up. So, we were deeply disappointed and upset to find out that two of your band members perform dressed as Black people, one wearing an Afro wig and another twists or locks.
I'm sure you've seen in the news the most recent public cases of people dressing in blackface, and perhaps you're familiar with the long history of minstrel shows in the US. Even when these were not designed directly to make fun of Black people (some might even claim they appropriated Black culture out of respect) the impact was still one of trying to make a profit off of dressing like, and in many ways impersonating, an oppressed group. This has never been and is still not okay for us White people to do.
I imagine you're reading this and thinking that it wasn't just Black people who wore Afros. However, the word Afro literally comes from "Afro-American" and this was a hairstyle popularized by Black people. The fact that it is also associated with wearing hair natural and Black pride makes it all the more problematic for White people to not only wear a wig, but to name a band after it.
You might also be thinking that you've been around for a while and no one ever complained before. Or that there are many Black people who enjoy your music. In fact, that's essentially what the bar and hotel staff told us when we complained. I would suggest that it doesn't matter.
10 years ago, most people didn't know it was wrong to name the Washington DC football team a derogatory name for Native Americans and the NFL Commissioner still uses some Native people to justify the continued use of this name. Many of us are just learning that dressing like another culture is NOT okay (Megyn Kelly for example).
When we know better, we can either say, "I didn't know, so therefore I shouldn't have to change," or, "I know better now than I did yesterday, and therefore I will change." I try to live my life by the latter, recognizing the number of times I've said and done racially insensitive things in my life. As someone who has made my career out of studying racial equity issues, I see your costumes as a common oversight, and I'm not trying to shame you (if I were, I probably would have gone straight to social media with the pics I took).
I know you didn't mean to offend anyone, so you don't have to explain your intentions. The music was great, so you don't need the costumes. Or at least you could change them so you're all dressing like white people from the 70s.
Will you please pass this message on to the entire band? I look forward to hearing your response. Please feel free to call me at the number below or email.