Life

RuPaul’s Drag Race Has a Race Problem

On the drag-competition show, success and fan love depend as much on skin color as makeup skills.

RuPaul’s Drag Race queens Milk and Kennedy Davenport.
RuPaul’s Drag Race queens Milk and Kennedy Davenport.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by VH1.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“I’m devastated because I don’t quite see Kennedy taking drag to an all-star level quite like I thought Thorgy could,” bemoaned Milk, a contestant on Season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, on last week’s episode.

Her comments came during a confessional-style interview as a reaction to Thorgy Thor’s early elimination from the drag-competition show, a spinoff of RuPaul’s Drag Race. In this top-talent iteration, however, it is fellow contestants, not RuPaul, who have the final say on who is eliminated each week.

“I think I would have chosen Thorgy to stay, I find Thorgy’s concepts and her looks much more exciting,” Milk said, this time directly to Kennedy Davenport’s rhinestone-covered face. Kennedy, a black queen from Dallas, is, in her own words, “the Dancing Diva of Texas, honey!” And dance she does. Kennedy is a pageant queen, meaning she came up participating in—and winning—beauty queen–style drag pageants. A decorated performer, Kennedy has won numerous titles including Miss Gay Orlando 2016, Miss D’Elegance International 2013, and Miss Gay Black USofA 2009. Thorgy and Milk, both white, are what one might call quintessential New York City queens: a moniker emblematic of their highly conceptual looks, quirky performances, and unmistakable artistic eyes.

“Fuck my drag, right?” Kennedy says during her own confessional interview, responding to Milk’s dismissal of her craftsmanship. “If I’m not your cup of tea, then baby don’t drink it.”

Milk’s dismissal of Kennedy’s art as being less likely to take drag to “an all-star level” is more than a shady throwaway comment. It’s exemplary of a dynamic, emanating from both contestants and fans, that has time and again undervalued the contributions of queens of color, especially black queens. This dynamic perpetuates the notion that black art is pedestrian, while white versions of that same art are highbrow. It’s a situation one sees mirrored in something like Southern soul food, where black cooks are often viewed as being “down-home” and rustic while white chefs are credited with “elevating” the genre. While drag has benefited from the contributions of both white folks and people of color alike, it’s telling who’s allowed to be avant-garde and who is expected to simply entertain. “I don’t quite see Kennedy taking drag to an all-star level,” can be read as a coded way of saying, “I believe the pageantry and showmanship exhibited by black queens is less valuable to the world of drag than the quippy, quirky, aesthetically driven contributions made by other, mainly white, queens like me.”

I saw this mentality baldly on display during the 2016 tour of A Drag Queen Christmas, a holiday variety show featuring the Ru girls. Pearl, looking stunning (she is undeniably fashion-forward), gave a sleepy performance to a song I can’t remember. Fans, asked to wait in a line down the side of the theater to tip the queens, queued almost down the entire wall. Most took selfies as they handed Pearl their dollars, even after we were asked to keep our phones away for efficiency’s sake. Chi Chi DeVayne, a Season 8 queen who is also competing on All Stars Season 3 gave an all-out flips, kicks, and splits performance. As she took her bow and I jumped in line to tip her, the difference between the two crowds was remarkable: The line standing to tip Chi Chi was maybe one-third of the size of Pearl’s. An archived thread on Reddit delves into the racism evident within the Drag Race fandom, and as user mulatto-brujo put it, “If you’re pretty and white you can get away with murder.” Or at least get away with just standing in one spot and looking pretty.

Katya, a fan favorite and undeniable talent, provided further insight into the disparity in reception between white and POC queens during a Periscope rant in 2016. She talks about the ways in which white queens (in this case Acid Betty) are offered certain allowances fans are not willing to extend to black queens (in this case Jasmine Masters). “There is a significant racial component to the ways Jasmine and Acid were both treated during the show, and more specifically, after the elimination.” Katya is referring to the racially motivated hate levied toward Jasmine after her elimination. Season 2 winner Tyra Sanchez echoed this in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) in 2017: “White queens are always the favorite. Black queens deserve hateful tweets. Queens should be stoned or tarred and feathered even if they deserved the win.”

And that isn’t the only time Tyra has spoken out about racism in the Drag Race community. Talking to Jonny McGovern of Hey Qween in 2017, Tyra elaborated on the notion that Drag Race fans seem to be far more comfortable with black queens when they fit into particular boxes. Talking about fan favorite Latrice Royale, she said, “When it comes to white people, that stereotype is OK because ‘I can deal with that.’ ” The stereotype Tyra is referring to is the mammy, clarifying that although Latrice was simply existing as the person she actually is, her personality also fit conveniently into a box that did not disrupt white fans’ notions of black personhood. “Anytime a [black] queen is powerful, or shows something that people would love or fall in love with [when done by a white queen] or that could be this major powerhouse, they tear her down.” Tyra specifically references Shea Couleé and Nina Bo’Nina Brown.

Nina, who was regularly beaten down by fans during her season for appearing less emotionally secure than her competitors, took to Instagram to discuss Thorgy’s elimination: “[I]’m glad she’s getting sympathy for the most part of her ‘paranoia’ because y’all let my black ass have it lol.” This is another example of the space fans give to white queens who feel shafted on the show (#justiceforthorgy, a hashtag meant to express outrage at her elimination, showed up almost immediately on Twitter), when black queens are expected to suck it up. Shea, an early pick to win her season who ultimately lost to a transcendent performance by Sasha Velour, was unceremoniously dismissed after her elimination. However, when black queens have been the cause of an upset (Tyra vs. Raven, Nina vs. Valentina, Kennedy vs. Katya) the online hate is swift and vicious. Sasha’s Instagram following skyrocketed to almost 900,000 while Shea has just over half of that. This is a trend consistent between white queens and black queens who have appeared on the show.

It’s also worth noting that eccentric white queens who are (typically) conventionally attractive out of drag often have a larger following than black queens who have been more successful than them on the show. There is, of course, nothing wrong with thirst-following the quirky-as-a-queen-cute-as-a-boy contestants. However, fans who conflate their attraction to a queen’s boy drag with that queen’s deservedness to be America’s next drag superstar are just repackaging problematic “race is just a preference” tendencies. Fans in the “Drag Race and Racism” Reddit thread have spelled it out fairly plainly, but none perhaps more than user berthavnation, who said, “the truth is, as a whole, there are many incredibly talented non-white queens who don’t have the same level of fan love as the cute thin white queens, who themselves don’t have to sweat as hard or show as much in order to accumulate that fan love.” And it’s not just fans who have been vocal about this unfair dynamic. “How many of you guys love Pearl?” Trixie Mattel, another fan favorite and All Stars Season 3 competitor asked a club crowd in 2015. The audience cheered their approval. “But how many of you guys love Pearl just because you wanna fuck Pearl?” The room erupted in cheers.

These days, we live in an ever-developing landscape of queer artistry, and we are lucky to see so many forms of drag being celebrated. Bio queens and trans queens are finding homes where before we only saw camp and pageant queens. Milk and Pearl, and Thorgy and Sasha, deserve every bit of praise they have received, and it would be foolish not to commend the work and devotion they pour into their craft. However, it would be harmful and ignorant to try to pretend that their black contemporaries are not judged by a different scale. Kennedy said, “If I’m not your cup of tea, then baby don’t drink it.” But in this case, it may be worth choosing to sip something with a little more flavor, before you chug a gallon of milk just because it comes in a nice package.