A drag queen, an anarchist and a religious studies professor walk into a bar.
This isn’t the opening of a joke. Rather the opening of an intimate TED-style discussion, TEDxDurhamSalon. Tuesday night’s Salon event — the theme was “Tearing Down Power Structures” — included talks by Justin Clapp (better known as Vivica C. Coxx), UNC professor and Redneck Revolt member Dwayne Dixon, and author/Duke professor Joseph Winters.
Paul Golightly, an organizer of the event, said curators of previous TEDxDurham events (which are locally organized offshoots of the popular TED Talk speaker series) came up with the salon events as a way to cover more thought-provoking topics and further tap into the broad pool of thinkers in and around Durham. Before a sold-out crowd, each of the three speakers addressed the night’s theme in fifteen-minute talks and took audience questions as part of a panel discussion.
If you read the INDY you’re already likely familiar with Clapp’s style of social justice drag. The House of Coxx, based at The Pinhook in Durham, aims to create an inclusive, safe space where “love and entertainment are most important.”
Likewise, you’re probably familiar with Dixon, who faced now-dismissed misdemeanor charges after bringing a rifle to a spontaneous anti-KKK gathering in downtown Durham last summer. He’s also a member of the anti-racist community self-defense group, Redneck Revolt, and teaches in the Asian Studies department at UNC.
Winters is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University and the author of Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress. His talk, titled “The Other Side of Progress,” covered how narratives of racial progress in America often obscure and avoid reality in favor of a cleaner, more linear and optimistic telling of history.
He gave as an example rhetoric following the election of President Barack Obama that America had overcome its racist past by an ascendant progression through the Emancipation Proclamation, the civil rights movement and ultimately choosing its first black president — leaving out plenty of examples to the contrary along the way and disregarding work that still needs to be done to achieve racial parity.
“Narratives of progress prevent real progress,” Winters said, by downplaying failure and loss and sanitizing struggle and more radical ideas. As an alternative to these kinds of happy-ending tales of progress, he offers melancholic hope: A sense of hope that is informed by remembering tragedy.
Dixon talked about receiving frightened texts and phone calls from friends on August 18, 2017, relaying reports that the Ku Klux Klan was planning an appearance in Durham, just days after protesters had pulled down a Confederate monument downtown and about a week after he counter-protested a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, where one person was killed when a neo-Nazi drove a car into the crowd.
While Redneck Revolt is known for bearing arms, community self-defense doesn’t have to involve weapons, Dixon told the crowd. It can take the shape of medical training, legal defense, or even community gardening.
The toppling of the Confederate monument was community self-defense against white supremacy, Dixon said, to cheers from the crowd, and an example of direct action akin to the Boston Tea Party. Durhamites engaged in community self-defense again on August 18 when they blocked off a crowded section off Main Street from traffic while police posted up down the street around the remnants of the Confederate monument.
He challenged people in the crowd to think about the privileges — from money to heritage — that keep them safe from state violence and the cost of their comfort to others who don’t enjoy that same safety.
“Ultimately, community defense asks us to rethink our ethical commitment to one another and to the spaces that we share,” Dixon said. “It asks us to take a stance and to take risks — not out of fear but out of love.””
Clapp also brought up the toppling of the monument — noting the action was taken by queer people of color — in a talk called “The Intersectionality of Gender and Power in Nightlife.” Clapp spoke of bringing social justice back to drag, citing Marsha P. Johnson and other queer and trans activists who took part in the Stonewall uprising in 1969. She was also a strong advocate for homeless youth and AIDS patients and a role model for Clapp.
Johnson is credited with “throwing the first brick” as police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York’s Greenwich Village. But you don’t have to throw bricks to resist power structures, Clapp said. Like Clapp, you can be the safe space the brick-throwers return to after battle.
“There’s a place for all of us. You don’t have to be the one who is throwing bricks but make sure if you can support the ones who are, you do— whether that’s cooking them a meal making them laugh. Good luck making them laugh more than me, but try,” Clapp said.
Clapp dissected how privilege can be contextual, and urged those in the crowd — specifically the white people — to think about when they have privilege and how they can use it to lift up others.
“I might walk out there as a queer person of color who sometimes is perceived as femme, but I must remember that as a person of size, I have privilege because I’m not easily stolen,” Clapp said. “That’s a joke but also true. It means that when I walk outside, most times I feel safe and that’s a privilege. I’m also masculine-presenting out of drag and that is a privilege. I’m also educated and that is a privilege. I have access to spaces my peers would not have access to … I encourage you to think about the times you have access and how you can bring people along.”
Find information about future TEDxDurham events here.