Dr. Derrais (D.A.) Carter is an assistant professor of Black Studies. His research interests include 20th century African American history, black cultural studies, gender and sexuality studies, and popular culture.
Derrais is also a member of the Queering Slavery Working Group. This interdisciplinary scholarly collective uses Tumblr to place black queer studies in conversation with the history of enslavement.
I first met Dr. Carter very briefly at a CREN conference and hearing his views on the relation between race and queerness I was very inspired to have a conversation with him. Leading up to our event Queer Bodies, it was a great opportunity to have this conversation. I was interested to know about his experience as a queer person of colour in Portland, but to also open a dialogue on queerness with someone who is from a different generation to me.
Starting up with the difficult question, I asked Derrais “What does queerness mean to you?”
DC: Queerness in a very general sense to me means what’s at odds with the normal. For many people it helps with issues relating to sexuality, For some it’s about racial identity. I would think all the above and more. So queerness for me means a rearrangement of what we consider normal, this doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be productive, but it can very well be.
SoN: How do you see the representation of “queerness” (not LGBT) in the media?
DC: I see it everywhere, for me, it’s matter of how to make it legible to ourselves and others. For example, I watch TV shows in which we see friendships that are queer in the way their intimacy is structured, but we don’t necessarily talk about it as queer. Another example is the concept of “Bromance”, and questioning why it needs to be structured in such heteronormative idea of masculinity. I see queerness everywhere, but we just don’t call it what it is, which is unfortunate. I often wonder about all the things we could be if we gave ourselves permission to play in that grey area, and acknowledge our humanity in those ways.
SoN: Personally I distinguish the queer community from LGBT community, because to me LGBT has become too pinkwashed to relate to, do you feel the same about this?
DC: My Blackness makes me always already queer. When I think of LGBT I think of whiteness, so LGBT doesn’t do much for me, however, Queer aligns more with blackness and how I think through blackness, so I hold onto that.
SoN: I think this is an important discussion to bring up especially for the Queer Bodies event, everyone seems to believe that the art world is very highly LGBT influenced and LGBT friendly, but queer politics are rarely spoken about, and not all queer folk want to be placed in the same box as LGBT.
You mentioned that when you think of LGBT you think of whiteness and something that I personally struggle to make sense of is how queerness as a term is very western. And if we believe queerness is about resistance, then how can we as people of color resist using a term that is very white/English and western?
DC: It’s similar to how I talk about race. For example, scholars Stuart Hall talk about how when talking about terms such as race, those terms need to be qualified. So for me, “queer” is a placeholder that lets us move to another place and another term. The term should just be a tool to get towards a more precise understanding of human relations. Queerness is not the event, but it allows us to move towards a future that we may not fully understand but that we are somehow moving towards.
SoN: It seems that for a lot of people of colour, queerness is a love and hate relationship, it gives you comfort but also doesn’t fully feel like a place you can belong. It feels like queerness was taken from our very own traditions by the west, and now it’s being fed back to us.
DC: When we realise that historically, even the gender norms and social scripts that we take on, and then move on from them throughout time, how are they then made legible to others? Queerness does some of that job, but we are also very much seduced by white supremacy, and chose what is convenient for us, for some folks queerness is that convenience.
SoN: How is the course you teach and your research perceived in a place like Portland which is known to be extremely whitewashed?
DC: To be in one of the whitest cities in America and teaching black studies for me is fantastic. My students consist of many brown and black folk some of which who identify as queer, and they are involved in activism. But we live in a city that is constantly pushing people of colour away. However I remind myself that this is my livelihood, I grew up here, I want to claim that and continue to do my work.
SoN: We constantly need to occupy the institutions and change the histories of those places, for example holding events that cater to people of colour in institutions that have a history of exclusion.
SoN: There’s a big lack of representation of queer intimacy between black and brown bodies, what are your thoughts on that?
DC: I can’t think of too many moments where representation has saved us. Representation puts a lot of work on black and brown folk to help white people recognise that we are also human. However, when you live under a white supremacist context, that’s a Tuesday…
SoN: As diasporic brown queer bodies we carry a lot of pain and anger in our bodies, because we constantly fight to fit in. How do you personally overcome this?
DC: I don’t. Why do I not want to be mad? Black anger to me is one of the greatest gifts. To me it benefits no one if we pretend everything is ok. My anger isn’t going to be used to educate white people, my anger is my anger, it’s part of me claiming my humanity in a world that denies it.
SoN: I’m also interested in different methods people use to overcome these feelings, anger gives us passion, but we also need to take care of our mental health.
DC: I think my relationship to anger has changed, few years ago it may have paralysed me, but now I can react to my anger. On a day that I’m performing my happiest self, I’m still angry. At some point I decided to explore what this anger does to me. As a black American who grew up in the south I learned I had to be polite, and living and working in a predominantly white space, sometimes saying “No” makes me look angry to them, and if they think me disagreeing with something makes me angry (because they can’t see past my blackness), then I might as well go all out…
SoN: One last difficult question that I left for last, if you could seperate your race from your queerness, which one would you choose?
DC: I would choose to stay in my black,cis, male,masc ish body, I wouldn’t choose anything else… No i can’t actually say it, I have to think about it for a while.
SoN: it depends on the day too, some days I would choose my gender over my race and I guess some days I would chose my race
DC: One of my friends says “give me 10 minutes as a white man and I’d change the world.”
SoN: It’s very sad but that seems legitimate!
For more info on Derrais’ work check out:
Words by Katy Jalili.