author – activist – faculty – mom
In recent weeks, a group of New York dancers have begun to organize and have taken to social media to protest exploitation and racial discrimination in New York City strip clubs. Earlier this year, I published a novel a novel called The Boss, about a group of strippers in New York City organizing for better labor conditions, led by black and AfroLatinx women.
This week, I got behind on reading twitter, because I’ve been copyediting the next book in the series, The Accidental Mistress, which follows the same group of New York City strippers. Last night, a friend sent me a tweet about the #NYCStripperStrike. It was a totally surreal experience to read about these real life women and their organizing. One of the main organizers of the strike in real life is named Gizelle, (interviewed by Emma Whitford in Gothamist) and one of my main organizer characters is named Giselle. As I read about these women’s work, I found myself blinking at the articles I read with a feeling of déjà vu.
But it’s not magic or kismet or coincidence. The reality is so close to the story I wrote because I have been listening to sex workers. I read the work of current and former sex workers like Jay St. James, Antonia Crane, Peechington Marie, Melissa Gira Grant, and Audacia Ray. And I consult with sex workers in my writing practice, including paying a dancer/organizer consultant to read my manuscript and tell me where anything seemed wrong or inaccurate based on her experience dancing and organizing in strip clubs.
Justice for sex workers of color should be on every racial justice agenda, but sadly it is often missing. Professor Nikki Stewart talks about what she calls “the female experience of racism.” For years, in social justice circles, men have set the terms for the struggle, and have often universalized their very gendered experience of racism to be the experience of racism. It is profound and painful for me when I look at photos from the Civil Rights Movement and see lines of black men with signs that say I AM A MAN. As if black men’s ability to express their masculinity was what we were fighting for. Meanwhile, black women’s experience of racism includes many levels of state violence but also violence at the hands of men of color committed sometimes in the name of that same manhood.
Another dimension of the female experience of racism is the painful reality of being devalued for our appearance. We are systematically rejected and humiliated in a society where women are primarily valued for appearance, and the standards of beauty are decidedly white. But in the sex industries, appearance translates into cash. Industry gatekeepers explicitly discriminate against darker women.
According to dancer/organizer Gizelle Marie: “I saw it with my own eyes 😒 promoters would straight up lie and say there was no space ……. or see dark skinned shortys in the dressing room and make them get dressed and leave because they was too black!!!”
Industry practice consistently bans darker women from higher earning opportunities, even when the clients specifically request their services, so it’s not even about supply and demand. Racism and colorism don’t simply create hierarchies of value in social and romantic situations, they create material economic discrimination in industries where appearance is primary. This is, of course, in addition to discrimination based on size, age, disability, and a variety of other categories and criteria.
When dancers at the San Francisco-based strip club the Lusty Lady unionized in 1997, performers of all races wanted to address the issues they faced, like lack of sick pay or protection from customers filming performances without permission. But black dancers pointed out other issues, like the fact that they weren’t given access to lucrative dancing opportunities granted to white and Latina dancers.
But in an industry that’s predicated on appearance, racism often translates into colorism. Dancers are favored, not because they are white, but rather because they look white and conform to commercial white beauty standards. This has the unfortunate effect of pitting lighter and darker women of color against each other for resources and opportunities.
Lately, New York strip clubs have figured out new ways to exploit their labor force and pit women workers against each other.
According to an article on the Stripper Strike in The Grio:
The strippers are also calling out shady business practices in which clubs will bring in famous social media influences or outside bartenders, which means that the money from patrons is going to these bartenders instead of to the dancers. In addition to the bartenders dressed as strippers getting the patrons’ money, the strippers claim that bartenders will outright take the money that patrons throw at the dancers.
This is a racial issue, because, according to stripper turned platinum recording artist Cardi B in the same article: “They don’t even hire black bartenders in New York City strip clubs.”
According to Michael Harriot from The Root: This “has led to a conflict of interest for many clubgoers seeking to make it rain. When you’re deciding whom to tip, it’s hard to choose between one naked dancer and another naked dancer handing your liquor.” And these bartenders are generally not required to share tips with the dancers.
As yoofrenchyy put it on instagram: “But when your Job is to serve drinks and mine is to dance.. why does it look like we have the same job??? We don’t wanna hate or compete or even complain we just wanna do our jobs…”
This also has the impact of reinforcing whorephobia in some of the clubs. Whorephobia is hatred or hostility toward sex workers. Some of the bartenders are former or current strippers. But others show disdain for strippers by claiming to be superior to strippers, even as they imitate their sexy styles, work in their clubs, and profit off their labor.
Speaking out and organizing are critical. As Panama Pink says:
“women of the stripclub industry, your voice will be heard…We understand everyone can’t just go on strike but that doesn’t mean you have to stay quiet. Doesn’t mean these things [discrimination] have to keep happening to you…We got you!!! #NycStripperStrike”
Today, as I wrap up copyedits on my next book The Accidental Mistress, I added a verse to a particular scene. Lily, the darkskinned West Indian stripper organizer is also a spoken word artist. She has a poem that she reads at the Nuyorican poets café, called Ninety-Nine Problems, but a Pimp Ain’t One. I added this verse I added the following verse:
I stand with the NYC Strippers Strike. You should too.