Master of None writer and actress and The Chi creator Lena Waithe was a guest on Complex's Open Late With Peter Rosenberg last night. Waithe has constructed a very successful career by being diligently committed to amplifying marginalized voices, particularly queer people of color. Prime example: she won an Emmy for the Master of None Season 2 Thanksgiving episode, which highlighted the struggle character Denise, a queer black woman, went through every year when trying to synthesize her inner life with her family life.
During her interview with Rosenberg, Waithe highlighted the importance of cultural contributions made by queer people of color, which, because they have historically been marginalized by larger society, are often forgotten or ignored.
"Half the shit you hear the Kardashians say, that's straight from Paris Is Burning,” Waithe said around the 19:38 mark in the video up top. “The culture that everybody is saying and repeating is straight from queer black people."
"Half the sh*t you hear the Kardashians say, that's straight from 'Paris is Burning'.... the culture that everybody is saying and repeating is straight from queer black people."— Complex Open Late (@ComplexOpenLate) May 4, 2018
Full interview with @LenaWaithe at 10PM. https://t.co/OEPijLLPcr pic.twitter.com/bscX1Z27vT
Waithe is correct: a large chunk of popular culture today, as elevated by figures like the Kardashians, has roots in a culture that queer people of color invented in response to being ostracized from larger society. To watch Jennie Levingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning is to dive straight into the thriving and wildly influential world of New York’s ballroom subculture in the 1980s. Set in a pre-AIDS era and in a pre-gentrified Harlem, the film features the lives of the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities and explores their struggles and successes, thereby highlighting their invaluable contributions to popular culture.
There’s a direct line that can be traced from Paris Is Burning to pop culture behemoths of today. Of course, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a direct descendant, but a lot of common slang used today originates from that time period and is immortalized in the film. Like the phrase “throwing shade.” In a scene from the movie, Dorien Corey, a drag mother featured in the film, describes the now widely used term as: “I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you, because you know.”
In the documentary, Corey explains another popular term: read, or to be read. Read precedes shade and is “the real form of insult.”
Another example very commonly used by both the Kardashians and popular culture at large is "queen" and "work," as in: "YAS queen!" and "you better werk!"
"Queen" originates from the black and Latinx drag culture celebrated in Paris Is Burning: drag queens have always referred to each other as queen. As even the Oxford Dictionary acknowledges, there is a litany of slang words and phrases widely used today that are rooted in the New York drag culture of the ‘80s.
The linguistic legacy of Paris Is Burning is just one aspect of its enduring importance. Although it’s only natural for language to expand and evolve with time, it’s also important to know the history behind cultural movements. One of the most powerful reasons to do so is because to recognize the significance of the contributions from marginalized communities is also to honor and celebrate them. The documentary is currently streaming on Netflix, so there's no excuse not to brush up on some cultural history.