If someone vying to be America’s next drag superstar were discovered to have an extensive history of racist performances, the consequences might look quite different than those faced by Australian drag queen Scarlet Adams on Drag Race Down Under this week.
After revelations that the 28-year-old has performed not only in blackface, but in a burqa, aboriginal dress, and more, RuPaul hardly gave her a slap on the wrist in the May 29 episode of the Aussie spin-off show. At the same time, Scarlet continued an apology tour that seems at once sincere but also needlessly dismissive.
“I have in the past, as well as a lot of the other queens, done blackface before which I really regret,” Scarlet said as the queens applied makeup in the workroom near the start of the episode. (In a Facebook video uploaded this March, after the offensive pictures initially resurfaced, Scarlet promised to “take accountability for the things I did in my past.”)
Despite this promise, Scarlet appeared to minimize — or at least partially excuse — her past actions on Drag Race Down Under. “I didn’t know any better, not that that’s an excuse,” she added in the opening workroom scene. “It’s hard to unlearn things that are ingrained into you as a child.”
On the runway, Ru made only a brief statement in response: “I’m sure there are people who would want me to cancel you, right here right now. But I’d rather this be a lesson in humility and accountability. I pray all of us can learn and grow from our mistakes.”
In letting Scarlet off the hook so easily, RuPaul passed up an important opportunity to advance the conversation around racist caricature in Australian culture.
The fact that Scarlet is one among many Australian queens hardly sounds like taking personal responsibility, but it also points to a larger cultural problem: Indeed, she’s not even the only queen in this inaugural season of Drag Race Down Under whose racist actions have recently come to light. Karen from Finance has also apologized for a collection of racist dolls she had amassed from childhood and ultimately had tattooed on her body. The dolls and tattoo, which she has since covered, depict an anti-Black minstrel show caricature.
Whether or not Ru ought to have handed down any concrete punishment to either queen, at the very least she could have turned the controversies into teachable moments. By offering Scarlett easy and unearned redemption instead, Ru brushed over an important conversation instead of using the platform provided by the show to advance it. Rather than take an uncomfortable stand as a cultural ambassador — and a queer, Black ambassador at that — Ru swept the whole thing under the rug.
Critics have also suggested that Scarlet is guilty of more malice than she claims. Indigenous queen Felicia Foxx, who shared a slideshow of Scarlett’s offensive costumes on Instagram, pointed out that this is about more than just one look, or a young performer not knowing any better. Racist getups seem to have been part of Scarlet’s schtick for some time.
“I fully understand that people make mistakes and grow from them,” Felicia captioned her post. “But once you continue to take the piss out of numerous cultures on various occasions after you’ve been called out [it is] concerning and down right vulgar.”
Many fans of the show decried how casually RuPaul dismissed Scarlett’s history of racist performances, especially given the Australian cultural context.
“The most Australian thing about Drag Race Down Under is that at least one queen has done blackface (more than once),” wrote another Twitter user.