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Kareem Khubchandani is at once an academic, a writer, and a drag performer known as LaWhore Vagistan, and he puts every skillset to work in his new book Decolonize Drag. As drag increasingly enters the cultural mainstream with TV shows, Tik Tok filters, and political campaigns, greater numbers of people get a view into this queer art form. Khubchandani analyzes the work of drag within the contexts it’s newly thrust into.

Decolonize Drag’s goals are far-reaching despite its diminutive length. Khubchandani triangulates the mainstreaming and corporate-washing of drag culture, a direct result of the popularity of multi-Emmy award-winning show RuPaul’s Drag Race, with the murder of gender non-conforming people and the displacement of communities of color. Drag Race operates as a semi-colonizing empire within Khubchandani’s reckoning – both pioneering and limiting, determining what drag looks like to outsiders and sanding off its radical edges.

Decolonize Drag by Kareem Khubchandani from OR Books

The storytelling keeps coming back to who gets to do drag and what “realness” in the form is, namely how it differs for white and non-white performers. In Khubchandani’s analysis, drag as an art form can tear down the walls dividing society but it is often used against the communities who made it or who could benefit from the art beyond corporate monetization. Readers unaware of the history of drag might be forced to reckon with its political underpinnings.

The analysis never gets dull, though it tends to indulge in academic jargon. Khubchandani shares beautiful, full-color, glossy photographs of drag queens, including of LaWhore Vagistan. The intro, written in the voice of LaWhore, offers a kitschy, frenetic start to the book that cuts through the discoursey speak. LaWhore giddily describes attending the inaugural Austin International Drag Festival in 2015 and watching, along with other drag queens, as a Black Lives Matter protest for Freddy Gray marches past. And though she snaps at one of the queens frustrated by the juxtaposition of the two events, she admits that she didn’t join the protestors either. The relationship between drag and politics is an uneasy one at best. Drag is not revolutionary until it’s made to be, Khubchandani demonstrates.

How do we decolonize drag? Khubchandani offers up a simple answer to the book’s driving question: let people do their thing. Gatekeeping takes away from the art form’s central purpose of pulling down the walls of gender. In effect, what you see on TV is just one part of the whole.

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