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or, The Indexical Present of Apology in the Performance Artwork of Adrian Piper and Dr. Vaginal Davis

Bellamy Mitchell

On October 31st, 2012, drag queen and punk artist Dr. Vaginal (Crème) Davis apologized at the start of her performance with José Esteban Muñoz. The performance entitled, “No One Leaves Delilah’: A (W)rap on Race,” cites all the formal trappings of an academic lecture amplified into parody: the stage is set with two armchairs and a coffee table, classical music plays lightly in the background, and a PowerPoint cycles through its slides for the duration of the conversation. Muñoz makes the inspiration for the subtitle and the aesthetic explicit: the two are modeling themselves askance, “riffing” on the seven-and-a-half-hour “serious discussion” of topics pertinent to the histories of race and society between the white popular anthropologist Margaret Mead and the black author, activist, and American expatriate James Baldwin which took place on August 25th, 1970 and was recorded and transcribed into the book, A Rap on Race.1 More than the content it is the aesthetic contours of that historical conversation, the position of the oracularly consulted intellectual, the splendid “fatuousness” of the figures that Davis and Munoz insist they are citing, the “inappropriateness, self-importance, and… grifteriness [of Baldwin and Mead] which we very much admire.”2 After Muñoz’s introduction, the self-titled Dr. Davis turns away from her interlocutor towards the audience as her homemade earrings flip on her shoulders – two rough paintings on cardstock of a bare-chested white woman with hot pink lipstick and blonde hair – and delicately unfolds a single sheet of paper. “First of all, I must apologize in all sincerity to everyone who gathered here tonight. You’ve all been brought here under false pretenses.” She reads the apology straight from the paper in measured tones, projecting sincerity but also a kind of roteness. She thus inaugurates the audience into their role in the performance through the expected conventions of a public apology. The audience (as the wronged public, recipient of her apology, and partner in this procedural scene) now waits to be apologized to, to find out what it is that Davis has done to them – or to those whom they collectively represent. Davis continues:

What I am about to reveal to you here at NYU’s hallowed Performance Studies Studio‚ I know you are all going to find this very hard to believe, and some of you will be quite shocked by this revelation, but I fear that I must take the risk, even though my sanity and perhaps my very safety in the United States is probably in jeopardy. In good conscience I can no longer continue to live a lie. I must tell you the truth, and nothing but the gospel truth, despite the dire consequences, and I can only pray to god Jehovah of Armies, that you can forgive me for having led you astray for so many years, letting you go on thinking I am something that I am not, and could never be. I want to use this occasion to celebrate my true self. I feel that the time is right for me to now shout from the highest mountaintop that I am indeed – yes, really truly – 

At this point, Dr. Davis looks up from her paper, swallows, and stage-whispers: “black.”3 The audience laughs. “Did you hear me the first time? I am black.” Her eyes open significantly each time she says the word, which she pronounces slowly and exaggeratedly, as if miming the word across a great distance or repeating it for the twelfth time to someone who has misunderstood it. “Yes, it’s true. I’ll give you a moment to let it sink in. Go ahead, lesbian-process amongst yourselves.”4 The laughter that ripples up from the audience peaks as she taps her fingers on her wrist, seemingly waiting for the audience to catch up to the revelation.  Part of the gag of this apology is that it serves not as preface to a gender revelation or her “coming out” as queer, but a race reveal, and that members of the audience would already understand the artist as black given the color of her skin. However, the apparent connection between Davis and that racial identification destabilizes in the context of Davis’s drag, which often plays with racial, cultural, and ethnic identities.5 In her bubblegum pop band ¡Cholita! The Female Menudo, she performed as the thirteen-and-a-half-year-old Chicana singer Graciela Grejalva, while in her speed metal thrash band, Pedro, Muriel and Esther (PME), she performed as Clarence, a “white-supremacist militia-man from Idaho complete with ZZ Top beard.”6 As part of the Afro Sisters, where her persona Vaginal Davis was inaugurated, Davis was known to hold the microphone out for the white members of the band (sporting black afros) and the audience, urging them to shout along to the Civil-Rights era anthem: “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”7

Drag has a long history of playing with the significance of gender, race, class, and sexuality through the creation of visually observable difference and bodily performance, through costume, comportment, and other manipulations of what Robyn Wiegman calls “economies of visibility.”8 The world of ballroom – a performance community originally developed by queer people of color in the 1960’s and 1970’s as an alternative to drag queen pageants where racism and transphobia were prevalent – inaugurated the term “realness” as an evaluative category for how successfully and realistically one can perform and embody a particular category or identification. In a ball, performers compete in categories which often include matrixes of regional, socioeconomic, and implicitly racialized stances of power, privilege, and access such as “Executive Realness,” “Town and Country,” “Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness,” and “Military Realness.”9 Realness also delineates what tactics are required for a minoritarian individual to present themselves – outside of the ballroom – as part of a majoritarian heteronormative milieu. Marlon Bailey defined this latter sense of “realness” in the Detroit ballroom communities as:

the way in which members enact their realness performances to create the illusion of gender and sexual normativity and to blend into the larger heteronormative society to avoid homophobic discrimination, exclusion, violence, and death.10

In this performance, rather than effecting a transition into the recognizably normative by donning the signifiers of an identification (such as a beard, camo pants, and deepening her voice in her transition into her white supremacist persona “Clarence”) Davis’s apology ironically stages a removal of an artifice of whiteness, revealing what she calls “her true self.” This gesture places her racial identification as black in the register of all the tools, costumes, names, titles, and poses that she uses to generate the variety of performative personae she employs, of which Dr. Vaginal Davis is only one.11 It also opens up the question of what exactly it was that Davis might be presumed to have done earlier in the performance (or prior to the show) to disavow her blackness, or what identities or actions might be considered in conflict with, or obscuring of, this racial identification. The apology for “living a lie” and the campy disclosure of her race as a provocative secret is performatively unnecessary in the space, but surfaces nodes of perceptual relations and power dynamics that crystallize into and enforce racist presumptions about who can authoritatively address a public, who holds doctoral honorifics, who belongs in the “hallowed halls” of NYU where whiteness is the often-unarticulated norm, and whose presence must be accounted for in some way.

Thus, while Davis is giving what we could call ‘fatuous intellectual realness’, her apologetic disclosure of her race also acts on and implicates her audience personally because of the procedural contours of how apologies are deployed and received: what would it mean to accept the apology, or even forgive Davis for the deception? Caught in the possible affordances of the apology as recipients, the audience’s discomfort becomes palpable as Davis then discloses a catalogue of further identifications and synonyms for “black”: “Half-Deutsch, and Yiddish, a Schwarzer. For those of you who are politically correct, an African American.” After each new ethnicity, identity, and epithet is revealed, the laughter diminishes, drastically when she expands her list to include a catalogue of historical and contemporary racist slurs and derogatory characterizations: “a jigaboo, pickaninny, a tar baby, a neglette, a spade, a spear-chuck-stress, a Hottentot, a Jemimah, a Sambo, a coon, a spook, a jungle bunny, a nigger, and a porch-monkey.” She places the paper back onto the coffee table and smiles. “Thank you!”

The apology, its mock deference and its humor, operates along provocatively similar lines to another apology by Adrian Piper, a black artist working in predominantly white art spaces and white supremacist social worlds. Indeed, the category of “black intellectual read as passing for white in white spaces realness” that Davis is performing as drag in the 2010’s describes the life that conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper lived as a graduate student and artist in New York in the 1970’s and 80’s.12 Beginning in 1986 and continuing until 1990, Piper staged a periodic performance piece entitled My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties, wherein she would hand a small printed card to people who made racist remarks within earshot of, or directly to her. Where Davis’s apology for being “secretly” black rings out as a provocatively ironic apology, Piper’s performance might be read as almost painfully earnest: it was often delivered in moments where she was understood as white due to judgments about her appearance – but also, presumably, due to a racist interpretation of other cues of class and context at these “dinners and cocktail parties.” The card contains the text:

Dear Friend,
I am black.
I am sure that you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe that there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.
I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.
Sincerely yours,
Adrian Margaret Smith Piper13

While much has been written about this performance, including by Piper herself, no attention has been paid to the fact that this calling card catalyzes this racial and emotional confrontation through the genre of the apology. While Piper does not ever say the word “sorry” or “I apologize,” she does evidently engage the expectations of what an apology is: the card addresses an individual, names a harm between them, and marks that harm as regretted. The central apology is bidirectional and reciprocal, with Piper acknowledging in light of her disclosure: “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.” The card can thus be understood as catalyzing something like an apologetic scene, one where Piper expresses regret that she, deploying the card, causes discomfort. The recipient of the card is also represented as having committed an action (making/laughing at/agreeing with a racist remark) and also as regretting that action, as well as being made-uncomfortable by Piper’s presence as black, making regret the default and polite response to receipt of the card. The doubled apology is certainly read as such by those who receive it, or who might receive it.

In what follows, I track how the procedural contours of the genre of the apology serve the differently socially critical and investigative projects of both these artists, and indicate some of the ways that that genre, as deployed, activates emotions especially around the senses of individual and collective responsibility. I understand genre in Lauren Berlant’s sense of the term, namely that “a genre is a loose affectively-invested zone of expectations about the narrative shape a situation will take.”14 These expectations cast the apology as an aspirational reparative gesture, a stylized, routinized performance conducted in the first-person, which addresses some event that has damaged a relationship between the two parties of the apology, and allows the individual apologizing to produce a narrative account of themselves or the event. In addition to being relational narrative objects, apologies are also critical in that they are structured by regret and constitute attempts to repeat, re-write, or re-narrate a scene or a situation that occurred as a harm to be addressed. They are activated in situations of conflict where there is some possibility of multiple interpretations about the event apologized for. Understanding apologies as a genre with socially determined generic contours, rather than tracking their functioning as speech acts with strict rules of felicity or failure, allows us to see how Piper and Davis are leveraging this genre in order to stage a critique of the apologetic expectations of their racialized milieu. This approach short-circuits the most common criticism of ironic, insincere, or otherwise unsatisfying apologies – namely, their dismissal as such – and allows us to examine how the possibility of an apologetic address activates first-personal relationships of responsibility for harm, regardless of whether the apology repairs the harm it articulates, or whether the articulated relationship between the “doer” and “done-to” is accepted as accurate. Thus, the genre of the apology as deployed by these artists structures, rather than sutures, the harm it encloses, making it variously available for critique.

It is the first-person structure of the apology (speaking from the “I” to a “you”) that also allows Piper to bring her audiences into what she calls the indexical present, subverting the “who, me?” tendency to avoid first-person responsibility for racist action while keeping a larger framework of white supremacy as a collective and structural – not merely an individual – violence.15 On the other hand, Adrian Piper prompts the person she is addressing to account for themself, specifically, to take individual responsibility for their emotional responsiveness to and personal investment in her racializing self-disclosure. Where the performance itself activates and names emotional responses within the immediate circuit of card and apology issuer and recipient, Piper’s documentation of and subsequent representations of the performance in her Meta-Performance discussions allows the emotions and responses to reverberate out beyond this binary into the social world as the audience responds. The various audiences to the calling card performances, on all levels of deployment and estrangement, can take a variety of critical positions: identifying with the individual who makes a racist remark, identifying with the black individual who deploys the card, or taking a distanced evaluative stance. An audience member might feel a kind of recognition or solidarity with Piper as she is variously attempting to correct a mis-reading of her as “white,” or for being read as too political or confrontational for a polite social scene, or for otherwise failing to serve “realness” for any real-life categories of evaluation in which they have to perform their labor and live.

The difficulty of navigating individual senses of complicity in and responsibility for racism, aggression, and violence at different scales of the social, especially in institutions and among groups whose sense of purpose or identity is well-meaning and not enclosed in explicit racism, is equally central to the titular Rap on Race. To read through the dialogue between Mead and Baldwin, or to listen to the taped recording, is to encounter moments of communication studded with attempts to renegotiate the terms of who is speaking to whom, and who the participants are to each other in terms of their race. Baldwin’s historical and narrative comments about his experience with racism – which did not directly accuse Mead – were often met with refusal from Mead as if they did: “I will not accept any guilt for what anybody else did. I will accept guilt for what I did myself… I absolutely refuse that. I refuse racial guilt.”16

The title, A Rap on Race, implies that the conversation will be low-key, off-the-cuff and familiar: not any sort of official statement or pre-prepared academic discourse. In Davis’s subsequent citation, “rap” gains the additional implication of rapping as a form of musical delivery related to genres of hip hop which was popularized in the later 1970’s. Davis’s intervention in her title, No One Leaves Delilah: A (W)rap on Race, further plays with the various meanings of rap: the conversation purports to be a “wrap” as in: “that’s a wrap”, a closed encounter, the end, the final version, or the last word.17 A “wrap” can also, wryly, be a wrapper or a condom or a prophylactic placed around a phallus or some other potentially dangerous form, which creates a fluid boundary and attempts to enable a safer, more innocuous version of intercourse, or at least one without repercussions: nothing really gets exchanged. Davis’s prefatory apology does two things: (1) it establishes the terms on which she wishes to be addressed as racialized, and (2), it makes that situation available for discussion. The renaming of the conversation, which is prefaced with an apology and whose content is primarily biographical reflections about how race influenced Davis’s career, as a “(W)rap on Race” thus stages a number of expectations of form, and an examination of some of the formal dynamics of the conversation between Baldwin and Mead. If the work of the apology is, in some ways, to enter into a mutually implicating and responsible discursive form in which one person’s account of the world is at stake, Mead and Baldwin’s conversation is haunted by the absence of any apology from Mead, and by the threat of the demand of an apology for the violence of regimes of racialization. Baldwin’s response to Mead’s refusal of generic racial complicity, her rejection of the possibility that she might be in a first-personal position of responsibility for harm in light of her positionality, was to return to the terms on which both of them were hailed into the conversation about race in the first place. Following up on a heated discussion about whether America, as a nation, can change its fundamental racism, Baldwin attempts to address the division between his pessimism and Mead’s insistence that he must be hopeful: 

BALDWIN:    …Now, we’ve got to make some kind of connection between what you believe and what I’ve endured. I’m not using you as Margaret or me as Jimmy. But you really must consider seriously, I think, the state of a nation in which I, Jimmy, or I, historically, am forced to say I do not care what the pursuant facts are. I cannot afford to care.18

Baldwin continues, narrating her structural involvement in the “historical” second person, speaking to her as a collective “you”, but importantly and emphatically not saying that she qua Margaret, the woman in front of him, has directly harmed him. Mead refuses to be addressed generically, refusing the rhyme Baldwin builds between “I, historically” and “you, historically”:

BALDWIN:    The difference is that you, generically, historically, write the facts which I am expected to believe. The difference is that you, generically, historically, write the facts which I am expected to believe. The difference is that you, historically, generically, have betrayed me so often and lied to me so long that no number of facts according to you will ever convince me.
MEAD:           If that’s so, the world is doomed. If we can’t reach a point where everybody in this world can understand facts. …See, that’s it—
BALDWIN:    But that’s not.
MEAD:           —about me.
BALDWIN:    But I’m talking to you.19

Even in its absence, we can see how the apology emerges as a tool for capturing the difficulty of addressing large-scale structural violence at the level of the individually instantiated microaggression, while preserving the positional context of the individual interaction at which racial violence nonetheless occurs and is perceptible. Notably, this conundrum is not solved by the apology, rather the problem is held open in both as such, as an unhealed wound. Though both artists use the apology to effect different experiences and leverage different criticisms of their recipients, both performances could be capped by the end card to Adrian Piper’s video installation, Cornered, which reads: “welcome to the struggle!”20

In Piper’s (Calling) Card, the terms of the apology are both binary and – at first glance – fairly straightforward. They are in fact included in the form. A calling card is a card that contains identifying information, such as a name or address, which can be sent or left with someone in lieu of a full social interaction, usually in order to facilitate follow-up or further communication. “Dear Friend” the card begins, calling the recipient into an – at least allegedly – pre-existing relationship. The term “friend” thus brings the recipient into relationship with the Adrian Margaret Smith Piper who is physically standing in front of them, and to her name at the end of the card, in terms of being responsible for a possible friendship, or at least, the two of them are named as being involved in and responsible to the project of being friendly with one another.21 This gesture is, on one level, protective: occurring “between” the person who apologizes and those who are apologized to (or, who structures the apology by virtue of accusation, expectation, representation of the wronged party, etc.) apologies often explicitly engage the speaker’s sense of who they are, and their aspirations for who they want to be in relation to the recipient of the apology. Naming friendship as a common project and identification both establishes the terms of relationship that the apology is attempting to repair, and to which the “wrong” refers: the harm apologized for threatens and intervenes in the commonly held project of friendly relation. The next gesture of self-identification on the card, “I am black” further activates the identities of those in this apologetic scene. However, both the form of the calling card as introduction, and the context of the cocktail party setting, point to a tension in hailing a relative stranger as a friend – perhaps a closer structure of relation than they might prefer, particularly if this person might not have knowingly chosen to have black friends.

At the titular dinner or cocktail party in which a white guest has made a racist remark, and in which Piper decides to deploy the card, the recipient likely presumes that there are no people who identify as black present. They also likely do not think of themselves either as racist, or in fact, as “raced” at all: thus the assertion of “I am black” racializes both parties in the scene as black and white.22 This gestures towards the possibility of subverting the histamine-like response of racial anger – a dominant white resistance to socially imposed identifications that are foreign to the subject’s self-understanding – by naming those parties in the apology as differently racialized “friends”.23 That the interpellation of the addressee as “friend” parallels the interpellation of that same addressee as racialized creates a jarring intimacy: friendship is a reciprocally constitutive category, one calls someone a friend because you aspire to that relation. “Friend” thus also serves as a reminder or the failing of the friendly, becoming a pointed and even threatening way to address unfriendly, or immoral, behavior. Piper’s racialized hailing establishes the terms of friendly communication as requiring reciprocal racial awareness. That intimacy undergirds a cutting possibility of irony.

In her process of composing the text of the card and deciding how she could best intervene in racist behavior that occurred in her presence, Piper reflected that she could “reprimand [the offenders] abstractly, that is, without identifying myself as black.” That might allow the offenders to not feel personally implicated, and therefore, not activate their anger or defensive responses. As she writes, however, she rejects that possibility as ineffective. “The consequence is that we have an academic discussion about the propriety, meanings, and intentions of these remarks that leaves fundamental dispositions untouched and self-deceptive rationalizations inviolate, and I again feel offended, compromised, and deceptive.”24 Leaving the harm in abstract – unracialized – terms would have opened up discussion about what occurred, but left Piper’s feelings and the harm unnamed, and she posits, would have left the emotions and racism of the individual untouched. Additionally, the individual’s reflective movement from the abstract or generic to the personal is not entirely controllable by the structure of address alone, as Mead’s repeated denials indicate that she clearly feels personally implicated by Baldwin’s abstract addresses. So while Piper rejects what she calls the “academic” register of the abstract conversation, she does seem invested in the pedagogical – but a kind of learning that toggles the “student” between the first-personal and intimate and the conceptual or generic problem of their racism. This toggling is accomplished largely by the linguistic means of indexicality.

An indexical is a linguistic expression that refers differently when deployed in different contexts. For example, who exactly is indicated by the words “I”, “you”, and “we” changes depending on who uses them, and words like “here”, “there” and “yesterday” index or indicate different places and times based on when and where they are used. The indexical present is one that understands the now in relation to history, and also position, orientation, and identity – in time, space, and significance. In Piper’s (Calling) Card #1, the “you” is addressed in as far as they are white, racist, and in relationship with someone who identifies as black.25  In the 2018 exhibit at the MoMA where copies of all three cards in the series were distributed, including My Calling (Card) #2 (Reactive Guerilla Performance for Bars and Discos),

Dear Friend,
I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here. ALONE.
This card is not intended as part of an extended flirtation.
Thank you for respecting my privacy.

And My Calling (Card) #3: Guerrilla Performance for Disputed Territorial Skirmishes,






The cards were displayed on a table below a sign that instructed viewers in red, capitalized letters to “join the struggle” and “take some for your own use,” resulting in encounters wherein the cards would read differently depending on where they were used and by whom. An individual would not be able to deploy Calling Card #1 without thus identifying themselves as black, and that performative gesture that would have different jarring impacts if they did not in fact or practice identify as such.26

The articulation of this relationship, the answer to the foundational question of the apology (who apologizes to whom, and for what?) is underscored by Piper’s choice to bracket the word “Calling” in the title of the performance piece, an emphasis that resonates with the phrase “calling out” as well as Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation – the process by which a subject is hailed and thus installed in and recognizes themselves in the context of a social order.27 As an indexical hailing, the “you” is also generic, indicating a type of person and a type of encounter. Equipped with a procedural arsenal in the copies of the prepared response she literally carries with her, Piper’s performance extends beyond the frame of the deployment of the card and its immediate consequences: Piper lives in anticipation of the next encounter with racism that can be described by this card. In their original usage, calling cards often bore the names and addresses of an individual and were left or sent along in lieu of a social interaction, or as a way of introducing oneself for a future one. The “calling card” as corrective here is establishing a racialized relationship between Piper – in as far as she identifies as black – and the racist recipient who has harmed her. The possibility of the repetition of such an interaction, implied by the offering of a calling card, thus also serves as a threat: the recipient of such a card should not hope to call upon whoever delivers the card in such a way again. In as far as a recipient might not address their racism, or might refuse to see Piper as black, the repetition of such an interaction hovers as a possibility.

The staging of the apology on the card allows Piper to specifically control – and name – the relationship between her and the recipient, and to refuse the ways that an individual confronted with this card might attempt to avoid being held responsible for the harm that they caused. Piper diagnoses this avoidance as the “‘Who, me?’ syndrome,” a kind of delay in identifying with, or an outright refusal to accept a claim or statement as relevant. Piper explains that she often uses the slipperiness of identification to pedagogical effect, turning her audiences towards self-reflection:

I am particularly interested in grappling with the ‘Who, me?’ syndrome that infects the highly select and sophisticated audience that typically views my work… different individuals respond in different and unpredictable ways that cut across racial, ethnic, and gender boundaries: some people align themselves with the standpoint from which I offer the critique. Others identify themselves as the target of critique. Yet others feel completely alienated by the whole enterprise… So people sometimes learn something about who they are by viewing my work.28 

It is the progression of exactly this dawning recognition that causes the audience’s laughter to peter out in response to Vaginal Davis’s apology in NYC: accepting the interpellation of the apology, as a person to whom the apology is addressed, becomes increasingly uncomfortable. In his earlier analysis of Davis’s artistic output in his book Disidentifications, José Muñoz emphasized that her drag aesthetic is productively and “obviously fake”, interested in parodying the performance of passing rather than aspiring to “realness” in any register. Muñoz reads this emphatically parodic drag, where the seams of particular transformations are featured rather than smoothed over, as central to his theorization of Davis’s punk oeuvre of publications and performances as emblematic of a tactic he calls “disidentification”: the performance of strategic identifications with, and misrecognitions of, subject positions offered by mainstream majoritarian culture by minoritarian (queer, classed, racialized) subjects.29 The seams of the performance highlight that all identities are performances – including those normatively quotidian performances of cis-heterosexuality, whiteness, and class – but more strikingly those seams serve what Muñoz calls Davis’s “terrorist drag,” a ground-level “cultural terrorism” whose impact is outwardly-oriented towards producing emotional responses in its audience (especially fear and anger) towards political ends.30 If the audience laughs because they do not need the apology because they already “know” that she is black, then it is precisely the nature of this purported knowing as a form of racism that Davis illuminates by embroidering it with her catalogue of slurs. If the audience takes her apology seriously, they hold the position of expecting an apology for the fact of her racialized position in that space. Importantly, neither Davis’s apology, nor Piper’s card, defuse anger, achieve forgiveness, or perform any of the ameliorative functions that people often expect apologies to achieve. Rather, the gesture is more one of opening up a wound, or naming a harm for discussion. This expository rather than ameliorative action of apology is underscored in Adrian Piper’s work by a subsequent series of “meta-performances” or public discussions about the cards in the late 1980s.

The first meta-performance at the Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, 1987, featured what Piper defined as an all-white audience, who responded to Piper’s description of her experience performing the exchange of the card with defensiveness, nervousness, and aggression just at the thought of Piper handing out one of these cards to them.31 This audience’s discussion was filmed, and subsequently shown to another audience – a mixed but predominately black group at the Studio Museum in Harlem – for discussion, resulting in a second meta-performance. Piper suggests that documentary footage of both of these discussions, engaged by a “third” audience, structures a third level of “self-conscious meta-performance” allowing the binary exchange of the card to reverberate out as a critical object.32 The iterations of meta-performances about the piece constitute an ongoing conversation in which this paper participates. At the performance at the Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, when Piper showed My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties, a person in the audience angrily asserted that it is precisely the iterability of the cards which is problematic, namely, the fact of her creating a series of cards that she carries with her constitutes a kind of discriminating or antagonistic stereotyping of white people. Another speaker chimed in, agreeing with the first speaker. According to this interlocutor, while Piper saw her cards as an attempt to “codify” a response to the repeated experiences she has had, this iterative structure is problematic:

I disagree with the uniform way of viewing all those situations, that’s where I see racism, not in […] just having the cards, in the expectation that you could get those comments, but [I think] that the solution can’t possibly be pragmatic, perhaps each case has to be dealt with completely individually.33

The speaker appears to object to the scale of address: the card in its generic language, plurality, and procedural causality, marks the recipient as such only insofar as they perform and perpetuate a larger social harm, eclipsing their individual intention and identity as irrelevant to their racism. The generic address in the apologetic structure, not unlike Baldwin’s “you historically”, infuriates recipients as it operates here fused to the personal address. The genre of the apologetic – especially the intimate narration of a binary relationship between a ‘you’ that harmed ‘me’ – particularly in the semi-private form of the calling card that the apology takes, refuses to let the recipient evade any of the first-personal responsibility for what occurred even as that interaction is critiqued on the scale of the both the individual interaction and the larger social sphere. The slide between the generic and the first-personal is arrested here at the intersection of both. Piper uses the card to respond to an unintentional naming, to mark herself as addressed by the linguistic injury and thus able to respond to it in the first-person, acting on an affordance of offensive speech or slurs that Judith Butler outlines as follows: “If to be addressed is to be interpellated, then the offensive call runs the risk of inaugurating a subject in speech who comes to use language to counter the offensive call.”34 Piper uses the apology to take up the racist remark as one addressed by it, she ‘takes it personally’ to political and social effect: deliberately refusing to discuss the harm in general, abstract terms during the conversation. Her decision to deploy the calling card – to keep things personal, rather than generic, was informed by prior experience. As she reflects, impersonally pointing out that some remark ‘is racist’ rather than using the language of the card to point out that the recipient made a racist remark to her,

“feels self-deceptive and also feels hypocritical, it keeps the issue at an abstract level where it can degenerate into an academic discussion about whether any particular remark is really an expression of racism, or just a passing remark that had an innocuous meaning or perhaps no meaning at all…”35

Despite Piper’s insistence that she chose the form and wording on the card deliberately for the ways that it arrests individual self-justification or evasion of responsibility for the fact that – whatever the intention or context – the statement was racist and harmed her, specifically, the audience proceeds with defending the good intentions of the hypothetical individual receiving the card, and pushes her to rephrase her card, and the interaction, in less implicating and more comfortably generic terms. The cards are critiqued both as “too forward” and directed, constituting a personal attack, and also as too abstracted from the individual. One audience member has a recommendation for how Piper could deploy the card effectively, advising Piper: “to first of all inject some humor into it, to say something like…” At this point, the speaker laughs and lowers their voice, speaking in a giggling and amused way as if telling a joke: “‘Stop! You have just made/agreed to/laughed at a racist remark in the presence of a certified black person. You are not irredeemably lost. To redeem yourself you can…’” These suggestions to adjust the card, as well as the frankly hostile responses from several audience members, reveal the ways that her apology is in fact received as a threat: these speakers identified with the position of the racist possible recipients of one of these cards. But these responses are importantly and strikingly not versions of the “who, me?” questions Piper attempted to cut off: the white people in the room are renegotiating the scope of the potential harm that might occur between themselves and Piper, they are not denying that they are responsible for what she said.

Piper’s card thus reveals an aggressive affordance of the apology: the relation that it frames holds those interpolated in the grip of the speaker’s perception and understanding. The recipient of the apology can certainly reject or respond to that account, but until they do the apology is an active tool that holds them in a particular position of responsibility and accusation. As Piper reflects, she is in fact using the apology more in the spirit of warfare than reconciliation: “The idea behind this series of performances, which I call reactive guerrilla performances, is intervention in order to prevent co-optation.”36 Her language here is precise. Her performances are not the first volley of a conflict, they are re-actions which illuminate the prior actions of the card’s recipients – continuing to attempt to proposition a woman at a bar after she has said no, making a racist comment or joke, etc. – as violent instances of indirect, subtle or unintentional prejudice, rather than quotidian, acceptable annoyances. These performances name ongoing conflicts, thus offering the possibility of recognizing that conflict between the parties with an eye towards ending it. However, any consensus concerning the reparative generic possibilities opened up by an apology – agreement, acceptance, and repair – fracture along the lines of the harm. Is the conflict of racialized violence and the racist microaggression a question that her audiences understand themselves to be fighting with Piper against? Or are they defensive of their relationship to racism – in as far as they performed the action delineated on the card – and thus fighting against Piper? By structuring her disclosure of “I am black” aggressively in the conciliatory genre of the apology, Piper’s apology both figures a defensiveness and anticipates the aggressive responses of the card’s white recipients – but gestures towards possible structures of alliance and mutual responsibility.

The defensiveness of the apology illuminates the fact of white racist violence as omnipresent and likely to manifest itself, and recalls Piper’s video installation, Cornered, where she discloses her race in a looping pre-recorded video displayed on a screen placed on a table in the corner of the gallery. The screen is positioned behind an upended table, which stands like a barricade between the filmed version of Piper and her audience. She begins:

“I’m black. Now, let’s deal with this social fact, and the fact of my stating it, together. Maybe you don’t see why we have to deal with them together. Maybe you think that it’s just my problem, and that I should deal with it by myself. But it’s not just my problem. It’s our problem.”37

She unpacks the shared nature of the problem across a number of modalities: the screen itself is framed by two birth certificates that were issued for her father, one which names him as “white” and one which marks his race as “octoroon,” which illustrate the constructed and historically changing nature of race as emphatically constructed – not naturalized – identities. She ultimately extends that identification to her audience, who would be seated in the chairs that are arrayed in a triangle or arrow pointed accusingly towards the screen, towards Piper:

“It’s a genetic and social fact that, according to the entrenched conventions of racial classification in this country, you are probably black. So if I choose to identify myself as black whereas you do not, that’s not just a special, personal fact about me. It’s a fact about us. It’s our problem to solve.”

The self-accusation of Piper’s arrangement of the chairs (or rather, her formal anticipation of the confrontational audience) would be encountered differently to black-identifying audience members, opening up the question of how the accusation (and other forms of affectively charged address) can operate on multiple levels at once, staging sotto invitations of co-responsibility and solidarity across multiple audiences in the same space.

In the card series, one of the central performative gestures of the printed text is an expression of regret, and an extension of that emotion to the recipient of the card: Piper is “sure” that both she and the “friend” who might receive this card are (differently) sorry that they are in this apologetic situation together. And they are – that is, through the present tense narrative that the text offers, both Piper and the recipient are described into a situation of mutual relation to the event as one that should be regretted. And that event is the differentially affective situation of harm through processes of racialization and racism. As she writes on the card: “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”38 Apologizing thus arises as a scene and a strategy in relation to white supremacy. Expectations of who should apologize, and for what, arise unevenly in relation to norms and the presumptive performance of whiteness in a space. She provocatively and generously narrates her interlocutors as having good intentions, namely, she asserts they must regret the harm that they caused her, which was almost certainly not always true, and articulates the possibility of her audience’s racist discomfort with her presence as a black woman. In this way, by offering an apology, she opens up the apologetic relationship as a two-way interaction, one haunted by the possibility that an apology is owed by the recipient to the apologizer. The signals of the apology – establishing a binary of interaction, delimiting responsibilities, expressing regret – are marshalled not as a way of facilitating the movement of an apologetic scene into closure; instead they place the participants at a standstill in an articulation of the past harm and activate the watching audience into the possibility of taking up apologetic positions of responsibility as well. The harm is shared throughout the space.

This written apology, transmitted as completed, freezes other apologies which might be issued (such as, “I didn’t know you were there”) as being already known and effectively (generically) said before in such racist encounters, and still inadequate to the full scope of the violence of the scene.39 In the aftermath of the card, the “racist remark” having already been issued and named as such, whether or not the recipient knew Piper was black has just been identified by the card as irrelevant to the racism of the statement, and everyone is positioned as if they are sorry that it occurred. Thus, while the conversation might continue between Piper and the recipient, the basic contours of what happened to merit the exchange, and the individual’s being sorry that they caused her discomfort (or that they were caught) becomes a starting point rather than the end of the conversation. A quick “sorry” here cannot be used to brush off the fact of what occurred: the situation is structured by a regret that does not release from responsibility.

Effectively, both Piper and Davis are setting up a productively accusatory apologetic situation where their audiences’ and recipients’ knowledge of and differentially racist treatment of black people (or in the case of Davis’s apology, their perception of her being articulated in ironic relation to the accumulation of racial slurs) becomes available for discussion and reflection, though at a remove from the immediate emotional responsiveness at the scene. These “apologies” are emphatically apologies – the form is a deliberately chosen narrative tool for the way that it establishes relationships of responsibility and complicity – but the emotional work that the apology does is, in fact, more explosive or expository than reparative. As Piper reflected in her meta-performance: “When I actually give out the card it’s just awful, it just tears me apart because I know that the other person is going to feel terrible, and I’m going to feel terrible because I made them feel terrible – their evening is going to be ruined, my evening is already ruined.”40 The reflective tense of the narration here draws attention to the fact that the apology surrounds not just one moment of encounter but intervenes in an entire ongoing social existence: the tense of her personal experience of racism, and her sense of its iterability, surrounds the tense of the card recipient’s more temporally limited irruption of emotional discomfort at the individual moment of their erring in public. 

Apologetic forms are also deferential forms, especially in as far as the speaker has taken responsibility for their part of the harm articulated. This deference is modified by the socially conventional deployment of polite automatisms: when we receive an apology, it is often a friendly gesture. As Piper reflects, these forms of convention create an emotional delay. “One of the benefits of automatic pilot in social situations is that insults take longer to make themselves felt. The meaning of the words simply do not register right away, particularly if the person who utters them is smiling. You reflexively respond to the social context and the smile rather than to the words.”41 This reflexively polite response recalls the fading laughter in Davis’s audience as her catalog of racialized slurs continues: the apology in this moment served to structure a strategic delay, the proverbial spoonful of sugar. The ease that the apology offers through expectation is a result of a quotidian deferential apologetics, a form of apologizing that characterizes structurally apologetic subject positions, e.g. customer services, where employment/pay structures creates expectations of deference, and someone symbolically and effectively (but not sincerely, authentically, etc.) takes up the emotional difficulty of any error or discomfort. This is a form of what Arlie Hochschild calls emotional labor, which occurs at the site of the “pinch” or conflict between what someone actually feels and what they are pretending to or think they should feel, for example, when one manages feelings of anxiety, fear, ennui, resentment, and then smiles through those feelings in order to provide a particular experience of customer service. In her proto-affect theory in The Managed Heart (1983), Hochschild included descriptions of flight attendants trained to apologize for mistakes caused by the passengers in accordance with the motto: “The passenger isn’t always right, but he’s never wrong.”42

In apologizing, Piper and Davis are both taking up (askance) a gendered and deferential position, offering an apology as if it is expected or demanded. This dynamic of deferential and often feminized apology can be automatic, offered and received without thought. It can also structure a dynamic of dominance, making apologies a possible tactic for survival for the individual using it, to make oneself minimally threatening to the status quo. Apologetic deferential behavior often takes the form of taking responsibility for any discomfort in a scene. When both Davis and Piper apologize for not informing their audience about their race in advance – Davis ironically, and Piper with a deadpan and wry conceptualism – they call attention to the emotional labor that they usually perform in white and dominantly racist spaces (including cocktail parties, academic lectures, arts institutions) to make their racial identification palatable and non-confrontationally unobtrusive. When that labor fails to preserve white expectations of insulation from their own sense of whiteness – the white desire to just be seen as “human” rather than racialized as white – black people are most often held responsible for racializing the space and making it uncomfortable. As Piper observed on the card, telling her white interlocutors that she was black before they did anything racist “invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate.”43

Piper’s and Davis’s apologies are instances of Muñozian disidentification, a drag performance of an apology: a tactical misrecognition of the structurally apologetic position they are in (as they are always held responsible for white discomfort). By deploying the social norms of the apology (as it might smooth over an uncomfortable situation) Piper and Davis illuminate how their racial identification causes white discomfort, and that is to be regretted – with drastically different stakes and impact – by everyone in the scene. Piper similarly staged confrontations with negative emotions to racialized and gendered presentation in her Mythic Being series (1972-1975) a collection of drawings, photographs, and documentation of her performances in public as the “mythic being.” Donning a black afro wig, men’s clothing and sunglasses she staged various coded performances on the streets in New York, staging a mugging of a friend, cat-calling women, and performing various visual signifiers of a kind of black hetero-masculinity that is read as hard, dangerous, and aggressive. In becoming the “mythic being” she insists she is embodying “everything you most hate and fear,” bringing into conflict the performability of stereotypes and allowing the visceral emotions in her audiences surrounding those visual signifiers and performances to become artistic material.

What the indexical encounter – through the apology – aspirationally teaches an individual to see is both an immediate sense of responsibility to the person in front of them, and a larger sense of undeniable enmeshment in the historical. Mead’s refusal to allow the conversation to be about her recalls Piper’s description of why she ultimately decided to start her apologetic calling card with the statement, “I am black” rather than reprimanding the offenders abstractly. If Piper did not include her first-personal identification as black, and activate the generic expectations of her whiteness as white supremacist and undesirable, she would have been left with precisely the genre of “fatuous” conversation that did occur between Baldwin and Mead: “an academic discussion about the propriety, meanings, and intentions of these remarks that leaves fundamental dispositions untouched and self-deceptive rationalizations inviolate,” a conversation that left Piper feeling, “offended, compromised, and deceptive.”44 Mead is trying to put a wrap on “race” the concept, as if no part of it touches her body, as if it does not penetrate into her own sense of who she is. Mead wants logical parameters and clear delineations of guilt and a level-headed academic conversation. She wants, clearly, to talk as people about the situation in a non-indexical way, abstractly, without the intrusion of both of their racial identifications getting in the way. As she complains to Baldwin, “You are being racial. I present you with human situations and you make them racial.”45

This opens up another reading of the conversation: Mead’s answers seem to indicate that whenever Baldwin brings up race, he is implicitly accusing her of racism. Mead thinks that when Baldwin discusses racial harm, he is asking her – Margaret Mead – for an apology, despite the fact that he never, directly, does. She preemptively interrupts this projected apologetic relationship with her version of “who, me?” Baldwin metonymically represents all black people to Mead, but she refuses to extend her own metonymic analysis to herself as white woman. Here we have found the ghost of the expected apology that Davis is disidentifying with and parodying, and which Piper names with the line “I regret the discomfort my presence is causing you”: the guilt that white people feel in the presence of black people. While Baldwin is discussing an attitude of resentment in the younger generation towards their parents after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Mead interrupts Baldwin to assert her first-personal innocence: “Now I am absolutely certain that if I had been asked I would have said not to drop it. I have no doubt and therefore I have no guilt… I don’t say because I’m an American I share the guilt of what the American government did when I didn’t know it was doing it.”46 Baldwin returns the conversation from whether or not Mead feels guilty back to the terms of the address: the generic, racialized positions that imply and create other scenes and situations of harm, and by admitting his own sense of his culpability and implication, invites Mead into a project of imagining what they might do in response to these repeated, generically violent relationships between the binary pairs of white woman and black man, black man and white supremacist nation state. He re-aligns himself with the position of what Mead describes as “these fifteen-year-olds you just made up”:

BALDWIN:    I have to understand that, despite the fact that I’m twenty-five years older, I’m still in their shoes. Because the police in this country do not make any distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else – any other black person – in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded. What I’m trying to get at is whether the question of guilt – I’m not interested very much in the question of guilt. What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb, either. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.47

Baldwin resists the apology that Mead preempts by over-reading the racialized conversation as an always-apologetic situation that she could have then refused. She provided evidence and attempted, after all, to assert that the felicitous conditions for her apologizing are not present: he simply has the wrong person. He rephrases the conversation in terms of responsibility, rather than guiltiness, and refuses to discuss the question of race abstractly, instead insisting on speaking from the first-person “I”.  He also brings the conversation out of the past and into the conditional future, drawing attention to the affects at work in the room and in the indexical present. For Baldwin, dealing with the weight of history and finding ways to move forward, requires shedding a light on how people actually react to the facts of history. Rather than get caught up in the semantics of whether or not Mead is herself guilty of dispossessing people, Baldwin argues there are people who feel dispossessed by her, historically as a white woman, in their city. Baldwin shifts the register repeatedly into a narratology of history, and refuses the apologetically defensive invitation to address Mead on common (unracialized, human) ground by shifting the frame to terms that she does not expect. That Baldwin refuses one apologetic scene and offers another, which Mead does not take up but repeatedly dodges, does not mean that conversation could have ended – or been “wrapped up” – with the right apology for the right wrong between the right people, but it does mean that a different conversation could have begun there. It is certainly a skillfully fatuous play on both interlocutors’ parts: neither really put pressure on the conversation enough to break the progression of the friendly exchange into something like outright anger or explicit accusation.

That is why the joke of Davis’s apologetic (w)rap is important: such conversations, like apologies, can purport to close a topic down or establish who was responsible for a harm, when really, these forms of discourse are all about opening up a problem for conversation. What Davis and Muñoz refer to as the “fatuousness” of the conversation between Baldwin and Mead is perhaps part of the form of the “rap”: both keep the conversation light, move through anecdote, and never (w)rap up anything into a neat equation of guilt or causation.

BALDWIN:    “You see, what I am trying to get at, too, is that whether I am always rational or not is not as important a question as I used to think it was. I would like to think of myself as being an exceedingly rational human being. However, trying to think of myself as rational is what gives me my sense of humor. What is important, and one of the elements that makes history, is the reaction of human beings to their situation. And that reaction, when it is a real reaction, is always excessive and always a little blind. You simply find your situation intolerable and you set about to change it, and when you do that, you place yourself in a certain kind of danger: the danger of being excessive, the danger of being wrong. That is the only way you ever learn anything, and it is also the only way the situation ever changes. One has to deal with that, too.”48

Baldwin’s rejoinder to Mead, for whom rationality is crucial, and his refusal to engage the project of forgiving her or rejecting her, resonates again with Piper’s refusal of the non-racialized “academic” conversation by insisting on her race and using the emotional register of apology, and with Davis’s apology drag. Apologies in this sense emerge as tools that are realist, interested in provoking and examining the fact of reaction. Apologies are present-tense, first-personal (between an I and an addressed you) forms of relating to others through narrative histories: “indexical” tools in Piper’s terminology which might be able to help both her and her audience “get clear about the subtleties of who in fact [they] are,” and a conversational and social form that Davis uses to address and interpellate her audience and open up the racialized “situation” between them for conversation.49 Piper and Davis’s provocative uses of apologetic form – and Baldwin’s resistance to Mead’s defensive refusal to apologize to him – reveals how apologies are not reducible to whether they establish culpability or provide closure, rather they are invitations into articulated relationships. This dimension of considering the apologetic as a genre adds a new heft and significance to the most quotidian of apologies that are often dismissed as if they are not really apologies: for instance, when someone says “I’m sorry” in response to a friend recounting harm for which their interlocutor is not directly responsible, but for which they would like to commiserate. Piper and Davis both use this expressive, emotional aspect of apologizing to double-edged and ironic effect. Their apologies bring their experiences of discomfort because of racism – experiences which are often socially ignored or even tacitly expected in racist social spaces – into conflict with their audiences’ experiences of racist discomfort, refusing to allow that latter white discomfort to dissipate or be assuaged in the name of politeness at the expense of black safety, comfort, and life. Apologies are powerful historical narrative tools, just as potent when resisted, refused, and insincerely performed, regardless of their successful issue and acceptance, illustrating Piper’s insistence that “we are transformed – and occasionally reformed – by immediate experience, independently of our abstract evaluations of it and despite our attempts to resist it.”50

Apologies, as habitually deferential and reparative forms can reveal a harm as presently unaddressed and unhealed between apologetic parties, rather than relegating that harm to the past. In Rap on Race, Baldwin’s understanding of apology figures them as a crucial interaction with high stakes, his ability to live in relation to others, precisely because of its present-tense. In a tactic similar to the ones employed to critical effect by Davis and Piper, late in the conversation Baldwin in fact offers Mead the possibility of apologizing by offering a hypothetical apology himself, when she contests his attempt to continue a discussion of historical facts of the slave trade when talking about contemporary racism – a move that Mead dismisses as carrying on “crimes in the past” and wants to conversationally “dispose of.”

BALDWIN:    The only time we have is now.
MEAD:           Right. But you keep talking about crimes in the past. I think we need to dispose of them.
BALDWIN:    My dear Dr. Mead. My dear Margaret. I will even call you Mary… My point about it is that I don’t think history is the past. If it were the past it would not matter.
MEAD:           Ah, this is another way of doing it.
BALDWIN:    History is the present.
MEAD:           It’s what we know about the past, but in the present.
BALDWIN:    No, no, no. I don’t mean that… What I was trying to find out: How in the world is it that there are still anachronisms? If history were the past, history wouldn’t matter. History is the present, the present. You and I are history. We carry our history. We act in our history…. If I have offended you, I have to come to you and say, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ I’m only talking about that, and if I can’t do that, then I cannot live. I’m not talking about crime and punishment.”51

Baldwin figures the offering of an apology as part of necessary interpersonal (and historical) work, but not one that will necessarily result in anything like closure, nor material change. Baldwin is not, here, interested in the carceral question of guilt or how one apportions blame. If one is preoccupied with the question of whether one is pure of blame or intention, one is still imagining a world where purity is possible. Instead, Baldwin insists on the mutual implication of the past with the present, and with what is possible in that indexical present, which is a different point of emphasis. The apology Baldwin offers structures a problem where if the apology changes anything at all, what changes will not be the history narrated or the people implicated in telling it in the indexical present. On the other hand, Meade is thinking about the apology as a practical structure where it matters whether one can identify the proper guilty party, and it often does in non-trivial ways: in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, redress movements, trials, and other reparative procedures. Baldwin’s position is more philosophical and aesthetic, intervening in the conversation more subtly in ways that are akin to Piper and Davis’s wry performances: he does not respond by trying to convince her of her guilt, rather he insists he does not care whether Meade is, or understands herself to be, guilty or not. The apology nonetheless structures them together – first-personally – in relation to the problem they are abstractly “rapping” about. 

  1. James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, A Rap on Race. Philadelphia & New York: J.B. Lippincott Company. 1971. 

  2. José Muñoz and Dr. Vaginal Davis. “‘No One Leaves Delilah’: A (W)rap on Race.” NYU Performance Studies. October 31st, 2012. Transcription and description based on video and audio footage uploaded to YouTube by Jim Fouratt. “Dr Vaginal Davis and Professor Jose Munoz(NYU) [sic] in a serious discusion [sic] on ART and Beauty.” Note that the above cited and only available footage of the conversation between Davis and Muñoz was taken from a seat in the middle of the audience, on a shaky handheld camera or phone, so that when a member of the audience next to the camera laughs it can almost overwhelm Davis’s voice, and the way the laughter peters out as the audience becomes uncomfortable is conspicuous. While the domination of the audience’s laughter over the comparatively muted conversation between Davis and Muñoz is obviously an artifact of the amateur documentation, it emphasizes a crucial aspect of the scene: the audience’s discomfort. Figuring out how to read the sound and shifting of the audience – an awkward squirming of both physical movement as well as an awareness of emotional discomfort or ethical uncertainty – requires attending to the impact of the apology. 

  3. In this paper I follow the orthographic practices of the authors in their published materials and the art objects discussed with respect to uncapitalizing the term “black,” as I track the term and the elaboration of the concept in relation to their usage and performances of the term. 

  4. Muñoz and Davis, “‘No One Leaves Delilah’: A (W)rap on Race.” 2012. 

  5. Indeed, even’s Davis’s self-mythologizing origin story as related across various publications and performances including this one includes the narrative that she was conceived during a one night stand under the table at a Ray Charles Concert at the Hollywood Palladium in the early nineteen-sixties, when her “Black Creole Choctaw Indian mother” – then forty-five or forty-six years old – met her twenty-year-old Mexican-American German-expatriate Jewish father. As with all her performances, and in keeping with drag, the seemingly impossible details cohere, and it is difficult to tell when, or if, she is being serious. As Dodie Bellamy observes of her biographical disclosures and sociological observations in this performance, tracking the veracity of each statement is a perhaps impossible task as “Davis keeps a straight face. No change in tone, no indication that this is a joke, which I know it is, but I nevertheless find myself googling “Do Germans have sex with cabbages,” just to make sure.” Bellamy, Dodie. “Vaginal Davis Troubles the Smile.” Milan, Italy: Mousse Magazine. Issue #79. 2022. 

  6. Connie Monaghan, “Vaginal Creme Davis.” Coagula Art Journal. May 1997. 27. Online Archive of California; University of California, Los Angeles Library Special Collections. 

  7. Stuart Timmons, “Wiping Out On the New Wave of Drag.” The Advocate. 11. October 1988: 12-13. 

  8. Robyn Wiegman, “Economies of Visibility.” American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. Durham: Duke University Press. 1995. 

  9. Jennie Livingston, dir., Paris is Burning. Documentary. USA: Off White Productions. 1990. 

  10. Marlon M. Bailey, Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2013, 2016. 55-56. 

  11. In addition to the above discussed personae employed in the various bands she founded between 1970-1999 before her move to Berlin, other identities include the Most High Rev’rend Saint Salicia Tate, an evangelical woman, and various boy drag personae. Davis, Vaginal. “Vaginal Davis Biography.” Also see: Muñoz, José Esteban. “The White to Be Angry.” Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1999. 95-97, 103-111. 

  12. Adrian Piper, “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” Transition Position. No. 58, Bloomington: Indiana University. 1992. 4-32. 

  13. Here, and in all quotations subsequently, I refer to the edition of the card reproduced as “My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties” in “My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2,” included in Adrian Piper’s Out of Order, Out of Sight. Volume 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992, and the transcription of the text included in Maurice Berger’s “Styles of Radical Will: Adrian Piper and the Indexical Present,” in Adrian Piper: A Retrospective. Issues in Cultural Theory 3. Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County. 1999. Subsequent copies of the card, especially those reproductions made available for others to take and circulate as part of the exhibit at the MoMA, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, which was on view March 31–July 22, 2018, do not include the complimentary close and signature of “Sincerely yours, Adrian Margaret Smith Piper”. This has implications for the iterability of the performance and the cards as printed and printable matter. Where these anonymized cards imply a greater iterability in that anyone else (who identifies as black) can deploy them, no one besides Piper can hand out the cards with her name. 

  14. Lauren Berlant, “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness.” Unpublished paper presented on the panel “Sensing Precarity”at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association, 25 November 2011, accessible online at Lauren Berlant’s academic blog, Supervalent Thought. Accessed March 7th, 2023. 

  15. Adrian Piper, “Xenophobia and the Indexical Present I: Essay.” Out of Order, Out of Sight. Vol. I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 249. 

  16. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race, 177-179. 

  17. The first part of the title, “No One Leaves Delilah,” is explained as a citation of Davis’s favorite actress, Hedy Lamarr, who played Delilah in the 1949 film based on the biblical story, Samson and Delilah

  18. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race,  251. 

  19. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race,  251. 

  20. Adrian Piper, “Cornered.” Video installation with birth certificates, color video, monitor, table, and chairs. Dimensions variable. 1988. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund. Installed for Enter the Mirror. September 10th, 2022—July 23rd, 2023. 

  21. Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties. “My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2,” included in Adrian Piper’s Out of Order, Out of Sight. Volume 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 1996.) 219. 

  22. Or perhaps at least “not black”, although within the terms of Piper’s materials and interviews on the project she refers to her interlocutors as white. 

  23. For a deeper sense of how formations of whiteness figure themselves as non-racialized and individuals who identify as white are often thus resistant to seeing themselves explicitly as white, see, Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” David Roediger’s “The Wages of Whiteness,” (1991) Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White,” (1995) Richard Dyer’s “White: Essays on Race and Culture” (1997), Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race,” (1998) Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” (2010).  

  24. Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties in “My Calling Cards #1 and #2.” 1990. Previously unpublished. Out of Order, Out of Sight. 219. 

  25. Adrian Piper, “Xenophobia and the Indexical Present. Talking Art: Public Lectures. Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, England. March 26th, 1992. Recording Accessed via the British Library Sounds Online. 

  26. Adrian Piper, Calling Cards Exhibit Installation. Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016. New York: Museum of Modern Art. March 31–July 22, 2018. 

  27. Louis Althusser, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” 1970. On the Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. New York: Verso. 2014. Also, see Frantz Fanon: “To speak is to exist absolutely for the other,” from: “The Negro and Language.” Black skin, white masks. 1967. 127. 

  28. Adrian Piper, “Xenophobia and the Indexical Present I: Essay.” Out of Order, Out of Sight. Vol. I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 249. 

  29. José Esteban Muñoz, “The White to Be Angry.” Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1999. 95-97, 103-111. 

  30. Muñoz, “The White to be Angry,” 102. 

  31. Adrian Piper, Documentation of the January 30, 1987 performance and discussion of “My Calling (Card), No. 1 & 2.” Video 8, 1:31:54 : Sound, Color. Randolph Street Gallery Archive. Flaxman Library. Accession Number RSGA 148. School of the Art Institute of Chicago Library & Special Collections. Digital Collections. 

  32. Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1 Meta-Performance (1987-88; 00:58:00) 

  33. Adrian Piper,  Documentation of the January 30, 1987 performance and discussion of “My Calling (Card), No. 1 & 2.” 1:30:36 – 1:31:11. 

  34. Judith Butler, “On Linguistic Vulnerability.” Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. 2-3. 

  35. Adrian Piper, Documentation of the January 30, 1987 performance and discussion of “My Calling (Card), No. 1 & 2.  00:57:50 – 00:58:18 

  36. Adrian Piper, “My Calling Cards #1 and #2.” Out of Order, Out of Sight. 219. Italics in the original. 

  37. Adrian Piper, “Cornered.” Video installation with birth certificates, color video, monitor, table, and chairs. Dimensions variable. 1988. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund. Installed for Enter the Mirror. September 10, 2022—July 23, 2023. 

  38. Piper, “My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2,” Out of Order, Out of Sight. 219. 

  39. Piper, “My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties” from “My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2.” Out of Order, Out of Sight. 219. 

  40. Maurice Berger, “Styles of Radical Will: Adrian Piper and the Indexical Present,” Adrian Piper: A Retrospective. Issues in Cultural Theory 3. Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County. 1999. 

  41. Adrian Piper, “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” Transition Position. No. 58, 1992. 4-6. Reprinted in Out of Order, Out of Sight, 275. 

  42. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1983. 

  43. Adrian Piper,  “My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2,” included in Adrian Piper’s Out of Order, Out of Sight. Volume 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992

  44. Adrian Piper,  My Calling (Card) #1: A Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties in “My Calling Cards #1 and #2.” 1990. Previously unpublished. Out of Order, Out of Sight. Volume 1: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 1996. 219. 

  45. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race, 233. 

  46. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race,  57-58. 

  47. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race,  59. 

  48. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race, 94. My emphasis. 

  49. Adrian Piper,  “Whiteless.” Art Journal 60.4. Winter 2001. 65. Comment in reference to her essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” 1992. 

  50. As quoted in the catalog published on the occasion of the exhibit: Adrian Piper. September 14-October 21, 2017. New York: Lévy Gorvy, 2017. 

  51. Baldwin and Mead, A Rap on Race, 188-190. 

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