I hop out of the shower at 6 p.m., put in green contacts, curl my bleached blonde hair into loose Victoria’s Secret waves and start my make-up for the night, being sure to not draw too much attention to the shape of my eyes and fullness of my lips. When I pull into the club’s valet at 9 p.m., I leave my car and walk through the door passing as white. My one customer that night is a white man in his 50s with an AMEX Black Card who sees me on stage and asks a bouncer to bring him “the girl with the nice eyes.” He readily agrees to spend the remainder of the night in a private room with two other blonde dancers and tips all of us generously. At the end of the night, I’ve made about $1,600.
A few months ago, reaching that number was rare. I went into work with black curly hair, red lipstick and dark brown eyes. I was endlessly peppered with questions about my ethnicity and had to listen to and tolerate phrases such as “I always wanted to rape a girl like you when I was over in Helmand.” Older white and Asian men, a significant percentage of our clientele, would almost always look away from me, eyes sliding off my face as they pulled awkward, tight-lipped smiles.
It’s not as though these men suddenly become more racist once they walk into a strip club — their suppressed racist tendencies created in the outside world are carried in, shaping the industry to mirror the society around it. Their beliefs and desires shape everything from the music the DJ plays, to the hairstyles we wear, to the hiring and firing practices of management.
For dancers of color, auditions are often fraught with worry over not fitting into Eurocentric standards of desirability and beauty. Before all of my own auditions, I straightened my hair and kept my eyebrows trimmed and a shade lighter.
But for dancers who can’t pass as white, the worry doesn’t end there. Mariah was a dancer I worked with for about six months — she was beautiful, playful, motivated, easy to work next to and always looking for new ways to reward her kids for their good grades. The management, however, saw Mariah only as a dark-skinned black woman — as if the darkness of her skin somehow obscured their ability to see past their preconceptions of blackness. To them, she was untrustworthy, more whore-ish than the rest of us and ultimately more expendable. At the clubs I’ve worked at, dark-skinned black dancers such as Mariah are always less likely to get hired, and are fired at a much higher rate than those of any other ethnicity. Mariah, a mom of two, was consistent and professional but was ultimately fired over a customer’s clearly fabricated tale of rude conduct.
In contrast, Mariah and I also worked alongside Whitney, a dancer who mostly kept to herself and never socialized with coworkers outside of work. She was always picked up by her boyfriend, whose most recent cars seemed to reflect how well she was doing inside the club. In other words, Whitney had a pimp. The pimp alone would usually be grounds for terminating a contract but surprisingly, she had worked at the club longer than either me or Mariah and it was common knowledge that she engaged in several kinds of illegal activity within it. Unsurprisingly, Whitney was white with a cute, girl-next-door face. A face with the color and structure that we had all (dancers, managers, etc.) been taught to associate with innocence.
To this day, Whitney has gone unchecked by the club management. Unlike Whitney, sex workers of color must navigate through their positions in both the stigmatized whore hierarchy and the societal race hierarchy. Their position in the race hierarchy, however, often determines where people place them within the whore hierarchy. Whorephobia then isn’t just an issue of sexual stigma; it’s also an issue of racism.
Before I started presenting myself in a white-passing way at work, I instead felt like I had to play into the exotification of Middle Eastern women, making sure to choose stage names that reflected my Persian ethnicity. After learning to pass as white, I was suddenly able to look white and Asian men in the eye and even able to make large sales off of them. I started consistently making enough money each night that I could afford to trim my work week down to two days.
As a woman of color who possesses the privilege to negotiate my position within the race hierarchy, I’ve experienced white privilege and felt soul-crushing frustration at seeing the white dancers given preference over me. If I weren’t able to pass as white, I would undoubtedly be making less money, working more nights per week and wouldn’t have extra time to further my education at UC Berkeley. Women of color, regardless of their features and skin tone, deserve to have the same opportunities.
Trixie Mehraban writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].