I want to be in solidarity with Slutwalk. I really do. But my knees are getting weak. It’s inspiring to see women coming together to protest the all-too-real threat and reality of rape and to reclaim our right to define and exercise our respective sexualities outside the context of patriarchy. I dig all that. But I do not dig seeing signs like that held up by Erin Clark and Kelly Hannah Peterlinz at Slutwalk NYC that said “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”
I do not dig debating with young white feminists late into the night about white privilege and having other Black women in the thread have to call out the supposed anti-racist feminists for not speaking up, for yet again forcing Black women to do the exhausting work of teaching. I do not dig being told on the interwebs, –tumblr, other blogs, the Slutwalk NYC FB page–that Black women are being hyper-sensitive and divisive. I do not dig being intellectually insulted with the assertion that I simply didn’t understand “Yoko and John’s intent.” As if. Y’all know that saying about intentions and well, perhaps you should also recognize that we are long past the point of talking about intent when we talk about racism. We should be talking about impact. (Rest in Power to the venerable Dr. Derrick Bell, father of Critical Race Theory, whom we have to thank for that little insight.) Intent is about individual relationships and hurt feelings; impact is about systems of power and their impact on material realities.
But let me tell you, for the record, what I do and don’t understand (all at the same time):
- (Why) White folks love the n-word and they keep trying to find a way to use it. And ain’t nobody fooled by these claims of confusion, because for some reason that confusion about off-limits terminology doesn’t extend to those terms reclaimed by Jewish communities, LGBTQ communities, or people with disabilities. Only to the n-word.
- (Why) Black women and the fact that we are always Black and female at exactly the same time is a fact that continues to elude white women. That I’m making this observation in 2011 makes me wonder if it is in fact 1969, the same year that Frances Beale created the Third World Women’s Alliance. Any person who defends this song based on historical context or otherwise clearly has not grappled with the ways that Black women’s gendered experiences of Blackness make the conflation of “woman as nigger” an untenable category.
- (Why) The organizers of Slutwalk are genuninely baffled that this happened in the first place. To organize a movement around the reclamation of a term is in and of itself an act of white privilege. To not make explicit and clear the privilege and power inherent in such an act is to invite less-informed folks with privilege (in other words, folks who know just enough to be dangerous) to assume that reclamation can be applied universally. If Black folks’ collective track record at reclamation is any indication, clearly based on Erin Clark’s sign, the n-word reclamation is a #majorfail. Even if we look at Black women and feminism, “womanism,” Alice Walker’s attempt to create cultural and discursive space for Black women within feminism, by all academic accounts remains the stepchild of viable feminist identifications.
- (Why) The debates over the reclaiming of “slut,” and “nigger,” and the racial elements of those debates are absolutely parallel to debates over the claiming of the term “feminism” itself.
If we thought of the history of feminist movement building as a battle over terms, what we would find is that every major battle over terms and the rights and identities attached to them have always had the same damn problem: the racial politics, like the Black women implicated in them, have been fucked. “Suffrage” didn’t include all women. (Just ask Ida B. Wells how she felt about marching at the back of the 1913 suffrage march.) “Woman” is not a universal experience. (Sojourner Truth anyone?) “Nigger” is not a catchall term for oppression. (Ask Pearl Cleage) Feminism is not a universal organizing category. (Ask bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Fran Beale, and on and on) And “slut” is not the anchor point of a universal movement around female sexuality, no matter how much global resonance it has. (Ask a Hip Hop Generation Feminist).
Alice Walker said recently:
“I’ve always understood the word “slut” to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality in any way she wants to; undisturbed by other people’s wishes for her behavior. Sexual desire originates in her and is directed by her. In that sense it is a word well worth retaining. ” (Source)
Clearly, from a strictly pro-sex perspective, I could see why it would be attractive to reclaim this word. And within Black communities, certainly there is, like in most other communities, a tacit shaming of “loose women” and a strident investment in women being “good girls and ladies.” Still, slut-shaming has particular resonance for white women, whose sexuality has largely been constructed based upon middle-class, often Christian, heteronorms of proper chaste womanhood. The positive referent about chastity against which slut becomes the negative referent has never been universally available to Black women. A Black woman who “freely enjoys hers own sexuality” has been called “jezebel, hoochie, hoodrat, ho, freak, and perhaps, slut.” In other words, “slut” is merely part of a constellation of terms used to denigrate Black female sexuality; it is not at the center of how our particular sexuality has been constructed.
But “sluttiness” and “slut-shaming” around sexuality are in fact, central to white women’s experiences of sexuality. So to start a movement around that word is to inherently to place white women and their experiences at the center. To actually be able to materially reclaim “slut,” however much one has been slut-shamed is to have the power to work within a universe of multiple meanings in which both committed chastity and casual coitus, and everything in between, are understood as sexual options. For Black women, our struggles with sexuality are to find the space of recognition that exists between the hypervisibility of our social construction as hoes, jezebels, hoochies, and skanks, and the invisibility proffered by a respectability politics that tells us it’s always safer to dissemble. To reclaim slut as an empowered experience of sexuality does not move Black women out of these binaries. We are always already sexually free, insatiable, ready to go, freaky, dirty, and by consequence, unrapeable. When it comes to reclamations of sexuality, in some senses, Black women are always already fucked.
Thus, the politics of reclaiming slut expose the fault lines that exist between the discursive, the material, and the symbolic. And the degree to which slut reclaiming will be placed in any of these categories is necessarily determined by the power and privilege that each slutwalker has. If Black women’s discursive acts cannot change our material realities with regard to our sexuality, then our actions become merely symbolic. Our actions will come to exist only in the realm of representation. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. For Black women do have agency. Our voices do matter, and our interventions will contour this mo(ve)ment, though we are unsure yet, just what those contours will look like. But our commitment to discursive acts must be measured, by our histories, by our material realities, by the psychic and social costs and the attendant benefits of such acts for improving the quality of our (sex) lives. We are long past the point of putting our own bodies on the line for political acts that improve white women’s lives while leaving the rest of us in the dust.
So when I look at Black women, like the Black female organizer of Slutwalk NYC who was asked to ask Erin Clark to take down her sign, I see us doing what we’ve always done—taking a broad view of movements that have clear red flags when it comes to inclusion in order to serve the greater good of women. While white women often want to deploy “woman” as a universal category and have the nerve to get angry and defensive when Black women like myself point out differences in our experiences, it is Black women themselves who have demonstrated what it really means to care about women as a group. For we put our bodies and our psyches on the line to show up at events called “Slutwalks” knowing that we are both more vulnerable to the same violence that brought other women there and yet that we have little social privilege and power to reclaim the terms in the ways that many of the others marchers do. But we show up anyway, and in showing up, white women feel like they are being inclusive, when in fact, I would argue that most Black women, are showing up in spite of, not because of, Slutwalk’s inclusivity.
So, too, our histories with feminism. It is because white women inherently kept gatekeeping the right to determine the forms and agenda of feminist movement building that Alice Walker felt so compelled to create womanism, that Barbara Smith and the members of Combahee had to articulate what Black feminism looked like, that Fran Beale and the members of the TWWA had to articulate what a third world feminism looked like, that Gloria Anzaldua had to articulate what a Chicana feminism looked like.
In light of these observations, some argue that the movement is not primarily about the terms. But that assertion is belied by the fact that the organizers continue to organize under the term even though it clearly has some problems with inclusion. Despite the calls from Black Women’s Blueprint that the movement be “re-branded” these marches are going to continue to be called “slut walk” because frankly the term is catchy, it was and is used against all kinds of women in violent ways, and many of the women who participate still find the notion of a universal female experience of oppression narratively compelling. Hence, Erin Clark’s sign. The protestations of Black women and other women of color are at best an inconvenient nuisance to an otherwise sexy exercise and at worst seen as divisive and potentially derailing. The reality though is that every feminist I’ve talked with about this sees the potential for good in SlutWalk, hence our cautious optimism, hesitant solidarity (but solidarity nonetheless), and our willingness to spend our time offering our critiques.
A little Ace of Base (throwback joint) is appropriate here:
“I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes
I saw the sign
Life is demanding without understanding
I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes
I saw the sign
No one is gonna drag you up to get into the light where you belong.”
Word. The challenge now SlutWalk is how will you respond?
For some other great reads on SlutWalk from feminists we admire and respect here at the CFC, check out:
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, speaker at SlutWalk Philly: here.
Salamishah Tillet, speaker at SlutWalk DC: here.
Akiba Solomon, at Colorlines: here.
Andreana Clay, at QueerBlackFeminist: here.