Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Endorsing a critique of Slutwalk

About a month ago I was asked by Farah Tanis, ED of Black Women's Blueprint, to endorse the Open Letter From Black Women to Slutwalk. I had read some about Slutwalk, a response to an officer comments that women should avoid dressing like sluts to avoid rape. That's a protest  I wholeheartedly support. So, I was a little hesistant to endorse the letter, given that I hadn't participated, hadn't been following it too much, and knew that other Black women, like Aishah Shahidah Simmons, have been keynote speakers at Slutwalks in the U.S.

Farah Tanis, as others have noted, was open to these hesitations (as well as my questions about how queer women were represented within the organization) and we had a nice back and forth, open discussion. After reading a draft of the letter, I decided to sign on and endorse. Still working out my thoughts on it, but emphatically behind a group of Black women coming together to question the focus and intent of a movement that speaks for all women, under an umbrella term that is used to delegitimize, attack, and dehumanize women. I see the letter as an important step for discussion. For movement.

And I support Slutwalk, or at least the ideas behind it.

Any protest that directly targets institutions and individuals that blame women for the violence we are subjected to is something I can get behind, fully. But, the critique that Tanis and others outline in the open letter is significant and appears to be even more necessary with a development from the NYC Slutwalk this weekend. As pictured above, a young white protester held a sign quoting Lennon and Ono's "Woman is the Nigger of the World," released in 1972. As others, particularly Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Latoya Peterson, have written, the fact that this woman embraces this quote, years after the context (not justifying) in which this song was written is a telling statement about race, feminism, and women's bodies. She was asked by one of the NYC organizers, a Black woman, to take the sign down and she did. Great. Still, the action, the belief that it was okay to use "nigger" as a call to protest is what troubles me.

Interestingly, I saw this photo right after I gave a lecture on Frantz Fanon and asked students if it was possible in this historical moment to, as Fanon states, "rediscover(ing) one's people [which] sometimes means...wanting to be a 'nigger,' not an exceptional 'nigger,' but a real 'nigger,' a 'dirty nigger,' the sort defined by the white man."  And, most were alarmed and adamant that the N-word, as we now know it, is a word that they view as unacceptable, even as a call for liberation or decolonization. It was even difficult for some of them to say it, even quoting text. And, in what appears to be a moment where a white woman who probably says "N-word" rather than "nigger" in her everyday life feels completely entitled to print the word on a sign protesting violence against "women," demonstrates that indeed, it is not. If you can't say it, if the words physically can't come out of your mouth, like some of my students, how are you going to use it as an organizing tool? Which brings me to the question of "slut" being used in a similar way--embracing the cheap slut, the whore, as it's been defined by men may not be the path to liberation. It may be, but I'm not convinced. Not when the intersections of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism continue to be overlooked in feminist spaces. And isn't that what we're in this for? Liberation. Freedom. An end to violence against women simply because we are women. As Blackwomen's Blueprint's letter states,

"For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood.  It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens."


I don't think the intent of the organizers of Slutwalk has ever been to trivialize rape, I firmly believe that. Nonetheless, intent is of dire importance at this time. Or the ignorance of the real differences and experience of "womanhood," and the intersections of race, class, gender, sex, sexuality and violence that structure the lives of women of color will continue to be a dividing line in feminist movement.

I am hopeful that we will keep these conversations, these critiques, open.


Vegetarian Cannibal said...

First I read your blog post and then I read the Open Letter. Excellent reading. Thank you for posting.

I could never voice what my issue with SlutWalk was. It made me uncomfortable, because even though I wanted to stand behind it--I just couldn't get past the use of the word "Slut." In a very visceral way, I guess I always connected that word with "Ho" or "Jezebel" or any of the other words that have been used historically to demean and dehumanize black women.

I do not think SlutWalk intends to "trivialize" rape, but I do think there is a certain insensitivity there. When I think of SlutWalk participants, I imagine young, heterosexual, middle class white women with "tribal" and or sanskrit tattoos with posters of Bob Marley in their dorm rooms.

Perhaps my assumptions are erroneous and or prejudiced, but I never got the feeling that me or any other women of color were...what SlutWalk was about. I never felt it was for "us."

But I don't know. I guess I don't know how I feel about it. Thank you for posting this.

queerblackfeminist said...

Thank you, vegetarian cannibal, for your comment. I do think it's an ongoing conversation and something to keep thinking about. I, too, am still working out my thoughts about it. In solidarity.

Abby Tallmer said...


I'm writing to thank you for your important and challenging comments on the disgraceful displays at NYC Slutwalk(multiple-I'm including Slutwalker's reactions to the kick off event in my "disgraceful" characterization of the march and its premises, based not just on that egregious piece of signage but also due to the fact that that woman was apparently able to hold it aloft for almost the entire duration of the march without receiving ANY negative feedback or criticisms or without being asked to take it down by fellow marchers OR organizers -until a black woman organizer was justly offended enough by it to approach said signholder towards the end of the march). I think, as you discuss, that this "incident" is far from isolated and rather speaks volumes (and distasteful volumes at that) about the very structure and premises of Slutwalk and about what sort of cultural climate is/was created there -- ie., one in which privileged white women would feel perfectly comfortable publicly displaying a sign containing a word so historically dangerous and emotionally harmful to women of color (& rightfully, to any thinking person, but alas this is not always the case to say the least). So from this we are to gather that Slutwalk participants and its organizers have created, and apparently have opted to create, an environment that is at least passively if not actively welcoming to white racists and racism while simultaneously alienating and indeed actually harmful to women of color. Nice. Score one for the global feminist revolution. (NOT).

I am including a link to a lengthy (page-long) piece that I wrote and posted on Facebook a couple of days ago when the despicable photograph first broke. I have gotten a lot of feedback on it, mostly positive but also some negative (mostly from defensive marchers), and thought that perhaps (?) your readers would be interested in it. You can find it at:

Thanks again for your thoughtful words and for your wonderful blog, which I was not previously familiar with. Happily, now I am.

Abby Tallmer

queerblackfeminist said...

Thank you Abby, for your words and for your post. I read your note and appreciate being in this conversation with you. We'll see what unfolds. In solidarity.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post.

I am a Filipina, living in the greater Chicago area, and I'm contemplating in participating in Chicago's own SlutWalk. Before I was all up for it. I fortunately went away for college and had the opportunity to take a couple of classes on race and gender. After taking those classes, I was able to understand the social issues that I saw growing up but was unable to name or articulate because of the white, color-blind community I was raised in. I was even encouraging my friends, who also coming from sheltered upbringings are not politicized, to participate... but then I saw the criticism, and now I am hesitant.

At first, as I think about it more, my first reaction to SlutWalk was dubious because of the 'slut' in SlutWalk. When it comes to the whole reappropriation of words for empowerment, I've always been somewhat uncertain. Personally, I was uncomfortable with the 'cunt' monologue from the Vagina Monologues. I don't know how such a world can be 'reclaimed'. But to me, it makes sense that the co-founders Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis decided to use the word 'slut' in the naming of the walk since it all began with that police officer's statement.

What actually drew me to the movement, however, is that it is an easy way to participate and support a protest against blaming women for the violence to which we are subjected. It was an important cause I can stand behind. I believe that in addition to the compelling shared experience by many women of being slut-shamed, the easiness to participate is most likely one of the main reasons for its rise in popularity. In a pleasure-seeking, fast-paced, capitalistic, patriarchal society where many do not make it a livelihood to fight for a cause, people are looking for easy, quick experiences, solutions, etc. Therefore, I don't think it's exactly right to call SlutWalk movement 'white-supremacist', but more in the effect that it's attracting more of that demographic--people who are more privileged, who do not truly understand intersectionality, who are perhaps not exposed to ways of thinking that challenge the status quo. (I hope I'm not making too big of an assumption here.) Kind of like the bandwagon effect, such as the whole Kony 2012 fiasco. So many people passed along the video from good intentions from the bottom of their hearts, unknowingly making a collective hurtful and misguided action.

So, you're totally right. I don't think there's any intentions to trivialize rape. I think it's great that we have the ability to criticize and have these types of conversations on these topics on the Internet. We need these conversations. But what scares me about the criticism/critics is that the nature of some of it will deter the progress of what is intended (to make the greater public aware of slut-shaming and the victim-blaming of rape culture) and deter people with good intentions who wouldn't have otherwise been able to take action and/or given the chance to interact with others who also care about the issue. What scares is that we are using an isolated incident (yes, I know that there were others surrounding her that should have stood up and told her to take it down, not just the female black organizer), but this one incident still to represent a large group of other participants. What scares me is that women of color are isolating themselves from the SlutWalk organizers/participants because of differences in race/class/sexuality/etc.

Overall, I do want to demonstrate that I believe we should have a culture that says rape is wrong, instead of saying don't get raped. Even though I don't truly believe that 'slut' can be reclaimed, should I let that and the bad marks of SlutWalk stop me from participating with them? What are other ways that I can do this besides the SlutWalk?