This Slut Walked”¦ But Now We Need To Talk

Trigger warning for racial slurs, photo of racial slur.

Merely a week ago, I wrote this piece on why I participated in Slutwalk NYC. I talked about the different ambivalence’s and concerns that weighed heavy, giving me pause as to whether or not my own presence could add necessary perspectives to ongoing feminist dialogues. My own struggles with the word “slut,” while not incredibly complicated, exist within the layers upon layers of problematic culture that affect say, a trans woman of color, much differently than they affect me. Nonetheless, I felt that coverage I had seen had been in one of two camps: those who wrote off Slutwalk as a nonsense type of event, all while salaciously highlighting the same photos of half-naked, pretty girls over and over, insinuating that they probably had it coming anyway, and the more valid criticisms on the erasure of many while benefiting a few.  My doubts got the best of me and so I did what any curious person would do ““ I began speaking with organizers, attended a meeting to see what organizers were talking about and on the day of Slutwalk, I documented the event by talking with participants and critics. Once the day was over, I walked away less skeptical, feeling positive about what I had witnessed and been part of.

And then came the sign.

It is offensively, mind-numbingly, racist, to say the absolute least, though there are many who still say that they really didn’t need to see it to believe it.  Call it a failure of leadership or perhaps a failure of personal responsibility, but depending on whom you talk to, the photo either encompasses all that’s wrong with Slutwalk and evidence of the continuing erasure of women of color from the feminist movement and from Slutwalk, or it encompasses the thoughtlessness of a privileged, racist individual (as well as those around her who did not consider the inappropriateness and hurtfulness of the sign) who thought appropriating a racial slur was okay because Lennon did, an action that is not condoned by the organization, which in itself includes many women of color. While there has now been an official apology released by the organization (individual organizers have also released letters), what ensued beforehand were arguments that involved the worst of white women’s tears, racism cloaked as feminism cloaked as exercising the 1st Amendment right, and whitesplaining the creative integrity of John Lennon all to use a racial slur. While the subsequent photo and thread on the Slutwalk NYC Facebook page has now been taken down, Racialicious captured the discussion here, in a display that only cements the very obvious: feminism has mad race issues.

“But can you appropriate a term like n*****r if your body is not defined/terrorized/policed/brutalized/diminished by the word? Can we use it in a context that is supposed to belie gender solidarity, without explicitly being in racial solidarity? I think not. And I am not alone.” -Latoya Peterson, Which Women Are What Now?

To make matters worse, Shira Tarrant recently did a piece called Ending The Slut Wars, which amounted to the many debates over the movement to nothing more than social justice cat fighting. The piece, which raises many excellent points about the insidious nature of rape culture, is also absurd in its demand that the left drop all its critiques under the guise of solidarity, evidenced by the recommendation that original critics of Slutwalk like Keli Goff , as well as other writers, should just “stop complaining” about Slutwalk and focus on something important, like the problem of rape:

“The point is there is strength in numbers. We need as many as possible involved in preventing rape and sexual assault. Critical self-reflection is important to any political movement. But, at some point that self-critique becomes unproductive — or worse, it divides a movement from within”¦In the spirit of loving critique, instead of writing about the shortcomings of SlutWalk, what if Keli Goff wrote an entire piece about the problem of rape? What if Wendy J. Murphy used her media reach to attack rape, not other feminists? Rather than reducing SlutWalk to an event that involves ‘stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts’ — then quickly dismissing this as ‘passing for keen retort’ — I’d like Rebecca Traister to consider the far deeper concerns about sexual assault that underscore these events. I’d like to request that Gail Dines stop perpetuating divisive misinformation about race and anti-rape protest.”

To which I say, how can you ask for solidarity, when you are not willing to give your own? The feminist movement or really, white feminists, cannot keep asking, demanding, telling black women to give their undying solidarity when no equal concessions are made. How are people to feel safe if they cannot even get the most basic protection from the fact that a young white woman – a feminist, considers herself absolved from using the “N” word and all its cultural history and tells black women to stop being so sensitive and just deal with it? How can people feel safe when actual racism is explained, denied, erased and condoned? How can entire lives who have experienced the sting of these acts over and over be told that their experience is not valid?

History is too heavy for that type of ignorance.

“We regret that the woman who was carrying this sign felt it was appropriate for our space. We regret that it took so long for someone to tell her how wrong it was; and that this woman was a Black woman, a woman of colour, as we know that anti-racism is not the sole work of people of colour. We sincerely apologize for the emotional trauma this sign has evoked in everyone who has been affected by it. We apologize for not making it clearer to everyone who attended on October 1st that racist, or indeed any oppressive language or behavior, is unacceptable. We apologize that this space was not safer for Black women, Black people, and their allies. SWNYC understands that the language of this sign erases Black women’s identities by creating a monochromatic identity for women and a monolithic identity for Black folks. We understand that no oppression is a metaphor for another. Our organizers represent a multiplicity of identities and voices, as did the participants and our speakers. The marginalized folks in our movement are also the leaders of our movement; we are grassroots, and we chose our speakers because they are leaders in grassroots movements.” ““ Slutwalk NYC

The group has a public meeting on October 13th  to discuss ways of making the group more inclusive, as well as addressing concerns and criticisms. While this is a step in the right direction to making an organization that is stronger, one has to wonder, who will feel like this is a space they can come to? Who will feel like feminism is a space for all?  What will be done to move forward? Can you have a successful movement that considers throwing race aside in the name of “the larger problem”? Who feels Slutwalk can be theirs? Who wants Slutwalk to be theirs?

I do still stand by what I saw with Slutwalk organizers: a diverse collective of hard-working people whose experiences were part of a devotion to making sure that this event was an inclusive measure against rape culture. There is no doubt to that. But all the intentions and preparation in the world became proof that it wasn’t enough. What happened here is a failure on many levels. It is a failure of leadership; it is a failure on individual responsibility. It is a failure of white woman to take to task other white women who cloak racist behavior under the banner of feminism, it is a failure to keep its ones own self in check when told that behavior is problematic. It is a failure to black women, it is a failure to listen effectively, it is a failure to recognize racism internally, it is a failure to act swiftly and responsibly when racism happens, it is a failure to understand the necessity of the many different privileges that need to be unpacked again and again and again. However, this does not mean that these failures will forever define the organization if there is action taken, but that these failures indicate that there is a lot work to be done. It is only unfortunate it is coming on the backs of women who deserve the same solidarity when talking about violence enacted towards them, whether that violence is enacted through language, erasure or racist apologists.

[W]e’re not really equal when we’re STILL supposed to uncritically and obediently cheer when white women are praised for winning “women’s rights,” and to painfully forget the Indigenous women and women of colour who were hurt in that same process. We are not equal when in the name of “feminism” so-called “women’s only” spaces are created and get to police and regulate who is and isn’t a woman based ontheir interpretation of your body parts and gender presentation, and not your own. We are not equal when initiatives to support gender equality have reverted yet again to “saving” people and making decisions for them, rather than supporting their right to self-determination, whether it’s engaging in sex work or wearing a niqab. So when feminism itself has become it’s own form of oppression, what do we have to say about it? [“¦]” Jessica Yee

While I still think that this organization can be a beneficial one, it needs to do some serious heavy lifting. The amount of work that needs to be done not only in a larger social context, but as well as internally, is overwhelming in its urgency and the absolutely necessary for accessibility. There will be many who will never feel welcome in that space and there will be many who will fundamentally disagree with the idea that you can fix the damage already done. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that the voices who speak out on their feelings of erasure and marginalization are the people who are the key to building stronger, better social justice movements. It is unfortunate that these conversations are only coming after these events and that women of color are initiating these types of discussions. Because while I stand with organizations and causes that are about fighting against things that are so deeply embedded in our culture, like calling a woman who was sexually assaulted by a powerful rapist with a history a “hooker,” I am not okay with blanketing over the ugly parts of feminism that often get brushed aside in the name of solidarity for women.  I, as a white woman, cannot exercise that type of ignorance and call it solidarity.

Back in August, Philadelphia had its own Slutwalk and activist and soon-to-be author Stephanie Gilmore gave the speech, “Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?; or, What’s Troubling Me about the Absence of Reflexivity in Movements that Proclaim Solidarity.”  The speech best reflected the question that I had come so intimately bound to ““ is this beneficial, for all?  Much like Gilmore, I am left with fewer answers and more concerns.

“So no, I am not Troy Davis. I am not a slut. I am not an occupier of Wall Street or any street. The fights are my fights, but the current methods and analyses are not mine. I cannot sit by and listen to people debate the efficacy of the death penalty without understanding that it is the larger complex of incarceration and the ‘elementary-to-penitentiary’ path that tracks and traps Black and Latino youth by design. I am done with the hand-wringing and ‘white lady tears’ of so many white women who keep defending racist approaches and actions and, at times, respond with violence when confronted and challenged. Such behavior only reinforces the fact that these movement spaces as they are currently defined are not safe.”

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9 thoughts on “This Slut Walked”¦ But Now We Need To Talk”

  1. I think everyone around the lady with the poster who didn’t say anything is also at fault. This goes back to the Eli Weisel quote used in the Marilyn Monroe post about calling people out on their actions and words. Hard to see this as anything but straight up racist.

    1. Agreed – that’s been one of the main criticisms made ( see racialcious, afrolez, crunk feminist collective) . I think I did not make it clear in the piece, but this woman marched around for a good bulk of the march with the sign and it was only when an organizer, a woc, told her to take it down – not many of the ww near her or who marched with her.

  2. My mother was a Women’s Studies major in college and I have four sisters. I would say I was raised in a feminist environment. But alas, I am a man. I am also a white guy well aware of the privilege that conveys – no matter how ugly, fat or stupid I am. Yet I did take the time to read quite a few books from Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to Alice Walker’s You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down to Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse. In fact, as my mother went through her degree I took it upon myself to read almost every book she had for course work.

    But the fact is, I saw the Slutwalk (I actually happened to be down there at Union Square because I was helping promote the Occupy Wall Street Journal) and I thought to myself “these people are out of their minds.” Now, I understand there are a lot of issues the event is supposed to be about. But I know that people who are right wing probably view this as just another example of unorganized neo-hippies torn between wanting total equality with others, men especially, I guess, and LGBTQ, etc. but also wanting to be able to walk around naked in public and be taken seriously.

    And then there is that sign. It’s funny because I bought that John Lennon/Yoko Ono 45 rpm record a few years ago thinking that it had to be a great song with such a risky title. So I listened to it and thought that even John Lennon probably had a few bad ideas that looked good on paper but then were horrible when they became manifested as a mass market object. As a personal artwork maybe it could have a little niche in his oeuvre but as a full-blown single it might just be the least good of all his work. Yet there was some white lady holding a big sign with the word N****R written in giant letters. Well, I guess if John Lennon and Yoko Ono could do it, why not her?

    So the reason I am writing, why I am bothering to write is this – I am glad Coco is taking the time to reflect on whether or not it’s really cool to call herself a slut. It’s also good to see someone saying that even if you are a feminist you can’t go around like an idiot holding giant racist signs and be so stupid to think everyone around you will think it’s cool too. The real problem is that it is so counterproductive to almost completely wipe away any sort of positive message at all. I mean, why have women protest being objectified if they are going to go in public and walk around naked? Are they daring people to stare at them or something? Why? And why act like it’s cool and hip to use the word N****R on the sign? Is that supposed to be be cute? Is it supposed to be funny?

    My conclusion was that this was an example of the old left that has failed us. It is a look at the polluted progressive movement where every crybaby gets pampered by everyone else no matter what they want to say, no matter how immature it is. Or how needy it is. Interestingly, it’s also the very same kind of thing that has led to a fracturing of the left wing movement in this country and ushered in the era of Republican neo-authoritarianism. Right wingers see stunts like this and just laugh until they cry. Then they go to the polls and vote. They don’t vote for liberals because they see stuff like this and don’t take any of it seriously.

    So the lesson is that in politics, if they don’t take you seriously, you don’t get any power. You don’t get elected. Laws are not passed in your favor. You don’t exist. In the end the Slutwalk looked like a first attempt at a protest by high school students trying to figure it all out. But sadly, it wasn’t.

    The first step to being taken seriously though is to start asking questions. What went right, what went wrong, how can it be done better next time? I commend Coco for taking the time to reflect on the merits and the issues of SL. We have to remember that many elections are won by 1% or 2% of the vote. So if the left continues to insist on flying their freak flag at every opportunity no matter what then we are all going to lose in every election. If we on the left don’t start taking ourselves seriously how can we expect others to?

    1. I agree with many of your points, though I have to point this out :

      So the reason I am writing, why I am bothering to write is this – I am glad Coco is taking the time to reflect on whether or not it’s really cool to call herself a slut….I mean, why have women protest being objectified if they are going to go in public and walk around naked? Are they daring people to stare at them or something? Why? And why act like it’s cool and hip to use the word N****R on the sign? Is that supposed to be be cute? Is it supposed to be funny?

      The protest was about ending rape culture and victim blaming, not being pissed at being objectified. To an extent, that plays very much into rape culture, but its INCREDIBLY counterproductive and smacks of the insidious nature of rape culture to say that if women are walking around naked, they cant be pissed they are being objectified. To also assume that they are “out of their minds” serves to discredit by way of being “crazy”,  a word that bears much weight, but doesn’t actually offer substantial evidence of why its questionable. Both are part of very same logic that leads to the , oh well, she was asking for it, did you see what she was wearing? Oh well, she was drunk, she probably would have said yes anyway. And so on and so on.

      The first step to being taken seriously though is to start asking questions. What went right, what went wrong, how can it be done better next time?

      Yes – I do not think that this movement or organization, whatever you are comfortable calling it is not something that automatically loses all validity because of this event. It is disappointing, it is infuriating, it is mind boggling that in 2011, some white people still do not understand that the word N***** is just not okay to say but I do think that it can move forward in more inclusive ways with the right actions taken. I have to say, as someone who spoke with organizers, attended a meeting and saw them working, this wasn’t an organization that is comparable to high school students trying to figure it all out.  I personally don’t think that critiques like that are helpful – I saw organizers working and most of the Slutwalk organizers were on top of their shit. But as I said in the piece, just because you have the best intentions and plans in the world, doesn’t mean its always enough.

      Also, the critique of not being serious enough is similar to the one lodged at OWS. Article after article looks to discredit the OWS movement by highlighting “dirty hippies” and “entitled youth”, as opposed to offering valid critiques like, what does it mean when your movement uses a colonialist term like “occupy” , much like whether the term “slut” can be reclaimed by say, a trans woman of color who does sex work. These critiques are important – not whether or not slutwalk participants were dressed like “floozies” or OWS participants are “dirty hippies”

      1. I will not walk into the trap of defending my critique of a hard to understand protest by validating accusations like this:

        “but its INCREDIBLY counterproductive and smacks of the insidious nature of rape culture to say that if women are walking around naked, they cant be pissed they are being objectified. To also assume that they are “out of their minds” serves to discredit by way of being “crazy.”

        Of course you can be mad because people are staring at you. Of course you can feel vulnerable because there are so many creepy people out there ready to say creepy things at any given moment. But if the response to all of that is to strip naked and dare people to stare at you in the middle of one of the most busy squares in North America,  I’d wonder what that is really all about.

        The simple fact is that walking around naked might just be misunderstood by people who don’t even fully know what the Slutwalk is supposed to even be. Not to mention all of the children that might be around that day wandering around with their parents. And sure you can say my criticism “smacks of the insidious nature of rape culture” but by saying that there is no room for me to give feedback. I am attempting to engage in a dialog about this stuff but if I am suddenly pushed into the corner as a promoter of rape culture I regret even speaking up.

        And my honest reaction about the shock of seeing such signs and nudity and the spectacle of it at Union Square all at once was not an insult. I was just expressing my visceral reaction to it as a bystander. Yet you took what I said and took it all the way to me promoting the view that rape victims were asking for it. Seriously? Is that what I really said? I am pretty sure i did not say that. I also explained all of my views in detail, taking great care to clarify my views. I did not say women are crazy. I said left wing protests that are easy to criticize by the right are counterproductive. Yet you seem to attack at even the smallest hint of criticism.

        To also assume that they are “out of their minds” serves to discredit by way of being “crazy”,  a word that bears much weight, but doesn’t actually offer substantial evidence of why its questionable. Both are part of very same logic that leads to the , oh well, she was asking for it, did you see what she was wearing? Oh well, she was drunk, she probably would have said yes anyway. And so on and so on.

        Your conclusion then is that despite what I actually wrote I and what I actually said, I am nonetheless condoning rape and promoting rape culture. Thanks. I will be careful not to put time into crafting a response to articles here any more.

        1. And sure you can say my criticism “smacks of the insidious nature of rape culture” but by saying that there is no room for me to give feedback. I am attempting to engage in a dialog about this stuff but if I am suddenly pushed into the corner as a promoter of rape culture I regret even speaking up.

          Remember the Jay Smooth video of telling someone they are possibly being racist versus are racist? This is similar vein of logic, sans discussion of racism- I never said,  that you specifically condoned rape culture, only that statements like “I mean, why have women protest being objectified if they are going to go in public and walk around naked?” do . I merely countered with what I believe to be argument that that type of comment plays into unexamined rape culture. Perhaps I was too rash in my last comment in jumping from assumption to another and for that I apologize for not being clearer with such a loaded statement, so I hope you can understand that I made a mistake in not being clearer with my counter.
          As for feedback, why not just ask?  Why do I think a statement like that is problematic? Well for many reasons.

          My reasoning is that I think when statements like ” why have women protest being objectified if you are going around naked” are problematic – it ignores that there are not larger forces at play that insist on sexualizing bodies, specifically female ones. I don’t think its fair that anyone should have to deal with that.  It does play into the larger idea of if a woman is dressed say scantily, then she is going to have people gawk at her, perhaps even feel they can do things to her. Normally it becomes the women’s problem as opposed to those who then feel that because a woman is circumventing normal social codes of dress, she is somehow public property. For example – several participants reported that men took up-skirt photos of them while they were watching speakers. Not only is that harassment and incredibly invasive, but it serves the idea that if you are dressed a certain way, you cant be pissed if you are objectified, the logic again being, oh well, if they are dressed that way, I’m sure they are cool with me violating their privacy and taking photos unconsented photos of their nether regions. That is why I think that statement is so problematic.

          I also am equally trying to have a dialogue with you. I stated that I agree with many of your points, I think you present hella important points . However, I disagree with some of those points as well.  You took to task things like the march being similar to high schoolers putting it on or that protestors were out of their minds. I disagreed. While I understand that you were more taken aback by the sheer visceral impact of the crowd, I think the phrase “out of their minds” is just a heavy phrase similar to “crazy” and has been historically used to discredit movements within feminist circles.  So I am very willing to say that I may have read too much into it, but I am also saying that I have reasons and experiences to back up that opinion.

          To which I finally same, were on the same team, we just have different approaches. This may be viewed as divisive, but its really necessary to have these types of conversations to move forward on equal playing ground.

  3. This is my issue with third-wave feminism: this “choose your choice” shit would have us rate all choices as equally valid and subsequently shut down a nuanced conversation that needs to happen.  These women are dressing up in “slut” costumes for a laugh, not challenging and reclaiming a problematic concept.

    1. I agree with you to an extent – i do not think that are choices are equally valid, especially if you are proclaiming things that are inherently harmful, much like the woman with the sign. As far as dressing up as “sluts”, many of the people at slutwalk were dressed up “costumey” ( which i frankly dont care about) but a lot of people were also dressed like they would any other day, yet those arent the photos that get highlighted. As far as reclaiming goes, i think its up to each individual to decide whether or not “slut” is something they want or even can reclaim and act on it thus forth. I think the bigger concern in my mind is who can claim slut as their own? The way your dressed is such a frivolous point.

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