Over at Parlour Magazine, I spotted this photo yesterday:
Lord. The original reference is from a song written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and performed mostly by John Lennon. At the time, Lennon and Ono justified their decision openly, using both the “my black friends said it was cool” defense as well as a more substantive critique based on ideas of “niggerization” – that nigger can be redefined to include anyone who is oppressed.
But can you appropriate a term like nigger 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.
The tension over the sign at SlutWalk NYC is the outgrowth of long term tensions in organizing. Aishah Shahidah Simmons writes:
I’ve been informed that one of the (Black) women SlutWalk NYC organizers asked the woman to take her placard down. She did. However, not before there were many photographs taken….
Now, my question is why did it take a Black woman organizer to ask her to take it down. What about ALL of the White women captured in this photograph. They didn’t find this sign offensive? Paraphrasing Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I A Woman (too!)?”
ERADICATING RACISM SHOULD NOT BE THE SOLE RESPONSIBILITY OF PEOPLE OF COLOR.
How can so many White feminists be absolutely clear about the responsibility of ALL MEN TO END heterosexual violence perpetrated against women; and yet turn a blind eye to THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO END racism.
Is Sisterhood Global? This picture says NO! very loudly and very clearly.
The fact that this quote originates from a woman of color ~ Yoko Ono, really underscores the work that we, women of color, must do with each other to educate each other about our respective herstories. This photograph also underscores the imperative need for hardcore inter-racial dialogues amongst all of us in these complicated movements to address gender-based violence in all of our non-monolithic communities.
More importantly, these types of actions chip away at solidarity – nothing kills an idea of coming together faster than the realization that even in a space which is allegedly about your concerns, you are still a marginalized other.
As Aura Blogando wrote back in May:
Regardless of the fact that a scarce amount of women of color got international airtime on the BBC for the first time since SlutWalk was conceived several months ago, its organizers never reached out to women of color as equals to begin with; instead of making sure our voices participated in its visioning, we have been painted into a colored corner inside their white room. SlutWalk’s next turn, I’m quite sure, will be our tokenization. I imagine that women of color will be coddled by white SlutWalk organizers, eager to save (white)face, into carrying their frontline banners and parroting their messages at a stage near you. I’m hoping my sisters won’t fall for it; I know that I, for one, will stay home. This is not liberation – if anything, Slutwalk is an effective exercise in white supremacy.
There is no indication that SlutWalk will even strip the word “slut” from its hateful meaning. The n-word, for example, is still used to dehumanize black folks, regardless of how many black folks use it among themselves. Just moments before BART officer James Mehserle shot Oscar Grant to death in Oakland in 2009, video footage captured officers calling Grant a “bitch ass nigger.” It didn’t matter how many people claimed the n-word as theirs – it still marked the last hateful words Grant heard before a white officer violently killed him. Words are powerful – the connection between speech and thought is a strong one, and cannot be marched away to automatically give words new meaning. If I can’t trust SlutWalk’s white leadership to even reach out to women of color, how am I to trust that “reclaiming” the word will somehow benefit women? [...]
If SlutWalk has proven anything, it is that liberal white women are perfectly comfortable parading their privilege, absorbing every speck of airtime celebrating their audacity, and ignoring women of color. Despite decades of work from women of color on the margins to assert an equitable space, SlutWalk has grown into an international movement that has effectively silenced the voices of women of color and re-centered the conversation to consist of a topic by, of, and for white women only. More than 30 years ago, Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “I write to record what others erase when I speak.” Unfortunately, SlutWalk’s leadership obliterated Anzaldúa’s voice, and the marvelous work she produced theorizing what it means to be a queer woman of color. They might do us all a favor now and stop erasing the rest of us for once.
I’ve heard quite a few stories about SlutWalk NYC, and its racial issues from women who were involved in some way or another. Sady Doyle, writing for In These Times, compellingly explains her feelings of exclusion from larger political conversations and the marginalization of issues that impact women. So I suppose that’s what makes it somewhat confusing when she ascribes this long arc of feminist history bending toward racism to the simple act of branding.
But let’s go back to the image illustrating the post above. Why this young white protestor thought this sign was a good idea, we may never know. But the idea that it’s fine to appropriate the term nigger without critical engagement of the word and what it represents to the women who are marching with you gives me pause. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps, after all these years of internal strife around racism and feminism, we should just look at this as par for the course? As Simmons asked above, what were all the other white women thinking? Did no one else wonder what that sign meant, in that context, positioned above that body?
Did anyone even care?
(Thanks to reader Samantha for the tip!)