It’s Not Just About The Word

355 Woman is the Nigger of the World

The Slutwalk controversy keeps rolling. As a moderator, it’s always a bit disheartening when you get the same level of denials and racist comments due to high activity from feminists that you do when you are linked to from a racist hate site. It’s not quite as bad as when we linked to the picture of Giselle being carried around by black men, but it’s close.

In my first piece on the controversy, I made this statement:

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?

In my second piece, I made this statement:

Arguing that black people don’t have a monopoly on the term nigger is just fucking disgusting. You want it that bad? Really?

Which one do you think more people responded to? Apparently, it’s easier to be mad that some people aren’t entitled to some words, than to engage with a heavy discussion of the requirements of solidarity.

So, for people who are still confused, let’s do a breakdown.

Reclaiming Words (Slurs) That Aren’t Yours

As a commenter pointed out, the tension between words used is a hallmark of Slutwalk itself – the reclamation of a formerly damaging term by the women who hear it. People marched for other reasons, not just word politics, but a key part of the framework was proud pronouncements of self.

The trouble is, all women have not been denigrated using the term slut, as Black Women’s Blueprint and the Crunk Feminist Collective have pointed out. Depending on your experience as a woman, you may have heard slut in regards to your sexuality – or you may have heard other things. This probably cuts to my ambivalence about Slutwalk from the beginning. It was never a word placed on my person. And, upon further reflection, slut did seem like the domain of white women – if it wasn’t Kathleen Hanna walking around with slut on her stomach in the Riot Grrl days or countless white women writing about the need to shed their virginity (read: innocence) by claiming a slutty identity, it was used as a pejorative specifically used to describe white girls people knew. This doesn’t mean that no woman of color has ever been called a slut, or had that term used to police their identity, or that a woman of color wouldn’t identity with the term – it just means that the aims of the march didn’t resonate with me on a “hey, I have to be a part of this” level.

But more to the point, the sign in question was about claiming identities. Slut isn’t an identity I would claim – I have no personal experience with it. But the application of the idea that woman is the nigger of the world to people who nigger has never applied is puzzling, to say the least. First, it would assume that all women are in the same boat. And as the statistics show when you start breaking down issues of wealth, representation, health, maternal wellness, and just about any other measure, that would be a lie. It’s also trying to pull the experiences and pain of a term on to one’s body without ever shouldering the burden that goes with that term. To me, that’s as asinine as me trying to adopt an anti-Asian slur or an anti-gay slur. Those kind of words would never be leveled at me. I never have to labor underneath their weight. I am not a part of intra-community discussions around those terms. No one has ever tried to make me fear them with those words. I don’t face that set of issues. I don’t carry those burdens. Therefore, it makes no sense to keep ham-fistedly applying terms that don’t fit.

For a woman to reclaim slut, it would imply that they are not apologizing for living up to the idea of the slur. It would imply that people will not apologize for their bodies, clothing, or actions even if some read those things as slutty. It would call into question the validity of the slur in the first place, if the enhanced focus on “sluts” allowed those who rape/sexually assault others to walk because they can not, and will never be, deemed sluts under our current system.

So, for people who have bodies policed by the term slut, or see enough kinship in their own struggle with this one, it would make sense to reclaim the term, to strip it of shame, to wear it with power and pride. (Word to Kenyon Farrow.)

For those outside the racial binary, they have a more complicated reality with racially charged terms. Nigger may be placed on their bodies, but in a way that is modified or different. One of my friends who is Desi remembers being held down and called a nigger by the girls at her all-white primary school. She remembered being confused – after all, she was brown, but not black. But no one said racism was logical. People from the Middle East/Central Asian region have a variety of epithets, but sand nigger is also in the mix. What is the relationship with the term nigger in these groups? An interesting dialogue rolls in the rap world, particularly about non-black emcees using the term, even in a hip-hop space which uses the term freely. But, as most people who have been the subject of a slur know, the politics are complicated. And that complication, once lived, probably speaks to why the vast majority of the pushback has been from white people.

Most white women have no relationship with the term nigger. It is not a term used on white bodies. Speaking historically (because words change and migrate over time) the term has ever been applied to white women, except in one clear way. Anna Holmes, in her post Jezebel life, has sent me reams of info on women in the civil rights movement. One of the women she fixated on what a young white woman who was murdered for her participation. The term they applied to her was not nigger. It was nigger lover. The idea that white women would willingly associate themselves with Black people was an offense where these women could not be allowed to live. Complicating this is the relationship that white women (and white people, more broadly) have instituting the term as a mark of difference. We could start with debates about suffrage, with some white women being aghast that black men were given the right to vote before white women, or we could go back even further to how white people used the term nigger to keep black people aware of their place in society. So, already, we are speaking about very different relationships with a term.

This is why we hear the same simplistic arguments. One comment we received was something along the lines of “Come off it, it’s nothing worse than what you would hear in the average rap song.” This amused me to no end. So, we’re using rap as a justification now? First of all, if “rappers do it” is enough of a defense, then should we be marching to reclaim “hootchie mama,” “hoodrat,” and “big booty ho?”

Secondly, it’s kind of hilarious when people just point at rap when nigga/nigger isn’t the most used term by a fucking longshot. The Hip Hop Word Count project is still under construction, but here’s one small study indicating that profanity (fuck and shit, respectively) are the most used terms. Nigga is up there, but it really depends on the artist you listen to.

Third, I’m always amazed how people can point to rap, but not black community internal debates about the term. Why don’t people ever bring up the nearly endless internal debates about using the term. Taalam Acey’s take even made Janks Morton’s What Black Men Think documentary.

Solidarity would require some familiarity with what goes on in different communities – but as we can see, this isn’t about solidarity.

Artists Are Still Part of Society

Another argument I hear often is that one can’t critique art with all this silly political correctness. Again, this is illogical – if artists often comment on racism, classism, and other oppressive structures in society, why wouldn’t artists also be potentially influenced by these same structures? We can talk about Vanessa Beecroft or talk about high art’s fascination with servile women of color and what it means, but race, class, and society always play a role. You don’t excuse this for art’s sake without understanding what is being excused. Ono and Lennon took a very calculated risk in doing what they did, but that brings me to my next point.

What Matters is Solidarity

Which is where the issue comes again. Now, John Lennon and Yoko Ono would not be subjects of anti-black racism. They are not the authorities on how terms used to police black bodies should be used. However, the first time I was tipped to this song, way back in 2008, the conversation we had then was much more exploratory. The comments were lost in the Disqus transition, but my tone was a bit different. Why? Because we were looking at the context of the song and when it was written. See, the thing I haven’t had a chance to really parse out was where John and Yoko felt they were in society. John Lennon spent seven minutes explaining a two minute song. (Which I believe is far longer than Nas spent trying to explain his meaning.) He did this for a reason.

Because he wanted people to understand he was in solidarity with this struggle. That’s why he and Yoko approached different black organizations before the song came out, and held a press conference where they specifically invited black media. (Why he and Yoko didn’t ask black feminists how they felt is a bit beyond me.) They wanted to make sure their intent was heard. But more important than intent was action. What else were Yoko and John doing?

Standing in solidarity with struggles of people around the world.

This is why I asked “Can we use it in a context that is supposed to belie gender solidarity, without explicitly being in racial solidarity?”

If we look at the other tracks on the album, there’s a tribute to Angela Davis, a reflection on the Attica Prison riots, songs about the situation in Northern Ireland, as well as work on education, feminism, and unity. So, while we can debate if “woman is the nigger of the world” is a true phrasing, or reflective of current situations in feminism, Yoko and John truly and sincerely believed they were speaking from a place of radical solidarity. And they were both very concerned that their meaning came through clearly, that they did not offend those who they wanted to stand with.

Contrast that with what happened on the Slutwalk NYC Facebook wall.

John and Yoko created the song while standing in solidarity with oppressed people. Our reviews on it are mixed (due to those existing tensions between intent and effect) but looking at the whole context of what Ono and Lennon were doing, it makes sense.

What we saw post-Slutwalk was people appropriating a term because it sounded good, dismissing the current struggles of other oppressed people in favor of privileging their own, and defaulting to racist norms when they received pushback from the people they were supposed to be organizing with. See the difference?

Artists Are Still Part of Society, Redux

So, back to the art section of this debate. Holding people accountable for the art they create is difficult, because art lies in the interpretation. What people take from the work could be completely different from the artist intended, so art is almost always an act of conversation. One of my favorite works is Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, all it’s fabulous sampling and complexity, with my fave track currently being “Tr(n)igger”:

I’ve heard the idea that we should treat all forms of the term nigger indiscriminately. If we don’t want rappers just to throw it around, and we don’t want people like Johnathan Rys Meyers, Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton, Michael Richards, John Mayer, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Dr. Laura, and Charlie Sheen to spew racist crap, then we should just end the term entirely. After all, didn’t the NAACP symbolically bury it in 2007?

But at the same time, artists need the space to play with the boundaries and taboos of society. But this ability to play isn’t freedom from critique or criticism. It doesn’t mean an artist is always effective at conveying their message, or that the message was that great to begin with. It’s kind of like asking how do people interpret Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. It can be seen as blasphemy or an exploration of the relationship between the sacred and the profane, but it normally sparks a very strong reaction. However, the difference here is that “Woman is the Nigger of the World” wasn’t intended just to be art – it was supposed to be a rallying cry, and a call for solidarity with the plight of women.

It’s fine if an art piece alienates huge chunks of its audience – part of art lies in provocation. But does that premise still hold with an anthem about solidarity?

So, once again – do we all carry this burden equally? The idea of doing away with the word, or disempowering it, is interesting but unlikely. After all, it only took one senator to bring some obscure racial reference out of history and into the recent present. And the idea of no one using the word starts to undermine and camouflage our messy history. Is Huckleberry Finn still the same story by stripping it of racist terms?

The trouble isn’t within just the word – it stretches back through history and roots itself firmly in our racially divided present. Many black women had a swift and immediate reaction upon seeing the word, but nigger is just a trigger for everything that lies beneath once you scratch the surface.

(Image Credit: Y The Last Man, via Mechanistic Moth)

  • Aria

    I loved this article; it really sums up my own thoughts about the “Woman is the nigger of the world” controversy.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Awesome take down Latoya on the Slutwalk mess. I also never understood what the allure was for some white people to want to say that word. And it’s frustrating that once again the default connotation behind the term “woman” is “white woman” not “all women” as commonly thought of being in this society.

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  • http://twitter.com/radicalhw Shannon Drury

    Brilliant as always.  Also brilliant is using the image of Agent 355, as great a comic book character as was ever created.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Reading much in regards to this event has been so exhausting and aggravating. I especially appreciate that you addressed artists as still being members of society. I find similar things – people denying their responsibility to be socially and historically aware/respectful – in radical punk circles, or, hell, this just reeks of one of the standard leftist defenses when attacked: “But we’re doing this for a greater cause, so why are you trying to undermine us?” I had a frustrating conversation with a punk belonging to an intentional “primitive community,” trying to explain why the term “primitive” is inherently problematic and why I think it’s an inappropriate word to use. But that doesn’t compare to the even more intensely frustrating conversations so many of us have been having trying to explain why N—– is inherently problematic and inappropriate to use. Latoya, I’m impressed by your patience in all of this!

  • Guest

    Thank you Latoya for your excellent analysis throughout this mess. 

    The racism and arrogance demonstrated by SW, over the last couple of weeks in particular, is deeply depressing.  The constant calls to shut up and “unify”–on every Facebook thread, by Slutwalk NYC re-tweeting Shira Tarrant’s blog post, by that bizarre Slutwalk USA person–are ironic silencing power plays coming from an anti-violence organization.  As a sex abuse survivor, this bullying freaks me the hell out (as does the whole idea of reclaiming the word “slut”, but that’s another topic).

    It baffles me that any white woman feels she can lay claim to racial slur.  I don’t see merit in any of the arguments in defense of the sign or of SW’s dismissive response to criticism.

    This situation has been depressing to me for another reason.  It has made me–a white cis straight woman–re-evaluate some prejudice in my expectations for feminist leadership.  I thought that after so many WOC thoughtfully criticised SW, SW would quickly  see the light and react appropriately.  I was genuinely surprised that SW supporters kept defending the sign and that SW continued to shirk responsibility for creating the atmosphere that produced the sign.  I think I need to look really critically at why I was so surprised at that, because I appreciate that many WOC were not surprised by that response.  The assumption of white feminists that “everyone is doing her best!” is part of the problem.

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  • Anonymous

    Hi, I discovered your site when The Slacktiverse posted links from posts here about OWS and SlutWalk. I’m deeply embarrassed by the actions of people who share my race this week. So much so that I wrote a post about the n-word, and why I would never use it. http://fiadhiglas.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/reclamation/

  • Anonymous

    On another note, while I know that your comment was well intentioned, I think anti-queer and trans-misogynistic terms are a bit more complex in terms of who they can be, and are, hurled at. With the exception of those of us who are non-monosexual (as our placement outside of the binaries of human sexuality makes it so that, while specific biphobic stereotypes do exist, there are no actual “slurs” specific to non-monosexuals), anti-queer slurs can, and often are, hurled against people who are not queer. Like men (and sometimes women) calling each other “pussies” and “bitches” in an attempt to “break” others, terms like “faggot”, “dyke”, and perhaps to a lesser extent today, “queer” are used for the purpose. Upon reading that line in your piece, Wendy Williams, and the tendency for her to be the subject of trans-misogynistic frenzies online, was the first thing to pop up in my head.

    Fair point. You are absolutely correct. My thoughts in this stance were more along the lines of laying down these terms – being able to walk away and not have them follow you. But you are absolutely correct at terms being used to police behavior even if you do not identify with a queer identity. (And, in the course of this, I even learned that the reclaimation of queer is considered problematic – it was something I had accepted at face value, but had not known the history.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    great post.

    I gotta say, I honestly don’t understand where the confusion lies. White people should just not use this word.  EVER.  Its got waaaaay too much history, most of it insanely negative. Personally, I ain’t touchin’ it with a ten foot pole.

    What black folks wanna do with it, that’s a whole nother discussion. 

    I thought that was a given, the only word you can reclaim is one used against you. I mean, there are other words out there. White folks whining about not being able to use this word is like straight men whining about being unwelcome in lesbian bars. Which is to say; the exalted heights of utter and total douchebaggery.

    Slutwalk has an inclusion problem, and that needs to be dealt with. The group as a whole needs to consider the inherent racism that allowed such an offensive message to pass muster. I don’t care who said it or why, it’s not cool.

  • Alex

    As a sexual assault survivor and a Black woman who has experienced being assaulted with the word and violence, this speaks to who I’d trust to be my ally. And I don’t trust easily. It is sad that I would have to be distrustful of some White women because of incidents like this. Some people want to end sexism but not racism and white privilege.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laina-Dawes/100000171351317 Laina Dawes

    Latoya, this was most awesome. Thank you. Especially this:

    “But at the same time, artists need the space to play with the boundaries and taboos of society. But this ability to play isn’t freedom from critique or criticism. It doesn’t mean an artist is always effective at conveying their message, or that the message was that great to begin with. It’s kind of like asking how do people interpret Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. It can be seen as blasphemy or an exploration of the relationship between the sacred and the profane, but it normally sparks a very strong reaction. However, the difference here is that “Woman is the Nigger of the World” wasn’t intended just to be art – it was supposed to be a rallying cry, and a call for solidarity with the plight of women.It’s fine if an art piece alienates huge chunks of its audience – part of art lies in provocation. But does that premise still hold with an anthem about solidarity?”I wrote something for Blogher on Slutwalk and I have been a bit disturbed that out of abut 1500 words, the limited response has been “no one should use this word.” Let’s spread the blame around so we do not have to think about this on a critical level. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laina-Dawes/100000171351317 Laina Dawes

    Latoya, this was most awesome. Thank you. Especially this:

    “But at the same time, artists need the space to play with the boundaries and taboos of society. But this ability to play isn’t freedom from critique or criticism. It doesn’t mean an artist is always effective at conveying their message, or that the message was that great to begin with. It’s kind of like asking how do people interpret Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. It can be seen as blasphemy or an exploration of the relationship between the sacred and the profane, but it normally sparks a very strong reaction. However, the difference here is that “Woman is the Nigger of the World” wasn’t intended just to be art – it was supposed to be a rallying cry, and a call for solidarity with the plight of women.It’s fine if an art piece alienates huge chunks of its audience – part of art lies in provocation. But does that premise still hold with an anthem about solidarity?”I wrote something for Blogher on Slutwalk and I have been a bit disturbed that out of abut 1500 words, the limited response has been “no one should use this word.” Let’s spread the blame around so we do not have to think about this on a critical level. 

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, that was getting to me as well. It’s just a reflexive reaction. I find it telling that people I directly challenge (“why is it so important to you that you use the term nigger, even as people you are supposedly allied with are having negative reactions?”) have no real answers besides “because it’s true” or “I’m not racist.” They can’t even articulate WHY this exact terminology is so important and vital.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, that was getting to me as well. It’s just a reflexive reaction. I find it telling that people I directly challenge (“why is it so important to you that you use the term nigger, even as people you are supposedly allied with are having negative reactions?”) have no real answers besides “because it’s true” or “I’m not racist.” They can’t even articulate WHY this exact terminology is so important and vital.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Latoya, for your own posts and for the great guest posts on this subject too. I am profoundly disappointed, but not even really that surprised at the response from the SlutWalkers. It’s so good that Racialicious has been covering this issue in such detail, but at the same time, it makes me want to scream out that you should not have to do such extremely basic work, somehow. 

    • Anonymous

      Thank you. Yes, we generally don’t go so hard or long on these things, but if we ever get around to building the FAQ, all of this will be useful.

      Personally, I want to get back to the piece I was writing on business interests and global revolutions…but this is important too.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you. Yes, we generally don’t go so hard or long on these things, but if we ever get around to building the FAQ, all of this will be useful.

      Personally, I want to get back to the piece I was writing on business interests and global revolutions…but this is important too.

  • Medusa

    Wow, Latoya. What a really well-researched and written piece.

    I must say, I don’t give a damn what Yoko and John’s intent was with the song. I don’t give a damn that they wrote it that it was to show solidarity with “the struggle.” Like you’ve stated (I think numerous times by now), they didn’t ask any *black women* what they thought of their usage of the word to get their point across about the oppression of women, and they should’ve been the first person asked.

    I also don’t get the “but ___________ said it!” argument. The same shit that Don Imus said as a defense for his racist and sexist comments against the Rutgers basketball team, the same shit that my “white” friends say in defense of their saying racial, homophobic, or transphobic slurs or statements, the same shit that these SlutWalk participants are saying…. Why are you using someone else’s words to justify yours? I don’t give a damn what *somebody else* said, by using a word that has caused pain and harm to a specific group of people of which you are not a part, you are perpetuating the pain and harm to that specific group of people of which you are not a part.

  • Medusa

    Wow, Latoya. What a really well-researched and written piece.

    I must say, I don’t give a damn what Yoko and John’s intent was with the song. I don’t give a damn that they wrote it that it was to show solidarity with “the struggle.” Like you’ve stated (I think numerous times by now), they didn’t ask any *black women* what they thought of their usage of the word to get their point across about the oppression of women, and they should’ve been the first person asked.

    I also don’t get the “but ___________ said it!” argument. The same shit that Don Imus said as a defense for his racist and sexist comments against the Rutgers basketball team, the same shit that my “white” friends say in defense of their saying racial, homophobic, or transphobic slurs or statements, the same shit that these SlutWalk participants are saying…. Why are you using someone else’s words to justify yours? I don’t give a damn what *somebody else* said, by using a word that has caused pain and harm to a specific group of people of which you are not a part, you are perpetuating the pain and harm to that specific group of people of which you are not a part.

    • James Davis

      Reason and information should be sufficient to determining if something is okay or not. I have strong objections to the idea that it would require one to have people from every group on hand at all times to ask them what they think. (Notwithstanding the obvious advantage of more perspectives!) This also seems to encourage the “I’ve got an X that says Y is okay, so leave me alone!” line of derailment.

      • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

        Reason and information should be sufficient to determining if something is okay or not.

        Dear God!, not this again.

        If you’re going to appropriate a term (never okay), it might behoove you to ask the opinions of people who have been attacked using that terms since time immemorial. Reason is sometimes a guise for doing what one wants irrespective of the feelings of others and how they feel.

      • Anonymous

        When reason and information are insufficient or not available ( particularly information ) at the time of an act, sensible notions of reason would dictate that information received later be integrated and inform future acts. Crybaby refusals to accept the information that black women in great numbers were offended by this stupid sign and all the freight it carries are not accepting of new information nor reasonable.
        You have created a red herring here in the assumption that this flap could only  have been averted before the sign carrying thingy  happened. Human beings do all kinds of stupid things even when they think they have thought things through.
         The greater flap is about the refusal to listen and learn by far too many after the fact . What might have been another in a too long list of teaching moments amongst women who have points of intersection in feminist concerns but vastly different experiences of how things shake out in real life turned into a whole lot of white women clapping their hands over their ears and chanting the la-la-la routine.
        This place here, after the fact, is the place where information is being provided which , if people pay attention, could head off more of this kind of  stupid harmful behavior.
        It would be good to have not had this happen, it would be just about as good to have people learn what was wrong with it happening.

  • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

    Thank you for writing this. As a black man, the whole Slutwalk NYC Nigger sign and the subsequent firestorm has been intensely exhausting and infuriating at the same time. It’s one thing to be called Nigger on the street (this happened to me within the last few years), it’s another to get this crap from people who purport to be allies. Reading that Facebook page, my jaw just hit the floor.

  • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

    Thank you for writing this. As a black man, the whole Slutwalk NYC Nigger sign and the subsequent firestorm has been intensely exhausting and infuriating at the same time. It’s one thing to be called Nigger on the street (this happened to me within the last few years), it’s another to get this crap from people who purport to be allies. Reading that Facebook page, my jaw just hit the floor.

  • Ashley

    Another excellent post.

  • Ashley

    Another excellent post.