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)