This offensive photo from last weekend’s SlutWalk in New York City has been blowing up on Facebook, Twitter and in the blogesphere. The woman at the center of the image (one of 25 photos by Konstantin Sergevey posted on nymag.com) seems to be an anomaly. None of the other SlutWalkers pictured are prancing around with placards featuring a racial slur. None of the others demand that we know—in 2011—that Yoko Ono came up with this “woman is the n#@ger of the world” mess in 1968 and that her husband, John Lennon, did a lousy song about it two years later. This precocious SlutWalker is in the minority. And yet, she’s the one getting the attention.
For me, a dark brown woman who some might call a n#@ger, this picture crystalizes what activists have been saying over and over and over about SlutWalk’s racial, cultural and historical blind-spots; its homogeneity and perceived tokenism; and its racial micro-aggressions. In August when I first wrote about SlutWalk, I was ambivalent. This sign has pushed me that much closer to “hell no” territory.
Given that SlutWalk is a very young, quickly evolving, decentralized movement made up of local organizers and participants in more than 20 countries, I don’t think it’s fair to generalize about its racial, class and gender makeup.
The sticking point for me has always been one of common sense. From my Northeastern, urban, English-speaking, African American, regularly street-harassed perspective, I simply don’t see how walking under the banner of “slut” among a mass of scantily clad women is an effective way to hold predators, misogynists, apologists, and victim-blaming law enforcement accountable for sexual violence. I understand that the (extremely marketable) name is inextricably tied to the genesis of the movement, but what about the people who don’t know that a Toronto policeman told a small group of college students that they could avoid rape by not dressing like sluts? Does “SlutWalk” tell the uninitiated—quickly—that a person’s attire, behavior, sexual identity, line of work, immigration status, physical disability, age, lack of sobriety or lack of common sense is never an excuse for rape?
Some of the sexual assault victims I’ve spoken to about SlutWalk told me that they relate to the idea of defanging “slut” by claiming it. And it is indeed powerful to witness people marching in the clothing they wore at the time of their attack. But what about the myriad of folks who don’t connect on that visceral level? What about the victims who don’t cope this way? Or people for whom it would literally be dangerous to claim something they never owned in the first place? And what about simpletons? (I’m serious.) For them, I’ll paraphrase the words of Chazz Michael Michaels in “Blades of Glory”: Yes, “SlutWalk” is provocative, and it gets the people going. But what does it mean?
Back in August, I interviewed black lesbian feminist activist and sexual assault survivor Aishah Shahidah Simmons the day before she spoke at Philadelphia SlutWalk. She told me how she overcame her cultural and political misgivings:
[At first] I was indifferent to [it]. I kind of cringed at the title. […] Black women have been called sluts, whores and skank whores from the beginning. So I wondered why we would embrace the term ‘slut’ [without] any kind of analysis about what it means for all women, but especially women of color. Also, I just wasn’t sure if this was a multiracial movement. But it’s grown a lot,” she told me, citing active participants of color in Vancouver, Malaysia and other locales. “I don’t want to lose sight of the fact, regardless of what I think about the term ‘slut,’ or how we might be conforming to patriarchal notions of what is attractive, the penalty should never be rape.
Earlier this week Simmons—a kind, forgiving soul who is still on board with the overall movement—was livid about the woman-as-ni@#er poster at SlutWalk New York City. Trust, she’s not the only one. Here’s an excerpt of what she wrote:
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 ofALL 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.
I want to add that this sign smacks of an attempt to get noticed. In a lively crowd full of semi-nudity, pithy posters and even a woman in a (well-executed) Hester Pryne costume, what’s a girl to do? Oh, I know. Write a decades old ni@#er song lyric on a bright yellow piece of posterboard and hold it up for the cameras!
In a time when YouTube views, Facebook shares, and retweets count as currency, I get why some poor child might inflate the value of being noticed. But when you’re fighting for something real, no attention really is better than bad attention—because it ain’t about you.
Bonus: If you can deal with the cusses and idle threats of violence, watch white Alabama rapper Yelawolf break down why “ni@#er” is a “big no no,” even for white folks who see themselves as down, progressive or transgressive.
Also, read this breathtaking piece about the value of SlutWalk by rape survivor and A Long Walk Home founder Salamishah Tillet.