Monday, October 17, 2011

Slutwalk and the complex politics of activism

Photo by Ivy Cuervo

I wrote a lot about Slutwalk earlier this year on Osocio — from its inception and inaugural march in Toronto to its spread around the world.

The whole thing started as a visceral reaction to one cop's poor choice of words when addressing women, that they "should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized". The women who organized it simply wanted to take to the streets and express their rage against victim-blaming by authorities.

From the beginning some critics noted that Slutwalk appeared to be a movement of privileged white women, noting that the participants did not reflect Toronto's famous diversity. Nonetheless, the movement spread as slutwalks sprung up, in localized versions, as far afield as India.

But the criticisms continued, hitting a crescendo with polarized reactions to a NYC Slutwalker's decision to quote Yoko Ono's early feminst slogan (via John Lennon, who wrote a song about it):

The Racialicious blog noted, "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."

Last month, a partnership of activists representing black women's issues in the US and Canada wrote An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk in which they explained why they felt excluded by the movement:

"We are perplexed by the use of the term “slut” and by any implication that this word, much like the word “Ho” or the “N” word should be re-appropriated. The way in which we are perceived and what happens to us before, during and after sexual assault crosses the boundaries of our mode of dress. Much of this is tied to our particular history. In the United States, where slavery constructed Black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations, and more recently, where the Black female immigrant struggle combine, “slut” has different associations for Black women. We do not recognize ourselves nor do we see our lived experiences reflected within SlutWalk and especially not in its brand and its label.

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. Although we understand the valid impetus behind the use of the word “slut” as language to frame and brand an anti-rape movement, we are gravely concerned. For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood. It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens. The perception and wholesale acceptance of speculations about what the Black woman wants, what she needs and what she deserves has truly, long crossed the boundaries of her mode of dress.

We know the SlutWalk is a call to action and we have heard you. Yet we struggle with the decision to answer this call by joining with or supporting something that even in name exemplifies the ways in which mainstream women’s movements have repeatedly excluded Black women even in spaces where our participation is most critical. We are still struggling with the how, why and when and ask at what impasse should the SlutWalk have included substantial representation of Black women in the building and branding of this U.S. based movement to challenge rape culture?"

What's interesting about this letter is the assumption that Slutwalk was some kind of carefully organized and branded American movement that had gone forward without full consultation.

In a response posted today, the Toronto organizers tried to set the record straight:

"SlutWalk Toronto has endeavoured from the beginning to not operate outside of our knowledge and experience, which for us has meant doing our best to not cross geo-political boundaries or speak for communities and SlutWalks outside of our home city of Toronto. We are not a formal NGO, or non-profit organization, and what has happened across SlutWalks as a movement to date has been a collaboration. While SlutWalk Toronto as the inaugural SlutWalk is often looked to as the ‘head’ of SlutWalk, we are not involved with organizing other SlutWalks and we are not structured to oversee and determine what all of SlutWalk will look like. We do not envision our activism as a hierarchical dictation of our ideas upon others, whether across Canada or across the world. In recognition of this, SlutWalk Toronto is committed to engaging with our community here in Toronto for direct feedback, so that we can hear more from people in Toronto what criticisms, concerns, feedback and ideas they have, and how they’d like to see SlutWalk Toronto move forward and evolve as we hopefully move collectively towards organizing our second year in 2012. We’ve been having many conversations and exchanges to better understand the experiences and criticisms of people within our own city and outside of Canada and now we would like to turn these conversations into actions to make SlutWalk Toronto better, more anti-oppressive and more inclusive."

In other words, they are not responsible for what women in other cities do with the "brand" because it has been given away freely. They don't even have a structure or formal organization. They did, however make broad promises to do everything they can to be more open and inclusive.

Personally, I found both letters full of polite attempts at trying to be respectful of each other, but at the end of the day every Slutwalk organizer has to make a decision about what they want to say. The message, in Toronto and in other early Slutwalks, was all about the word — and concept of — "slut". It was a re-appropriation of women's sexual identities, in public, to make the point that sexual dress and behaviour should never be seen as an invitation to sexual violence.

Slutwalk may not be about branding, but I am. And I think they need to hold their ground on this one. Just be what they are, and say what they set out to say. If that message attracts supporters from only some socioeconomic and cultural groups, so be it. Nobody can be all things to all people. Instead of one anti-victim-blaming-movement that has its message determined by a completely diverse committee, the activist world is more enriched by many movements that clearly and concisely express a diversity of views. There is no need for everyone to agree.

Take FEMEN, from Ukraine. They do their feminist and anti-corruption protests topless because they say that it's the only way to get noticed. Other feminists, worldwide, might applaud or denounce their sexualization of activism. They don't care. They just do their own thing and find allies along the way.

In my opinion, "solidarity" is overrated in activism. It means compromising the complexity of your unique vision to create the appearance of a hive mind. Just look at Occupy Wall Street's struggle to agree on why they're camping out in the first place. Everyone has their own ideas about what's broken.

Agreeing to disagree on some issues, while still teaming up to take action towards reaching common goals, is far more respectful of human diversity. Even if, to quote Facebook, "it's complicated".

1 comment:

  1. I saw all the 'woman is nigger' stuff last week and was thinking about it. Wasn't sure if it was appropriate. Sort of blends issues and given that this statement was made in the 70s when women's rights in general were more in question not sure if the relevance is as cohesive to slutwalk as some would like it to be. Not to say that that it isn't relevant to women's rights, just perhaps not in this context. To be honest i've never been a fan of the name 'slutwalk' but I understand where it came from and agree with the point being made but I think combining slurs, especially racial slurs, diminishes/confuses that message.