Racism and Anti-Racism: Why they matter to SlutWalks
… and if you don’t care, why you need to start caring.
The Protestor at SlutWalk NYC – Why this was not, and is NEVER, ok.
In the past month there has been significant discussion, anger and sadness regarding an incident perpetrated by a white woman who participated in SlutWalk NYC. She carried a sign that read “Women are the [racial ‘N’ word] of the world.”
Some have used as an explanation and ‘defense’ that this quote is from a Yoko Ono and John Lennon song from the late 1960s when the intent was to draw attention to women’s maltreatment and oppression in the world. Having the ‘N’ word enmeshed in song lyrics did not make it ok then, and does not make it ok now.
When this song originally was released over 40 years ago, several women of colour and black feminists spoke out to challenge Yoko Ono and John Lennon. For instance, Pearl Cleage is cited as a black feminist who challenged this phrase as racist, saying, “If Woman is the “N” of the World, what does that make Black Women, the “N, N” of the World?” The challenges leveled at that problematic quotation then for racism still stand, and in fact, draw deep angst because that sign being displayed publicly by a white woman now makes the case that little has changed and the lack of awareness of racial oppression in protests, activism and radical statements then still permeate protest culture now.
SlutWalk Toronto does not support the actions or language of this SlutWalk participant. The ‘N’ word has been used historically, and still is used culturally today, as a racial slur that has been a weapon of degradation, oppression and violence. The word in question is connected to race because of the way it has been used against marginalized people of colour, namely black people, to perpetuate hate, disrespect and racism. A few further points on this particular sign and incident:
• This was racism then. It is racism now. We do not support any white people using this racial slur or any others, no matter what point they’re hoping to make.
• This protestor’s intention may have been coming from a good place, but her actions were misguided, and are not excusable, because they perpetuate racism, entitlement to using this word, and negating the experiences of black women.
• We understand the ‘N’ word as a word that was not this protester’s word to use (or ours if we are white women), because she is not a person who this word is used against, or has a history of being oppressed by.
• Not only is this word steeped in a history of racial oppression and violence, we must never forget that racial oppression and violence are still occurring. White women – and beyond that anyone that is not black, including Yoko Ono and John Lennon – are not the people who should be making the decisions on how to use this word or how to change its meaning if that is something that people want to do. Many black women have denounced any use of this word and we support them in this.
• It is not enough to refrain from using racist language. It is imperative to call out individuals who are doing so. Within and outside of SlutWalk protesting and organizing circles, if you are witness to this type of behaviour and you’re in a safe position to do something about it, don’t stand by. At SlutWalk Toronto we commit to address and, if need be, call attention to displays of racism that we see and that are brought to our attention.
This act of racism happened at a SlutWalk and we are truly sorry and deeply saddened that it did.
Language Parallels – the ‘N’ word and ‘slut’
Some people have suggested that the ‘N’ word and ‘slut’ are similar because they are both insults thrown at people and both have been used in re-appropriated ways by various groups of people with various intents. However, these words are not the same and this is important to recognize. They may both be examples of harmful language that is used to degrade, oppress, damage and justify violence but this still does not make them the same. Here’s why:
• Sexism and gender-based violence are not racism. These things may be connected and overlap but they must be acknowledged as different for each to be addressed and taken to task.
• ‘Slut’ is a word that is predominantly used against girls and women, and many different women have experienced it in many different ways. The use of ‘slut’ is indeed contentious, but there are many different stakeholders. A racial slur and determination of its use belongs to the people that it has been used against exclusively. That’s how we’d suggest language be approached. If it’s not an epithet used against you, it’s not yours. For anyone else outside that group of people to use that kind of language is perpetuating the systems of oppression that slur created and entrenched in the first place.
As women who have experienced and been impacted by the damage and violence of the word ‘slut’, we wanted to interrogate its use. This word, and the degrading intent behind it, are too often used to justify treating women as less deserving of respect and safety, too often used casually, overlooked and accepted without question, or used as justification for the sexual violence and harassment we and so many others have experienced.
We acknowledge that we have received concerns from women of colour about SlutWalk and the word ‘slut’ outlining that this word can also be a part of the racism and violence they face or it can be a word that doesn’t represent their experiences of oppression. Some feel that for them this word cannot be discussed and utilized in the same ways as it can for many others in SlutWalks. This is something we take seriously and we are working to address these concerns by recognizing them, and taking on learning curves so we can understand them and include them in our efforts. We’re also seeking ways to learn from and be accountable to criticisms so that SlutWalk can make changes to become a safer space for more people as we continue and grow.
But wait, I still don’t get why we’re talking about racism when this is supposed to be about sexual assault and gender-based violence?
Let us draw your attention to…
‘Intersectionality’ or the concept (and reality) that it is not enough to take on one kind of oppression without acknowledging other kinds of oppression that interlock and fuel one another.
It is reported that indigenous women and women with disabilities experience sexual violence at 2-3 times the rate of other women in Canada. Some reasons why these experiences differ are:
• A history of (and nation built on) colonization
• Discrimination based on race and ability
• White privilege
• Able-bodied privilege
As many women of colour have said, they wake up women AND black (or brown, or Asian, or aboriginal, etc.) everyday and one does not override the other. There is no ‘choice’ to overlook and ‘get over’ racism because it is a built-in reality many people have to face as an inseparable part of their existence. This existence determines how the world, and all of these interlocking systems of oppression, including gender-based violence, treats them. Racism is everyone’s problem. People of colour are not solely responsible for fighting racism or educating about racism. White people need to be a part of the solution.
This understanding, background, or as you may hear it referred to, ‘framework’ is an important dimension of understanding the intersections of how people experience sexual violence and how and why we have to work to fight against it holistically.
Things to take away…
• When racism is an integral part of how some women (and some of any gender) experience sexuality, sexual violence and harassment, it must be discussed, acknowledged and part of the work we do.
• When ableism is an integral part of how some women (and some of any gender) experience their sexuality, sexual violence, being treated as more ‘justifiable’ to assault and treated as less able to consent it must be discussed, acknowledged and part of the work we do.
• This recognition is no different than how we acknowledge that women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and we acknowledge sexual violence as a gender-based system of violence and oppression, though other genders are also affected. Recognizing oppression means recognizing oppression.
• No group of people are a monolith. Humans are not. Men are not. Women are not. Women of colour are not. We must acknowledge this and include the reality of experiences; which is the diversity of all of our experiences, wherein different factors intersect to create different histories of oppression for individuals and groups.“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
This is all nice and well, but what are you going to do about it?
• We want SlutWalks in general and SlutWalk Toronto to be a safer space for all women and people and we acknowledge that is not what is happening, with the above incident and with other issues around the messaging, construction and approaches used within many SlutWalks, and we need to be accountable to this. We are so sorry this is not a safer space for all people, all women and all survivors.
• SlutWalk was an idea that began in Toronto and has spread across the world at lightning speed, which has and does limit our reach and influence over other SlutWalks, especially since everything we do is volunteer-run. Each SlutWalk is independently based and organized. However, though we at SlutWalk Toronto may not be in other cities as organizers, decision-makers or participants, what happens under the SlutWalk label or idea connects us all, and we absolutely feel it is our responsibility to speak up more when racism and other forms of discrimination, whether intentional or not, are occurring.
• We also hope to do what we can, with help from others, to foster a culture throughout SlutWalks internationally where racism and other forms of discrimination will not be tolerated, where all participants and supporters are willing to work to understand that discrimination is their business beyond and not limited to discrimination that they feel affects them directly as individuals. Some things we have in the works are toolkits, modifications to messaging, and helpful resources for organizers and supporters.
• We will continue to strive to make this a safer space for all women and all people. One way we hope to be able to do this is by framing more of our work to be based in and understanding of anti-sexism, anti-racism and anti-classism. This is in understanding of the fact that gender, sex, race and class (or socio-economic level) are lived experiences that impact how sexual violence is justified, perpetrated and responded or not responded to.
• Our first (but not only) step in these efforts is to engage directly with our community in Toronto to get feedback on what changes Toronto would like to see happen at SlutWalk Toronto. We are having a community open forum in Toronto on Sunday November 20th at The 519 and plan to work together to deconstruct what has happened, and work together towards making SlutWalk Toronto more aware, inclusive and safer. Grassroots organizing means that we need to start in our own backyard and work from the ground up.
From the beginning of SlutWalk, this has been about fighting sexual violence and damaging ideas around victim-blaming and slut-shaming. We have supported an interrogation of the language used to address these issues and the idea that ‘slut’ can be, and has been in some instances (including years prior to any SlutWalks), reappropriated but this has never been something that everyone must agree with or support to participate in SlutWalk. People, sexuality and experiences of sexual violence are not monolithic, nor should identity be monolithic. We have always respected that many people hate the word ‘slut’ and do not want it used upon themselves in any way. We try to acknowledge the privileges we do have (if we are white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, class privileged, etc.) and the oppressions we may face and in what ways this affects our activism and identity. We also support critical reflection and discussion around SlutWalk, because criticism is necessary in continuing to grow, evolve and do better.
We hope that you will continue to have patience with us as an organization that is still only months old, and that you will approach us in the spirit of collaboration, even in disagreement, and the understanding that we are all working to end sexual-violence and victim-blaming.
Please stay tuned for our upcoming post about Privilege – what it is, how it works, why you maybe didn’t know you had it, and how it situates everyone’s experiences.