Is SlutWalk White Supremacist? Responding to Aura Blogando
This is an interesting polemic by Aura Blogando against the SlutWalk national organizers.
Polemics have political purposes and this one seems to be about either waking up or limiting the effectiveness of white SlutWalk organizers who have fallen down on the whole critical self-reflection thing. It also has a pretty cool anti-hegemonic/anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist undertone. To summarize the main thrust of the piece:
(1) Organizers fail to address the different set of challenges faced by women of color and white women, bourgeois women and poor women, especially regrding the police, while using universalist language about the oppression(/repression) of women. (2) This failure not only misses a key opportunity for gender solidarity across racial and class lines but by utilizing universalist language to describe the oppression of a limited (and privileged) segment of women, they render the oppression(/repression) of other women invisible, reifying existing power structures, which (inadvertently) makes the event white supremacist.
The polemic puts the impetus on the organizers to correct this inadvertent white supremacy with impetus also on the readers to refuse to participate until action is taken (though Blogando predicts any action will be politically motivated face-saving and I bet she’s right!). Her purpose is awesome and the primary claims are pretty solid. I have problems with some of the minor claims and though I agree with the destination there are some things I’m unwilling to lose on the journey.
But first let me say, this isn’t some moderate intervention where “I see both sides” and I jump in to provide clarity. We’re all in agreement: that approach smacks of privilege and ignorance and is generally the height of lame Liberal cowardice.
On SlutWalk attempting to “reclaim” the word slut.
It’s true that SlutWalk organizers say one of their goals is to reclaim the word slut. Blogando is probably right in claiming the project of redefinition will fail. Her case-in-point is the persistent use of the “nigger” as a racial epithet by those in power despite its widespread “positive” use, but I’m not sure that slut and “nigger” both being part of a vocabulary of dominance is sufficient to draw the analogy as she does. It’s possible that ultimately the project of reclamation centers around something other than new definitions, raising questions about what is at stake in the debate about the word “as positive or negative.”
What is really being reclaimed is not the word but a set of behaviors that the word is designed to repress. What behaviors? Pretty much any kind of sexual expression on the part of women whatsoever. In this sense the “damage” that “slut” does to women is not just the venomous effect of the label, its effect on self-worth and the worth ascribed to a woman by her (so-called) community, but also the inhibition of sexual expression that does not suit those who apply the label, for whatever self-interested reasons drive the application of the label by those labeling appliers. Further, that this label not only “inhibits” sexual expression, which sure, I’m sure every guy reading this is like “yeah, uninhibit it baby, uninhibit it to the hilt,” but more importantly that the label relegates women to a zone of social vulnerability. A zone so dangerous that harassment and rape become acceptable.I don’t think we need to get into a battle about what wave has the right approach and that we can all probably at least agree that a group of young women militantly inverting dynamics of safety and domination that come with the label “slut” in a way that centers on rejecting patriarchal vagina regulation/exploitation is better than the status quo.
It’s true that SlutWalk only covers some of the structural and physical violence directed daily at women, and critiques along this line should be viewed with general sympathy or high fives. It’s also true that (many) women of color live permanently in that zone of social vulnerability no matter how they behave – gesturing at some of the main structures that SlutWalk either ignores or renders invisible. But I’m not as prepared to lose all social value that SlutWalk may generate as easily as it’s bourgeois white organizers lost any concern for the specific needs and challenges of women of color.
Blogando has two points about the word itself in relation to women of color: (1) that women of color may not want to be called sluts and (2) that the word “slut” is a non-issue for people who are sexualized from the outset. I’ll speak to the second point later, but as to the first claim of “not wanting” to be sluts, she may be guilty of the kind of over-essentialization that treats women as simply objects of domination instead of objects, subjects, and vessels. In other words, women contribute to the oppression of women pretty consistently. It’s not that white women like being called sluts and don’t understand others don’t like it: it’s obvious this is an assault on the sexual morality of society-at-large, men, women, and children included. And it’s certainly possible for women of any color to uphold the negative view of the word “slut” and be wrong and be worthy of a serious (even polemical!) critique. Enshrining anti-sex attitudes behind the veil of race, culture, and class does not sanctify those attitudes. I’m sure Blogando knows that, but it’s not clear in her post. Moreover, it’s kind of a lazy generalization that’s not really demonstrable, and I would argue that it’s more likely to find a sympathetic ear amongst the guilty White Liberals than it is the dozens of feminists of color that participated in events like SlutWalk Los Angeles, many of whom live their lives in the irreconcilable cultural tension of the virgin/whore dichotomy, and for whom embracing “slut” is a deeply subversive act within that context. The rendering of invisible of women of color who do participate is extremely important to Blogando’s project of rejecting SlutWalk outright.
On SlutWalk as a “Parade” for the Privileged Whites
To disagree with Blogando on this point and to make clear what is at stake in this disagreement, it is necessary to gesture towards my position on SlutWalk. My tentative position is that SlutWalk, as a practice rooted in a Third Wave politic of self-affirmation, reclamation, and agency, and generally succeeds within the metrics appropriate to a Third Wave politic. As a success, SlutWalk seems important given the individual subjectivity and cultural restraints of many women who participate, in particular women of color and working class women, as it is likely that such women will be more likely to participate in the generation of better liberatory praxis having engaged in something that felt genuinely liberating (which is not to say some or even most participants have a genuine feeling of liberation). To take some of Blogando’s points about women of color’s (very problematically generalized) subjectivity to heart, it may mean that participating in a SlutWalk for such women represents an powerfully subversive and dangerous act. However, instead of crediting these women for participating when the stakes may indeed be higher for them, Blogando leaves the reader with the impression women of color do not participate. Conversely, white women participate because doing so is neither subversive nor dangerous. Blogando is wrong on both counts. It seems indisputable that for many women, whether women of color or white women, that the act of self-affirmation involved in participating in a SlutWalk requires such a fundamental rejection of cultural norms and internalized constraint both of imagination and behavior, that we cannot understand SlutWalk by chalking it up to a comfortable march of white women absent any significant sense of danger or self-criticism/challenging amongst participants. I would argue that for many women the act of rejecting these constraints involves a cognitive break outside the logics of domination that are operative in their lives to such an extent that questions of “what is being rejected” and “in favor of what” become lower-order concerns, even while they are still important concerns. To the extent they are concerns, I do believe that what is often being rejected is an older, puritanical capitalist-patriarchy in favor of a contemporary capitalist-patriarchy that has accommodated the critiques of Puritanism. In other words, SlutWalk’s politics are highly suspect in anti-Racist Capitalist Patriarchy terms, and to the extent Blogando makes this general point, I agree. But Blogando’s blindness on the revolutionary potential and the real cognitive breaks that many women likely experience, including women of color, has its own dangerous for a more revolutionary praxis.
The kind of cognitive breaks that I argue are first-order concerns in the case of SlutWalk happen where they are capable of happening, where the chemistry between agency and conditions allow for acts of resistance. There is questionable value in arguing that they ought to have happened in another way. I believe the experiencing of these kinds of breaks leaves its own, compartmentalized resonance in the memory and identity of those who experience them, that they represent the true experience of freedom, and that we become more welcoming of freedom and more capable of challenging ourselves and our world the more we have experiences freedom regardless of their origins. What’s important about the student who spontaneously joins a riot and breaks a window isn’t the politics of vandalism, it is that one more person has lived their life in a way that renders the world around them malleable rather than fixed and will go through the rest of their life with this understanding. What’s important about the woman who participates in and enjoys SlutWalk, is not in the first instance the politics of SlutWalk but in the type of cognitive mechanics that participation and what remnants that participation leaves. By writing off those who find merit in participating in SlutWalk as white and priveleged, Blogando argues that no substantive cognitive breaks occur through SlutWalk. White women do what makes they find fun, calling themselves sluts and “parading their privilege,” and women of color do what they are comfortable with: staying at home. Like any radical, I find it easier to dismiss actions and politics of others as problematic or counterrevolutionary, thereby feeling a sense of moral authority and accomplishment in my inaction, as if the dismissal itself is a labor to be proud of. I try to fight this impulse. Real revolution requires real engagement with the facts even when they don’t fit our polemics.
If one were to agree with me that something significant does occur amongst some participants of SlutWalk but still take a hard line position against it, I would argue that it is likely that recruiting towards a more radical position will be more fruitful amongst women whose participation in SlutWalk has given real contour and texture to arguments that would otherwise have been abstract, and who are now also open to what is for most people the extremely discomforting experience of rejecting what you have taken for granted and rendering yourself open to transformation (ie: freedom). Along these lines, when taken as part of an evolving set of reactions to patriarchy, rather than as a solution to patriarchy, SlutWalk appears to have value even if you concede the point that the politics that produce SlutWalk, loosely defined as Third Wave Feminism, are not capable of achieving a liberation that transcends momentary experiences and the final smashing of Patriarchy, and perhaps even if you take a hardline anti-SlutWalk position. I share the more radical position that there is a difference between individual experiences of liberation and liberatory politics, that experiences of liberation do not a politics make, and that the failure to recognize this is a major weakness of the Third Wave, broadly conceived . But I digress.
On organizers’ pathetically uncritical view of the police and Blogando’s description of SlutWalk as “white supremacist”
OK, so SlutWalk organizers are really bummed they can’t think of the police as friends anymore and they really want to work with them to repair their relationship. I’m with Blogando on this 100%. Boo fucking hoo. It takes somebody immersed in the spoils of colonization and the police state to even think like this (and it takes one to know one, yes, it’s true, you got me there). Granted, I don’t know what the police in Canada are like. I glean from popular culture that things are better up there in a lot of ways. It could be that Toronto police aren’t a repressive internal military force designed to violently preserve what is itself a violent racial and economic order. I’m inclined to think they’re more or less the same as police in the US, at least in that very small matter of their reason for existence (control); but, if they aren’t, SlutWalk organizers need a reality check before crossing the border and telling us how to be free. Their failure to deal with the police as an institution is damning evidence that the organizers are inadvertently reifying white supremacy. But is SlutWalk really about the police?
An incident with the police may have been the symbolic inspiration for SlutWalk organizers but I don’t think this is motivating most potential participants. The shift of meaning away from the police simultaneously mutes and sharpens Blogando’s polemic. I get the sense that for the great anonymous mass of people who march, the Toronto incident is little more than a vague symbol that expresses in a general way the type of event that women and LGBTQ folks are exposed to every day. So the critique fails to appreciate the way in which masses of people have come to impart their own meaning into this event, really in a way only a blogger can fail – by spending a lot of time thinking about organizing but not looking at boots on the ground. Internet comments on articles covering SlutWalk show that the perception of both sides is informed much more by experiences of personal repression (articulated as anti-woman hatred or as resistance) than it is from knowledge of the organizers, the interviews they give, or what specifically set them out to organize. But the initial meaning didn’t have to get lost. Organizers play a tremendous role in constructing languages of resistance and thereby giving people greater access to collective solutions. Which people were given access by the organizers here? It’s probably the case that even in taking on a broader, more general meaning, SlutWalk will more or less still speak to a more privileged set of people than might otherwise be the case. I’ll bet you a dollar that if we went into a time machine and we made these activists take Blogando’s advice and co-organize with activists of color, the police would remain the central issue for a much larger swath of participants (and not just because there would presumably be more women of color marching). That SlutWalk organizers were initially concerned with “repairing” the relationship with police and that the issue of police brutality dropped away from SlutWalk speaks volumes to the inadequacy of SlutWalk as phenomena that takes Racist Capitalist Patriarchy seriously, or in other words, reifies White Supremacy. And this is the case even though many women of color and working class women participate (just as all of us reifyWhite Supremacy every day, and we must point this out and understand it). Blogando is right to force us to do that.
On the impetus for white organizers to do “heavy lifting.”
At times Blogando places blame a little too heavily on “white” organizers, sometimes bordering on an essentialism of “whiteness,” and pursuing a politics of shame that is driven by unrealistic expectations of what her comrades are capable of doing on their own. I would say that her critique seems to descend into resentment.
Hey, I am not judging anybody for having resentment. I have a lot of it. It generally takes a lot of shit to create resentments. But there is a difference between an expression of one’s hard-earned resentment and a public political critique that presumably is designed to be socially generative, at least in the responses required. As an expression of resentment and anger against some racist, sexist bullshit, I say Right On. As a call to reflection and action, I think there are problems.
Blogando sometimes seems to be responding less to the politics or discourse of SlutWalk organizers and more to the photographs of white SlutWalk participants who are captured marching and having a good time. I don’t think I’m stretching here, just look at the language she uses: in her words, “Parading their privilege.” Counter-hegemonic unity and articulation means organizing across class, race, national, religious, gender, cultural, sexual lines (with important limitations for some of the categories – no bosses, no racists, etc.). This means fully coming to grips with the idea that each person’s subjectivity is legitimate. This isn’t just some neo-Marxist way of saying some hippie, let’s all get along shit, it just means that if we’re going to take the generation of different structurally determined identities seriously, we can’t assume that changing those identities is just a matter of depositing one subjectivity into another as a replacement or just arguing that somebody ought to think in opposition to their entire life’s training in response to the demand of a stranger, and it also means that we have to take seriously the point Blogando herself makes, which is taking your own subjectivity for granted when dealing with others is an oppressive, colonizing act. Why? Because every structural position is made by the Racist Capitalist Patriarchy, for the Racist Capitalist Patriarchy, and of the Racist Capitalist Patriarchy – and therefore all structural/subject positions are morally and strategically suspect. Attempts to make revolutionary changes to subjectivity have to start from the premise that participants engage in a mutually transformative process, rather than a process where one existing subjectivity is swapped out for another.
Describing behaviors that you or your community (according to you) would not be comfortable engaging in as privileged (even when they are) is always important in constructing complex analyses of our lives but not necessarily sufficient grounds for dismissing those behavior or asking them to cease, and Blogando does little more than simply point to privilege as if a politics can emerge from the mere revelation of its existence. Critiquing women activists for living, marching, and resisting oppression(/repression) in a way that is natural to them is a disciplinary move that ultimately circumscribes and destroys the subjectivity of those women in favor of… what? What? I don’t know, it is unclear. It’s fair and important to note that one tactic doesn’t fit all situations, and in so far as Blogando critiques SlutWalk organizers for ignorance of this point, I agree with her, it is likely that certain SlutWalk events and the primary organizers of SlutWalk are white, privileged, Third Wave Liberals who are largely unaware of all of these facts and their implications, but she slips on her own banana peel when she implies that there would be a tactic that would suit all audiences. Does she want these white, privileged, Third Wave Liberals to create the vehicles that can more easily accommodate resistance for women of color? And what about the women of color who do engage with SlutWalk at the level of “the walk,” who attend in their affinity groups, who promote it, and who generate their own meaning and politics around it completely separable from whatever the initial organizers had in mind – how does Blogando’s critique speak to them? More than that, the primary vehicle for change in Blogando’s argument is the kind of cynical shame that we radicals quickly learn is effective against the white Liberal, at least in so far as shutting them up goes. But it’s lazy and doesn’t get much more than the desired, short-term silence. Maybe some knee-jerk tokenization moves designed precisely to re-silence the radicals. As an organizing project that is centered on challenging subjectivities, Blogando is as guilty as her construction of SlutWalk organizers to be willing to enter in a process of transformation that would even change her. The goal becomes in some sections not a counter-hegemony against imperialist patriarchy, but a counter-hegemony against naive activists who must be disciplined for displaying their joy publicly – a joy Blogando dismisses as wrong because it cannot be shared (even though it’s not necessarily true that this is the case). Now isn’t that just kind of mean spirited?
It’s not the job of white women to go do the “heavy lifting” to organize people of color. There is no way for white organizers to avoid hegemonic politics if their efforts aren’t driven in the first instance by a mutually transformative relationship with communities of color and, specifically and most realistically, activists based in those communities. It is only in those relationships where a common language can be constructed that takes the subjectivity of all involved seriously enough to construct a new subjectivity. Yeah, communication actually entails a constant destruction and reconstruction of one’s identity. That is actually a scary thing. It can also be a very degrading thing, and I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to engage with more privileged people to “educate” them as we build our Brave New World. But we also won’t have it unless there is engagement. I don’t blame anybody for retreating behind their own set of meanings when confronted with the task of constructing new ones with others who don’t share your current ones. But prior to such a relationship, white organizers can only use the language based on their own limited subjectivity forged in their own communities, and they can only remain colonizers. So the impetus is really on all feminists to perform the same labor around meaning generation and be willing to be destroyed as much as they destroy, and actually, the impetus is much more on white organizers to be the ones willing to have their subjectivity destroyed (and again, to the extent this can be gleaned from Blogando, I agree). A perfect example of the way one-sided organizing obligations naturally become hegemonic projects is the next thing Blogando criticizes, SlutWalk’s naive liberal plan to export their event to Argentina. Yeah, I agree with her, it is hegemonic, but I have trouble going much further than critiquing the organizers for generalizing their own subjectivity in a way that forecloses space for working people and people of color. I don’t think it necessarily follows that because they are privileged their events should “stop the criminalization of black women in New Orleans.” No. That’s not how organizing works. We don’t sit around and wait for the group of people who have decided to do “something” and then shame them into doing what we’d prefer they do. That’s not work, that’s just self-gratifying bullshit.
I think white bourgeois forms of resistance are fine. Maybe they’re even great. Maybe they’re even beautiful in some way – it’s hard not to look at resistance as beautiful even when it’s carried out by people who have “less” to resist. Saying this doesn’t mean I am not going to resist their resistance, either. The problem is when this resistance forecloses space for other people to resist rather than opening it. And this is the critique that Blogando ends on, which is awesome, and I think is the most useful thing we can take from Blogando’s intervention. For privileged white SlutWalk organizers to open space for other communities, they simply have to take their own subjectivity seriously by articulating themselves as privileged and white. They could do a lot more, but just doing this would do a lot for everyone else’s struggle, especially given the visibility of the event. By acknowledging the frontiers of their activities and set of meanings, a frontier that exists within a larger political space, rather than treating their set of meanings as universal, they force others to acknowledge that other sets of meaning exist, that these frontiers exist, that there are underlying structures that do separate us that must be accounted for. Of course, again, they could also do other really cool things like invite activists from working communities and communities of color to join them in their planning and on their little media circuits, even the ones that disagree with them. That would be pretty sweet too.