Full disclosure: I have had misgivings about Slutwalk from day one. “Slut” has never been a term used against me. Though the idea of reclaiming the word seems to resonate with many young, white heterosexual women, it is not clear to me how it’s something that can unify all women. It felt alienating and exclusionary from the start.
Last week, one Kelly Peterlinz was photographed at Slutwalk NYC holding a sign made by Erin Clark reading, “Woman is the n****r of the world,” the title of a song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Organizers asked Peterlinz to remove the sign, but the photos had already been taken. Thus began another debate about the word itself, in which Slutwalk NYC organizers, along with Peterlinz and Clark, did the rounds, offering up torturous pleas that their hearts were in the right place. And anyway, Peterlinz and Clark maintained, women are. That word. White women even. They are sorry if anyone was offended, but stand by their point about Class Woman.
Then, when Sydette Harry offered a trenchant and important critique of Slutwalk, Jake Areyeh Marcus of Slutwalk Philadelphia showed up to shame the Mean, Evil Women of Color who spoke out—and blame them for the emotional stress suffered by one of her fellow organizers. Yes, really.
For a word that isn’t about us, we white people sure know how to keep ourselves at the center of the discussion, amirite?
All of this gnashing of teeth about whether or not white women get to claim the word, “n****r,” as ours. Isn’t that what this is? That is, a slightly more sophisticated take on the old question, “Why don’t we get to say it if they get to say it?” Why do we feel entitled to dictate the terms of these debates? Do we, the beneficiaries of slavery, think—in spite of everything—that we own these racist words too?
Yesterday, Harry wrote a follow-up to her open letter. Noting that organizers with Slutwalk had not responded to her, she incisively wrote, “My liberation is not glamorous enough, it seems, to be considered essential. However, it is intrinsic to yours. As long as there is a N****R of the world to be compared to, the treatment of that same will be, sadly, the measure of oppression.”
This dynamic—in which white people dictate the terms of the discussion about racism to black people—is not unfamiliar. Come on, we’ll say, don’t you realize that we’re all on the same side? Don’t you know how it hurts my feelings to be called a racist? So, in 2011, whites are still wrongly asking: To whom does racist history belong?
Maybe you’ve watched a similar dynamic swirl around an old-time band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Perhaps you heard Melissa Block wonder on NPR whether or not it’s okay for the Carolina Chocolate Drops to reclaim so-called “minstrel music,” never mind the actual origins of the banjo they play. If so, you know that classically trained singer, Rhiannon Giddens, actually had to say, “Here’s the deal. We play fiddles and banjos and we’re black.”
It’s a question that is never asked of the many white bluegrass and old-time musicians in North America. Nor was it asked of Feminist-Approved singer Michelle Shocked back when she did an entire album based on minstrel song covers in the early nineties.
We interrogate black people about the reclamation of language and tradition, but not ourselves. And we certainly think we get to reclaim racist history for our own liberation, as Michelle Shocked did and as protesters at Slutwalk have done.
Here is what Giddens has to say about reclamation in a powerful spoken word poem from the Chocolate Drops’ 2008 album, Heritage:
In my dream, history falls in on itself, and in my dream, there is no blackface, no misappropriation, no misdirection, no diasporic disconnect from the great hammering of our great-grandfathers’ fingers. Instead, banjo sounds frequent the airwaves - like the most insidious hip-hop beat - spreading as dangerously as any soul clap, are sampled over and over until they become part until they become part until they become part of race memory… And in my dream—with our own black hands—we play, we pluck, we embrace what has always been ours to begin with.
I’m not saying that white people can’t do country, but I am asking: Which looks more like it glorifies the Old South, and which just looks like joy?
This song by Old Crow Medicine Show?
I have not explicitly discussed spirituality in this post, though I hope the reasons that it fits in this series are implicit. These are questions that we ask of religion just as we ask them of culture: What exactly is my tradition? Can my tradition be reclaimed in a way that is liberatory rather than oppressive? And who do I need to be listening to to keep me from just stomping all over traditions and past injustices in ways that hurt people?