Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mostly a rant: SlutWalks, racism, and why I hate to call myself a feminist

This plate hangs over my desk. It was a gift from a friend/comrade/feminist ally with whom I have struggled in gratitude. We have cooked, fought, created, danced, and debated together for several years and with blessings will do so for many more. This treasured bit of domestic subversion reminds me of the work I've done to reclaim my own sexual power and to support several other women in doing so. It reminds me of how hard I've worked to interrogate the shame, violence, and hatred associated with female sexuality and to celebrate and question my own and others' differing growth into power, ecstasy, and insight.

This private reclaiming of the word "slut", for me, has no relevance to the circumstances in which SlutWalk participants can perpetuate white privilege and parade their sense of entitlement. As a woman who shares some of the privileges (namely, whiteness as a political class) of the women participating in these behaviors, I am judging them. I welcome respectful dialogue below.

To the women embodying these privileges, I imagine that feeling a sense of permissiveness around sexual expression is very powerful. I expect that the women involved in these movements have diverse life experiences but feel connected at an intuitive level by the concrete skills and the emotional benefits of social protest. Seems to me also that these women feel a sense of themselves reflected in a social movement that feminism has not been able to provide at a grassroots, widespread level for quite some time.

I'm guessing it feels pretty amazing to feel so entitled. But that's precisely the problem.

I've been working as a professional feminist for a few years and, in that time, have come up with a stock answer for how I qualify/represent my feminist identity: "I don't identify primarily as a feminist, but I do so out of solidarity with my mother and the ancestors whose work has benefitted me and in solidarity with movements that share common political aims." It's something of a long story, but I had been cradled into this social movement, only to uncover later a thousand stories, thoughts, images and connections that had been hidden in a monocultural feminist narrative. So I cast around for many years for a way to understand why or how a particular brand of feminism, which was supposed to empower me, had kept me an emotional and intellectual child. There is no simple answer to this question, but I do understand a little better that "how" and "why" don't matter so much as "get over yourself and do some work". I recognized (and continue to recognize, in a cyclical, iterative way) how my feminism denied me the truth about my own reality and the suffering it caused for others. The responsibility for unraveling this lie, and acting upon the truths I discover, rests with me.

So, as several people have said several times by now, it is necessary for white feminists (as with all social movement activists) to take a continuous look at what we are doing. Build coalitions and relationships in communities and movements led by people of color so that you are connected and accountable with struggles beyond your own perspective.

Above all, LISTEN. Just because you feel the power of your own voice does not mean you must impose it on others. You may think that John Lennon was anti-racist, but did you research it to find out how he was? Or did you just respond to the spark of controversy that using the n-word ignited in you and allow your selfish gratification to substitute for the hard work of solidarity? Yes, it takes longer. No, you don't get a cookie at the end. What you get is to listen. Someone else is giving you the gift of their energy, their time, their words, their perspective. Listen and sit with what it teaches you.

This is very different than silencing yourself. True power is learning when, where and how to speak. You will make mistakes along the way, but let those mistakes not be the same ones made by your colleagues, friends, and ancestors in feminism. Because this is the same business that drove us apart in 1848. There is nothing new under the sun, but this is ridiculous.

If this post makes you angry, please, open up a dialogue with me so we can collaborate, because we need to get our shit together. I'm about to check out of much of white/liberal feminism permanently and expand my support for the varied other feminist, womanist, and class-based movements out there, because this is just not ok, and I don't see much leverage anymore. I am not comfortable giving up/disclaiming what my mother and grandmother worked for, nor am I ok with disidentifying at a distinctly anti-feminist moment in history. But I can't evade the truth that a lot of feminism and "the women's movement" seeks to be identified and praised for being a positive culture as much as it seeks to create positive social change (i.e., "embrace the f word!" rather than joining movements to end the use of the "i" word). That smacks of the master's tools and that is ridiculous.

I understand, also, that SlutWalk sounds sexy and cool to some people, but it only sounds sexy and cool to some, and it's not going to last. I think we can do better at building a fun and beautiful movement. I cannot dance to this particular revolution.

Since I've committed to working within spaces of privilege, I spend a lot of time negotiating appeasements and I'm getting tired of making space for others to cling to the privileges I work to dismantle. It's hard, but it isn't so hard you can't step up.

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