An Open Letter From Black Women to the Slutwalk

From here.

24 September 2011

We the undersigned women of African descent and anti-violence advocates, activists, scholars, organizational and spiritual leaders wish to address the SlutWalk. First, we commend the organizers on their bold and vast mobilization to end the shaming and blaming of sexual assault victims for violence committed against them by other members of society. We are proud to be living in this moment in time where girls and boys have the opportunity to witness the acts of extraordinary women resisting oppression and challenging the myths that feed rape culture everywhere.

The police officer’s comments in Toronto that ignited the organizing of the first SlutWalk and served to trivialize, omit and dismiss women’s continuous experiences of sexual exploitation, assault, and oppression are an attack upon our collective spirits. Whether the dismissal of rape and other violations of a woman’s body be driven by her mode of dress, line of work, level of intoxication, her class, and in cases of Black and brown bodies—her race, we are in full agreement that no one deserves to be raped.

The Issue At Hand

We are deeply concerned. As Black women and girls we find no space in SlutWalk, no space for participation and to unequivocally denounce rape and sexual assault as we have experienced it. 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?

Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later. Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize. Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.

The personal is political. For us, the problem of trivialized rape and the absence of justice are intertwined with race, gender, sexuality, poverty, immigration and community. As Black women in America, we are careful not to forget this or we may compromise more than we are able to recover. Even if only in name, we cannot afford to label ourselves, to claim identity, to chant dehumanizing rhetoric against ourselves in any movement. We can learn from successful movements like the Civil Rights movement, from Women’s Suffrage, the Black Nationalist and Black Feminist movements that we can make change without resorting to the taking-back of words that were never ours to begin with, but in fact heaved upon us in a process of dehumanization and devaluation.

What We Ask

Sisters from Toronto, rape and sexual assault is a radical weapon of oppression and we are in full agreement that it requires radical people and radical strategies to counter it. In that spirit, and because there is so much work to be done and great potential to do it together, we ask that the SlutWalk be even more radical and break from what has historically been the erasure of Black women and their particular needs, their struggles as well as their potential and contributions to feminist movements and all other movements.

Women in the United States are racially and ethnically diverse. Every tactic to gain civil and human rights must not only consult and consider women of color, but it must equally center all our experiences and our communities in the construction, launching, delivery and sustainment of that movement.

We ask that SlutWalk take critical steps to become cognizant of the histories of people of color and engage women of color in ways that respect culture, language and context.

We ask that SlutWalk consider engaging in a re-branding and re-labeling process and believe that given the current popularity of the Walk, its thousands of followers will not abandon the movement simply because it has changed its label.

We ask that the organizers participating in the SlutWalk take further action to end the trivialization of rape at every level of society. Take action to end the use of the word “rape” as if it were a metaphor and also take action to end the use of language invented to perpetuate racist/sexist structures and intended to dehumanize and devalue.

In the spirit of building a revolutionary movement to end sexual assault, end rape myths and end rape culture, we ask that SlutWalk move forward in true authenticity and solidarity to organize beyond the marches and demonstrations as SlutWalk. Develop a more critical, a more strategic and sustainable plan for bringing women together to demand countries, communities, families and individuals uphold each others human right to bodily integrity and collectively speak a resounding NO to violence against women.

We would welcome a meeting with the organizers of SlutWalk to discuss the intrinsic potential in its global reach and the sheer number of followers it has energized. We’d welcome the opportunity to engage in critical conversation with the organizers of SlutWalk about strategies for remaining accountable to the thousands of women and men, marchers it left behind in Brazil, in New Delhi, South Korea and elsewhere—marchers who continue to need safety and resources, marchers who went back home to their communities and their lives. We would welcome a conversation about the work ahead and how this can be done together with groups across various boundaries, to end sexual assault beyond the marches.

As women of color standing at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, class and more, we will continue to be relentless in the struggle to dismantle the unacceptable systems of oppression that designedly besiege our everyday lives. We will continue to fight for the development of policies and initiatives that prioritize the primary prevention of sexual assault, respect women and individual rights, agency and freedoms and holds offenders accountable. We will consistently demand justice whether under governmental law, at community levels, or via community strategies for those who have been assaulted; and organize to end sexual assaults of persons from all walks of life, all genders, all sexualities, all races, all ethnicity, all histories.

20 thoughts on “An Open Letter From Black Women to the Slutwalk

  1. I have watched and read about the SlutWalks over the past year, and as my sisters here so very eloquent expressed: I’d completely embraced the rationale of the Movement, yet felt extremely disconcerted by its branding.

    As I began reading this open letter, all I could visualize was Hottentot Venus. We are not being oversensitive (I see such a response coming)

    Appropriating a disparaging term or phrase is tricky, for all when it has been effectual in championing the use of “bitch” against us. But “slut” and other derogatory terms tied to OUR sexuality by others is far to complex in our story of selves to attempt appropriation.

    I’m in full agreement of the “What we ask” petition in this open letter to the Movement.

  2. This is an incredibly powerful and compelling letter, and I hope the SlutWalk organizers will work with the signatories to do the kind of rebranding that is suggested.

  3. I hope the letter results in a dialogue, especially w.r.t. to the call to build a larger movement.

    Trying for a second to put on the “SlutWalk” hat and imagine what the response might be, I’d say that the main issue for SlutWalk organizers is whether or not “slut” can be re-appropriated. That’s really the core of SlutWalk, and also much of the basis for its widespread popularity. The word “slut” is attention-grabbing, and that’s much of the basis of why so many people are participating. I think SlutWalk organizers would be afraid that the movement would die if it were re-branded. And I think they’d have some basis for that fear.

    I don’t know whether or not “slut” can be re-appropriated. It’s a topic that the organizers and the letter-writers should discuss. But I do worry that this letter appears to take a rather strong stand on the issue: it seems to me to be claiming that slurs can *never* be re-appropriated. I think the queer community would take at least *some* issue with that rather strong claim.

  4. I participated in SlutWalk Milwaukee as an African American woman, mother, poet and rape survivor. Our stories are often silenced by our very own communities. We need to ask our own communities what more we can do to heal rape victims and prevent rape from occurring. African American women hardly represented themselves but I can tell you that there were many women of color present whose cultures often disown or publicly shame a women who was raped. While I share some of your sentiments, I hope our African American community will begin to educate, accept and change the culture that accepts and popularizes seductively dressed women. I also would like to say that we often look for an invitation, when we need to invite ourselves.

  5. We have had 3 Slutwalks in South Africa, a country plagued by endemic rape problems, where many men think rape is the accepted norm. Where gay woman are seen as candidates for “corrective rape” by unenlightened often biased and low intellect males. the majority of victims of these atrocities are black woman, who because of tradition and male oppression don’t have a voice.
    Rape crisis centers cannot cope with the quantity of victims, with about 45 to 60 rapes a day nationally taking place. #SlutwalkJHB was attended by a diverse cross section of the population who care enough to put babies in prams and dogs on leashes to walk the 3.6 Kilometers in solidarity with the victims of bias, misconception and sexual stereotyping. Families and families of victims united by their abhorrence of the barbaric customs and self claimed entitlement of the abusers, trying to not only send out the message that sexual abuse is not about sex, bur about power, and at the same time teaching their children that the word SLUT, is something the abusers use to try to justify their actions.
    If this is to be seen as countering the interests of woman of African Descent elsewhere in the world, it clearly is not seen so here, as the majority of women here are not of Africa descent, they are African. Supported by their sisters and brothers of all colors. as the mothers of our nation.
    Taking “SLUT” away from their abusers is our way of showing the world we want them to be free to be whoever they want to be. To dress as they want, without fear of assault or condemnation.
    That is the core message of SLUTWALK.

  6. I was an organiser of #slutwalkjhb held in Johannesburg South Africa. On Saturday 24/9 we had participants, Africans, of every race, men, women, girls and boys, mothers pushing prams, grandmothers in their 80s a woman with the authority of her congregation carrying an alter cloth. dressed provocatively dressed in jeans and t-shirts.

    We have also experienced some negative comments regarding the word slut from some quarters mostly conservative and I am sure that some did not attend because of the word. But South Africa is leading the online discussion on this topic and the sentiment is positive.

    One father brought his six year old daughter to teach her the power of the individual, another told me that discussing slutwalk and the name had forced him to have an open discussion with his 16 year old daughter.

    We have started the process of holding up the word “slut” into the faces of abusers and are strongly sending the message that society will not accept the woman will not be free to make the choices they are entitled to make including about their own sexuality. To be promiscuous or celibate as they decide.

    The success of this human rights movement is precisely because of the emotion and power behind of this word.

  7. The open letter creaks a bit under the weight of some turgid PoMo-ese (I say this without meaning to denigrate the substance or intent), but it makes good points and will hopefully lead to dialogue.

    I agree with Matt D. that any such dialogue will need to focus significantly on the reclamation of the word “slut”, and that raises some issues I’ve never fully sussed with respect to what the SlutWalk is trying to do.

    I think that “slut” can validly be distinguished from certain other slurs that have been re-appropriated with varying degrees of sex. While one can debate, among other things, its definition, I expect most people could agree that it refers, under one denotation, to sexual incontinence or promiscuity – to the point of vice, which is why it is pejorative in that sense. Now, there is doubtless considerable disagreement over what falls within that scope, but I don’t think one will finally persuade vast groups of people that the referent is really a null set (e.g., that the concept is meaningless, that the vice does not exist, that no degree of the conduct to which it refers would constitute a vice, etc.).

    So, this is where I see the distinction from many other pejorative terms: it’s not just that “slut” is pejorative, but that it is used as a kind of calumny. One can get on board (under certain circumstances) with appropriating slurs, but appropriating slanders is a distinct proposition.

    Among the important points that ought (I would think) to be advanced by SlutWalk are:
    -that a woman is not a slut by virtue of her dress (vestis feminam non reddit?)
    -that no woman, regardless of her sexual behaviour, bears culpability for a rape perpetrated on her

    Yet I am not sure that these points are necessarily advanced by appropriating the word “slut”. Indeed, they may be obscured by the tack taken by the SlutWalk. Where does that leave the woman who objects to being called a slut not so much because it’s a pejorative word, but because it constitutes an insulting and defamatory allegation of which she believes she is innocent?

    One might respond that the SlutWalk means to challenge the notion that sluttiness can ever properly be said to denote a vice at all. That might be akin to Edmund’s appropriation (“Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”) in King Lear. But it seems like a dubious endeavour in the case of “slut”, for the reasons I mentioned above, and not one in which a majority of women are going to be inclined to concur.

  8. Good grief. Did I really write in my previous post “re-appropriated with varying degrees of sex”? It was supposed to be “varying degrees of success”.

    Paging Dr. Freud!

  9. I so appreciate this Open Letter…It’s very difficult to see how calling OURSELVES the derogatory, humiliating name of those who oppress us, is empowering.
    When I heard about this, it reminded me of the women’s festivals with the word “Lady” in them. I thought we graduated beyond “lady” long ago. I had a bumper sticker in the 60’s that said “A Lady is a Female Uncle Tom” …and there’s still a lot to suggest this is true. It’s often used by men in a patronizing way….I really dislike it.But, it has mixed meaning whereas how can SLUT be anything but negative. “Bitch” is, as one writer here says, in a whole separate category. It does not have the strong sexual connotation so it’s much more difficult to own it and repair the meaning.

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