Why are Black Women not Buying into 'SlutWalks'?
Marches denouncing women being at fault for sexual assaults aren't connecting with women of color
By now, you’ve may have heard of SlutWalk, a series of protests designed to eradicate the attitude that what a woman wears can cause her to be sexually harassed or assaulted. Recently, “An Open Letter from Black Women to SlutWalk Organizers” emerged on the internet in response to these marches. Dozens of black women writers, academics, activists and organizations affixed their names to the piece, which expresses “deep” concern over the growing movement:
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...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…
I’m torn. The word “slut” is not one I personally seek to reclaim, much like “nigger/a”, “bitch” and “ho”. And the choice of this word does imply that the Toronto based organizers of the original SlutWalk failed to engage a diverse group of women when designing what would become an international movement. While the spark that lit the flame here was the use of the word “slut” by a sexist, misguided police officer, by forever branding the organization with that word, the organizers failed to use language that is universally compelling. However, I think that the writers of this open letter doth protest a bit too much.
When I originally learned about SlutWalk, I was both intrigued and impressed, despite the fact that I am far more likely to be told that I am dressed like a “ho” than I am dressed like a “slut” if I chose to hit the streets in a scant dress or with knee-high boots. Yet, I still felt connected to the heart of the matter: women of ALL races are forced to bare the brunt of the responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. Women of ALL races are told that if they dress “respectably”, they won’t have to worry about being called a “slut”, a “hoe” or any other sexist and derogatory name and they won’t be in danger of being raped. As those of us with good sense know, that simply isn’t true. In fact, some past SlutWalks have featured women walking in the wholly un-provocative clothing they wore at the time of their sexual assaults to further drive this point home.
I’m sad to say that had SlutWalk been called “FreedomWalk”, “SisterWalk”, “SafetyWalk” or any other name, I don’t think black women would have been compelled en masse to participate. Would some of the women who wrote this letter have taken part? Sure, but that’s the choir right there -- the feminist sisters who are always going to be present and engaged when we are talking gender. And that population is vastly outnumbered by black women who will tell you themselves that if you dress like a “hoe,” you get what you deserve if you get cat-called in the street or that you shouldn’t be surprised if you are targeted for an assault. And we’re out-populated by black women who are so protective of our often-persecuted men that they would sooner turn a blind eye to the sexual harassment so many of us endure from our brothers than stand up and demand that they repay the love, loyalty and respect that we show to them.
So while I understand the concerns of the writers of this letter (and hope that the SlutWalk organizers hear them and engage women of color in the way that they need to in the service of creating a movement that adequately addresses the needs of women across cultural lines), I feel that a better approach would be active participation in SlutWalks. Let’s not stand back and wait for them to change the organization to suit our needs, but let’s get involved, be present, be vocal and engage SlutWalk’s supporters and leadership from within. Let’s make the need to expand the SlutWalk aim and reach apparent by being an active part of the development of the movement.