Slutwalk, white feminists and That Placard.
I belong to one of the most privileged groups on this planet. I am young, white, University educated, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, slim, and able-bodied.
I am also a feminist.
I am not a feminist just because of the issues that affect my own life. Yes, I am fed up with things like pay inequity, sexual harrassment in the workplace, the objectification of women in the media, rape culture and other things that I have some first-hand experience of. But I am also really, really pissed off about stuff that affects women whose lives are a long way removed from my own experience: I hate the invisibility, stereotyping or objectification of any woman. I hate the fact that equality has yet to be achieved even among and between women, let alone with men — that we’re still a million miles away from it, in fact. I hate that things like genital mutilation, stoning, lashing, slutshaming, marital rape and a ton of other horrible things are inflicted on women all over the world every day. I hate the fact that often, acts of violence against women are committed precisely because of the colour of the victim’s skin. I hate the fact that even within my own supposedly accepting and progressive country, women of colour are routinely discriminated against in all manner of ways — receiving a poorer quality of/less education, less job opportunities, less childcare opportunities, less social support, less pay and generally a much shittier deal all round — in comparison to white women. I hate that I live in a city whose ethnic diversity is basically non-existent — 95% of all Edinburgh residents are white. I hate the repurcussions of that: the fact that all the faces in my 450-strong undergrad lectures were white, for example. I hate that the students I teach are totally ignorant about all concerns of race, and often pretty shocked to see a non-white face in their classroom. I hate that our society generally hands women of colour such a bloody crap time, and never, ever apologises.
I also realise how easy it is for me to type all this, how little I really know of what I’m talking about, and how badly white feminists can and do all too easily come across.
The Slutwalk New York episode — the young, white, slim girl holding up That Placard — was just a perfect example. It was a totally blind, thoughtless and deeply offensive act, and I join the majority of the rest of the feminist blogosphere in condemning it. As a feminist, as a woman, as a human, I fail to see how anyone can get behind that action and defend it.
And I want to speak to those bloggers — women of colour and white women alike — who are condemning every white feminist who was present at the event for not speaking up and getting that placard immediately destroyed (apparently, it took a request from a black Slutwalk participant for the offending placard to be taken down).
I was with you. I was so with you. Shocked and stunned that no one in the white Slutwalk contingent — women supposedly plugged into politics, equality, fairness, dignity, you’d think — felt able to walk up to that woman and say “this is not acceptable. This offends me and it probably offends a lot of other people here.”
But then, I started thinking: would I have done it? Would I have said it? I asked Lovely Boyfriend, who marched with me in the Edinburgh Slutwalk, and who is also white, University educated, heterosexual, cisgendered. Would he have said it? After some thought he said no, he probably wouldn’t have. And I admitted that I, too, would not have done either.
I felt heinously ashamed to acknowledge this in myself, but I knew the reason. As a hugely privileged white woman, I would have felt utterly ill-equipped to tell any woman of colour what she should and should not feel offended by. As Susan J Douglas puts it, “as a white woman, and a white…feminist, I know I am entering treacherous terrain. What right do I have to comment on these images? …I may know a thing or two (or three) firsthand about sexism, but what the hell do I know, in my bones, in my gut, about racism…? Only what I know second hand.” Who am I, she asks, to tell women of colour what they should be getting upset about, and what they should be doing about it?
Had I been at that Slutwalk, I would have kept my mouth shut, too. I would have fumed, inwardly, at the thoughtless, idiotic, deeply privileged nature of the act, but I would probably have said nothing. And that is despicable.
I can totally understand why many women of colour are now taking to their blogs to renounce feminism because its power is held by white middle class women who appear not to give a shit about anyone other than their own. I totally get that. But it makes me deeply, deeply sad. I want so much to say: ladies, there are white feminists out there who don’t think it’s our divine right to “reclaim” that word, who did find the word, the act, the response (the fact that Slutwalk put the issue up as a “debate topic” on their main Facebook page — like there was more than one way to respond to the placard?! — was unforgiveable) deeply offensive, who are continuing to be made angry every time they think of the whole thing. There are white feminists out there, myself included, who have had a previously unseen weakness in themselves held up to the light, who have realised that polite, inwardly-fuming silence is just as bad as joining the placard-waving idiot girl and saying “yeah, what she said!” There are white feminists who are ashamed of themselves and want to do something, anything, to excuse their ignorance. I want to say: please don’t renounce all of us. Yes, feel free to tell the white, “we can reclaim this word!” weirdos to go to hell… but please realise that we’re not all that pigheaded and blind.
The anger I’m seeing across the blogosphere from women of colour has made me realise that I have a responsibility to tackle the issues that affect those people who don’t share my immediate experiences. That in future, I have every right to walk up to someone who is doing something racist and say “hey, I’m white, but I am pretty sure this is not acceptable and if I find it offensive, think what a person of colour is going to make of it, you asshole.” I can do that. Susan J Douglas realises later in the same statement, that “I cannot speak for women [of colour], but I can be their compatriot.” This is what I want white feminists to do. Can we do this? Is it too late? Is anyone with me?
Pull your socks up feminism. You’re needed.
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- October 12, 2011 / 3:39 pm