"Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?; or, What’s Troubling Me about the Absence of Reflexivity in Movements that Proclaim Solidarity
Sister/Comrade Stephanie Gilmore, who spoke at SlutWalk Philadelphia, is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the ONLY anti-racist White Feminists who has PUBLICLY SUPPORTED the IDEA/PREMISE of SlutWalk while PUBLICLY CHALLENGING its CURRENT RACIST REALITY.
With her FULL PERMISSION, I have re-posted the text of her essay so that people who are not on facebook will be able to read it in its entirety.
“Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?; or, What’s Troubling Me about the Absence of Reflexivity in Movements that Proclaim Solidarity” by Stephanie Gilmore
On September 21, 2011, I joined hundreds of my friends and millions of people around the world to watch, through tears and in abject horror, as Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the State of Georgia. In the twenty years between Davis’ trial for the murder of police officer Mark McPhail and his execution, Davis maintained his innocence while witnesses recanted the testimony that sent Davis to death row. Despite conflicting testimonies and inadequate evidence, the state put aside lingering and longstanding doubt and instead, put Troy Anthony Davis to death.
On Facebook, Twitter, and other media outlets, I saw virtual and real friends declare that “I am Troy Davis.” They changed their profile pictures to a picture or image of Davis, or a black box, all in an attempt to articulate a sense of solidarity, a stand against the injustice of the prison industrial complex and a state thoroughly entrenched in the murder of a man who may not have committed the crime of murder. I agree wholeheartedly that the state was wrong in executing Mr. Davis and I grieve for his death as well as that of Officer McPhail. But in the weeks since Davis’s execution, I have been wondering if people really understand how and why Davis came to be murdered at the hands of the state. People insist that “I am Troy Davis,” but what does that mean?
In many ways, I am not Troy Davis. I am a middle-class, 40-something-year-old white woman. According to a 2008 Pew Center on the States report, one in 36 Hispanic adults is in prison in the United States. One in 15 Black adults is too, a statistic that includes one in 100 Black women and one in nine Black men, age 20-34. Although one of my parents spent time in prison, and through incarceration joined the swelling ranks of 2.3 million imprisoned people and many more in the system of probation, halfway houses, and parole, I and my white peers do not face systemic racial injustice in the structures of imprisonment. And it does not begin or end with the prison system. Black children are suspended and expelled from school at 3 times the rate of white children. Racial discrimination in funding for education also affects children’s success in school, as cash-poor school districts are also overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhoods. Schools have been and remain a pipeline to prison for many Black and Latino children, and generations of families, prison is a reality. One in 15 Black children currently has a parent in jail. People say that the system is broken, but I (along with others in the prison abolition movement) admit that the system is working exactly as it was set up to do. Can I really say, “I am Troy Davis” without giving serious consideration to the realities of racism in the prison industrial complex? Does that just become little more than the adoption of a slogan and a picture, without a real awareness of the racist realities of the prison industrial complex?
On August 6, 2011, I joined Slut Walk Philadelphia. It was a beautiful day and hundreds of people moved through Center City to end up at City Hall, where even more gathered to speak out against sexual violence. I had been following Slut Walks with great delight because I see the people power in the sheer numbers of women and men who are fighting back against sexual violence. So when I was asked to participate, and to stand with queer people of Color in a more racially inclusive Slut Walk than I had seen to date, I said “yes” because the fight to end sexual violence is my fight. And fighting against a culture that perpetuates and promotes rape; cheers on rapists; and diminishes, humiliates, and silences victims through law, education, and entertainment will demands knowledge that the system, again, is not broken. It is doing the very work it was constructed to do – sexual violence is a tool of ensuring white status quo. And if we are to end sexual violence, we must acknowledge how it operates.
I have struggled to accept a movement that does not acknowledge the very problematic word “slut” and how historically many women have not been able to shake the label of “slut.” I participated in the struggle – the movement as well as my own internal struggle – because I wanted to engage in, create, and sustain dialogue. Indeed, many criticize the apparent move to claim “slut” – how can you pick up something you’ve never been able to put down? Black women have been most vocal about the longer legacy of sexual violence done onto their bodies – often against the backdrop of slavery and colonialism — simply for being Black. But I continued to push into these bigger conversations and analyses. I listened and engaged when Crunk Feminist Collective challenged Slut Walks, when BlackWomen’s Blueprint issued their “Open Letter from Black Women to Slut Walk Organizers,” and when individual women of Color (and only women of Color) spoke publicly about racist actions within individual marches as well as racism within the larger movement. White women I know made private comments about different expressions of racism, but never spoke up to challenge individual actions or larger frameworks of analysis, leaving me to wonder “why?”
And then I saw the sign from Slut Walk NYC bearing the words “Women are the N*gger of the World.” I don’t care that the quotation is from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I don’t care that the woman was asked to take down the sign – although I certainly do care that a woman of Color had to ask her to do so while white women moved around her, seemingly oblivious. I am angry when I continue to see so many white women defending it expressly or remaining complicit in silence, suggesting that “we” (what “we”?) need to focus on sexual violence first, as if it is unrelated to racism. And I wonder, can I really claim to be a part of the nascent Slut Walk movement without giving serious consideration to the realities of racism within very publicly identified facets of it? Can I be a part of it when so many women – my very allies and sisters in antiracist struggle – are set apart from it, or worse, set in perpetual opposition to it?
My question is, how can we be in solidarity when we are not willing to be reflexive and to check ourselves, check each other, and be checked? Bernice Johnson Reagon acknowledged that coalition building is hard work, made even harder by people who come to coalition seeking to find a home. My sense, or perhaps one sense I have, is that many people came to the “I Am Troy Davis” momentum or the Slut Walk marches looking for a home, a place where they can sit back and feel comfortable in their hard (very hard!) work, and comforted by others who pat them on the head and tell them “good job.” This is not to dismiss genuine concern for the state of our world. Perhaps we’re all lonely, as the realities of social justice work have taken on different and palatable forms since WTO and 9/11. So many people are down for the immediate issue – the indefensible execution of Troy Davis, the indefensible perpetuation of sexual violence — and that matters. But I worry that many white people aren’t paying attention to the larger structures in place. They are not being reflexive about the realities of racism that undergird prison incarceration, death penalty, and sexual violence.
I am not Troy Davis; I never will be. A system built on the foundation of racism ensures that I will not confront the realities of prison incarceration in the same ways as Black and Latino people. I am a strong advocate against sexual violence, but I cannot fight in and for a movement that is not interested in the realities of racism and the ways that racism undergirds sexual violence, and instead so blindly employs racist language. (The “Occupy Wall Street” actions call for me again the realities of racism and its necessity within the existing structure of capitalism – and the insistence among white people that people of Color indulge a luxury of time and money to sit in with them is untenable and racist. Many others have pointed out that the language of “occupation” is inherently problematic because bodies and lands have been historically occupied, often through sexual violence and criminalization. The movement itself needs to be decolonized.) Even as I support openly the prison abolition movement, the end to sexual violence, and the uprooting of a socioeconomic system that ignores the 99%, I cannot do so without deep awareness of racism that is operating within and among these movements. It is my work as a white activist to speak to and be aware of these legacies and histories of racism. Women and men of Color need not be alone in the front lines of identifying racist action and reaction within the movement. Insisting that people of Color have a voice only when it comes to identifying racism perpetuates, rather than alleviates racism. As I look at the actions of some people within these movements, I am reminded again that the racism of the supposed left is even more damaging and hurtful than the naked racism of the right.
If we are to work together in solidarity, we must do so reflexively, conscious of our actions and the potential outcomes before we act. This is not a call to focus on criticism and self-reflection to the point that we are inactive. That is unproductive, to be sure. But it is a call to be mindful and vigilant about racist action and reaction, to come to terms with the fact that we must do the work of understanding racist underpinnings of prison incarceration, the death penalty, and sexual violence if we are to make significant progress. Undoing racism must be at the core of our collective work across movements. To echo Dr. Reagon’s statement, we need to be honest and ask if we really want people of Color or if we’re just looking for ourselves with a little color to it. So much of the movement work, as it stands, seems to be looking for a little color, when we need to be exploring the realities of racism as part of the problem, not an additive to the “real” issue. In the absence of reflexivity about the structural forces that are keeping us apart, we will never be able to engage in real coalition work that will be required if we are to take seriously our goals of ending sexual violence and the death penalty. These movements as they are going now may continue, but they will not do so in my name and certainly not without my consent.
So no, I am not Troy Davis. I am not a slut. I am not an occupier of Wall Street or any street. The fights are my fights, but the current methods and analyses are not mine. I cannot sit by and listen to people debate the efficacy of the death penalty without understanding that it is the larger complex of incarceration and the “elementary-to-penitentiary” path that tracks and traps Black and Latino youth by design. I am done with the handwringing and “white lady tears” of so many white women who keep defending racist approaches and actions and, at times, respond with violence when confronted and challenged. Such behavior only reinforces the fact that these movement spaces as they are currently defined are not safe. My friend, colleague, and sister-in-spirit Aishah Shahidah Simmons said it best when she commented, “It’s sobering to observe how White solidarity is taking precedence over principled responses…. ” Sobering, indeed. I will most assuredly fight to end the prison industrial complex, sexual violence, and unbridled capitalism, but I will do so from a space that centers the racist roots of incarceration, criminal “justice,” capitalism, and sexual violence. Thankfully, those spaces already exist – even if they remain peripheral in the mainstream media (and in much of what is left of the lefty media). But it is time to pivot the center. Without reflexive analysis of racism and coalition work grounded in antiracist movement, we miss the real root of the problem as well as real opportunities to create change.
Stephanie Gilmore is a feminist activist and assistant professor of the women’s and gender studies department at Dickinson College. For the 2011-12 academic year, she is a postdoctoral fellow in women’s studies at Duke University. She is completing “Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America” (Routledge, 2012) and has started a new research project on how students negotiate sexual violence on residential college campuses in the United States.
That when people write awesome critiques of SlutWalk, they have nothing to say. All the white women and those involved who are denying what we are saying never have anything to say. Blackamazon’s letter was wonderful. Them white shorties ain’t got shit to say. I remember when the critique about slutwalk being white supremacist came out, they cried about being associated with the KKK (really?) and denied that they were white supremacists. I wrote a response that got me lots of the friends I have today, with no response by white women. And not just me or blackamazon, but LOTS of other women. And they do nothing. And have nothing to say. Except, “we will work on it” “we will discuss it”. They can’t even spend the time to read and respond with a yes, good point or a “I didn’t even know” or anything. I am honestly on some fuck them shit. More than just not participating. Now it’s fuck you.
Bolded everything that is relevant and valid and needs reading!
White women, we do really need to stop failing like this. We need to get our stuff together when it comes to listening when what we’re doing and saying is being critiqued for things we should’ve thought about WAAAY ahead of time and also in making sure that we’re listening in general so that when someone writes the things that strugglingtobeheard has written, they don’t hear nothing but crickets from us.
We gotta talk about this shit. I mean it. This has gotten completely fucking ridiculous. We cannot, not one of us, be doing this shit, and we cannot be let others of us do this shit.
Look, I hear you, SlutWalk is this fantastic idea, and you’re all super excited about it. I get it. Rape is bad, and victim blaming is bad, and we’ve found this flashy way to try to get the word out.
Only the way we’re doing it sucks ass. First of all, a whole lot of women of color really, really aren’t happy about our flashy new thing, and I don’t blame them a bit. They find no room in our happy shiny exciting fun SlutWalk movement for them. They don’t want to reclaim the word slut, because they get called it all too often. And so they, once again, feel pushed out of feminist demonstrations, as they have felt many times. And they have let us know. And we keep ignoring them. SW NYC organizers, instead of engaging with the critique or the women who presented the open letter to them, treated it as fucking damage control.
And then, at the SlutWalk itself, after white feminists have already ignored WOC and treated them as if they are the opposition or the ignorant public, some white woman goes around holding up a sign with the N-word on it. The only black woman in the organizing collecting was the one who had to ask her, ever so nicely, to please put it down because it was offensive. None of the white women around her bothered. And the white members of the collective and the white woman’s friends have gone on the defensive. There’s been deletion of comments on SW’s facebook, there’s been a member of the collective going around telling black women off for criticizing the sign in their own blogs, the girl’s friends are all insisting she’s not racist. The whole thing is a clusterfuck.
White women using that word are being racist. That quote, that line, is erasing of black women, and is racist. Defending the use of the word, trying to silence black women talking about that sign, trying to tell black women they should just understand and stop making such a fuss is fucking well racist. And after all that, calling on black women to be in solidarity with white women on feminist issues? That’s racist, too.
The WOC on my Tumblr feed keep saying, “White women, come get your people.” OK. I’m coming. I’m making a commitment to telling off these racist white feminists, to challenging them, to calling them on their racism. I’m coming to get them.
And I’m declaring myself in solidarity with black women on this. I’m calling on other white feminists to do the same. Don’t ask black women to be in solidarity with you if you’re not willing to be in solidarity with them.
By declaring myself in solidarity with black women, I admit that they know more than I do about their lives and about racism, and I commit myself to sitting down, shutting up, and listening to them when they talk about it. I admit also that I am going to fuck up, and when I do, I will be told about it, and that it is my duty as a feminist and a social justice advocate to listen to that, to apologize sincerely with no explanation, and then to go educate myself so that I don’t make that mistake again. I will not ask WOC to educate me.
And I admit, no, I declare, that it is my duty to come get the white women who are being racist, and tell them myself when I see them, and not wait for a WOC to do it first.
I call on all white feminists to do the same. Step up, women. Be in solidarity.
Bolded the most relevant (it’s all relevant) sections. This is 100% right.
We can’t ever say anything. During the Troy Davis thing, when we were expressing frustration with the American ‘justice’ system, we had to take time to soothe everyone’s feelings and say ‘no, it’s not all white people.’ Today, I see POCs blogging about that ‘woman is the nigger of the world’ sign from NYC Slutwalk and some white people are saying ‘why focus on that one word? Look at the larger message of the sign’ not fully realising that we have never had the luxury of seeing nigger as just another word. Or even this Hinduism/Buddhism hoopla, where one of my favourite bloggers is getting piled on for merely suggesting that the ways in which some people choose to engage with Indian religions may be inappropriate. I understand that not all white people are like this, and for those of you who aren’t, I’m grateful. But it’s just really tiring how every time a person of colour wants to talk about racism or whatever, we just get mauled on here. So many of you really need to examine this.
[Image: A picture from a SlutWalk protest. Lots of people are standing around holding signs, front and center is a white woman, smiling and wearing a bikini top and jeans with a yellow sign that says, “Woman is the n****r of the world”.]
Maybe you should think about it from women’s point of view. And I completely understand that about that specific person holding it and not knowing the full meaning of what she is saying but I still support the meaning.
Black women? ARE WOMEN! That’s the whole fucking point. We are the ones that will actually be called nigger. Not white women. So when we are telling you it is offensive & wrong & you’d rather cling to the racism & erase our voices? That’s a serious problem. As for liking the meaning (because you like the idea of being able to co-opt someone else’s pain for your cause) that’s the dumbest damned thing I’ve ever heard. That line is meaningless in a society where only one race of women are going to actually be called nigger. We are the ones that are dehumanized by that term. We are the ones oppressed with that word. And unless you are going to take on the actual pain of being called a nigger by people who mean it & who will happily ruin your life for the crime of being born with dark skin? You don’t get to decide that we should accept the sentiment or the goddamned sign. Ugh.
so foul that black women still have to say the first line. to the person whom karnythia was responding to—i can’t be bothered to scroll up to type out your name—you suck.
“Maybe you should think about it from women’s point of view.”
…from women’s point of view
from women’s point of view
[EDIT NOTE: I have put asterisks in between the racial slur included in the image description because upon further contemplation, and upon seeing posts from PoC, it occurs to me that this word is extremely triggery, upsetting, and very loaded with bitter, ugly, bloody history of racially motivated violence and hatred and that the simple image description does NOT necessitate using it in full.]
they “asked” her to take it down? she “was asked” to take it down?
black people are always expected to be hella nice. really, really nice. accommodating and kind and nice “in public.”
if they’d taken the sign from her and said, “hey, we organized this event and you’re not carrying that bullshit around here because it’s hurting people,” they would have been all sorts of devils and demons. promise that.
but, the same with the “slave” thing from OWS is this n-word thing from SW. white people, as a whole, feel unsafe. they feel disrespected. they feel like they aren’t getting things they are entitled to receive. they feel like second class citizens. in short, they feel like they think black people feel.
which is why i. don’t. ever. believe racists when they feign ignorance (or solidarity). they absolutely know that something is wrong with the way black, mexican, native american, asian, and other minority people in america are treated. they know that - otherwise, when they are treated unfairly, why do they so quickly use trigger words that refer to racism and violence toward minorities?
because they KNOW it exists. they KNOW we deal with it. they KNOW it’s a real and true situation in this country. they just never gave a fuck until it started happening to them.
i wonder what would have happened if a black girl had been pictured saying, “MORE CRACKERS ARE RAPISTS THAN ANYONE ELSE. KEEP YOUR WHITE HANDS OFF OF ME!” - that shit would be on CNN right now.
but the crackers usually are the rapists…least in good ol amerikkka. :|
facts are the kinds of things these people willingly refuse to deal with.
SlutWalk is on a Saturday, Wall Street is around-the-clock. Since April, SlutWalk has maintained a constant media presence, but it doesn’t expect its protesters to be on the march all the time. It’s a single day—a single, weekend day—in each city. Full participation doesn’t require an empty schedule. Occupy Wall Street’s “set up camp and stay there” approach is anachronistic. It may have worked at a time when the economy was good, but it isn’t feasible anymore. This movement is primarily accessible to professional activists and those who can afford not to work, which undermines the populist, mainstream message the movement purports to convey. It’s ironic that the things keeping people like me away from Wall Street are the very things the protesters decry—job scarcity, the wealth gap, rising health care and food costs. But that doesn’t make it any more likely that we’ll show up. We’re holding onto our jobs for dear life. Occupy Wall Street’s style and vibe could evolve now that New York City unions have voted unanimously to support the movement and plan an upcoming march. But the fact remains: In order to speak to the largest number of people, a protest needs a message that is universal yet razor-sharp. It needs to hold everyone accountable, not just politicians and CEOs. It needs a public image that’s provocative but broadly appealing. And it needs to fit our lives. SlutWalk gets down to business while advocating pleasure. No wonder it’s lured thousands. It’s about to lure one more. —
A Tale of Two Protests: What Occupy Wall Street Can Learn From SlutWalk - Action - GOOD
This is perhaps the most laughable aspect of the entire article. Posing as a working class critique of organizing—it is just…ignorant. does this author *REALLY* think that thousands of people are standing out on wall street…and never leaving ever? could it be a TEENY bit possible that some people are showing up after work, hanging out for a few hours then leaving? that those who are staying for extended periods are …ROTATING?
Here’s the thing about organizing. LOGISTICS IS A HUGE PART OF IT. something as anal and irritating as LOGISTICS is actually deeply political, deeply gendered, racialized, nationalized, able-ized—THAT’S WHY SO MANY MARCHES AND PROTESTS FAIL TO ACHIEVE ANYTHING. because the nation/state has, largely successfully, attempted to *control* logistics. Like—you can only march here, you can only stay if you aren’t sleeping, you can’t eat here, you can’t sing here, you can’t use a microphone here. AND because organizers fail to see or prioritize things like—disabled people can’t get to this march. or, mamis need to be able to bring their kids. or poor people can’t afford to get arrested. etc.
so logistics are not about “this march needs to fit into my schedule book”—it’s about: you can’t change shit without a mass base of power to operate from. you need millions of people world-wide to make significant change. as such, you need to alter HOW YOU DO A PROTEST to fit the needs of your community. You need to have a protest last 24-7 so people working third shift can show up if they feel like it. You need to have a gender analysis and a rotating schedule on cooking shifts so that women aren’t the only ones doing it and people who can only show up for an hour can jump in for a shift then leave. on and on and on.
Latin AMerican organizers have *perfected* the art of logistics on so many levels—I mean, they’re not “PERFECT”—but they are asking the right questions—like what role can a working single mother have in a massive protest? And they do things like—when you’re cooking dinner tonight, put a little aside for protestors.
Anyway, I’ve got so much more to say—but I’ve got to get to work. SO. let me just say—this is the problem with feminist organizing in the US. they DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO IT. So how can you form a good analysis of organizing if you don’t know how to do it? How can you have a critique of organizing if YOU DON’T DO IT PERIOD????