Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Inclusivity and SlutWalk

So do many of us, it seems.
SlutWalk is still interesting. Why? Because it represents a crossroads between different kinds of feminism: radical, liberal, all kinds of left-wing, and what we sometimes fall into the trap of calling The Rest of the World. For example, my Tory friend, who I shamelessly abuse as a barometer of opinions outside of my East London, middle class, left-wing world, responded with ‘Perhaps for the first time ever, I agree. You are completely right.’ when I reposted the SlutWalk Toronto page on Facebook. It’s refreshing to be thinking about a march that appeals to a wide range of people, from different walks of life, if only because feminism in London is awfully divided, claustrophobic, and even cliquey.

All kinds of people want to see action taken against rape, and everyone (I hope so anyway) agrees that blaming women for rape has got to end. I can’t wait to see if this translates into a mixed, exciting march, and even a wider forum for debate on women’s bodies, women’s right to consent to sex, and how sexual violence fits into a wider framework of repression and institutionalised violence.

Yet it is not so simple. Women are protesting their exclusion from SlutWalk across the blogosphere, notably women of different 'races', transgender people and those who simply feel alienated from the word ‘slut’. The march in Toronto and the march in Chicago have been criticised for not being racially representative of local communities and for creating exclusive spaces that do nothing to welcome women from different ethnic groups. Photos in the press all reflect SlutWalk as very white, largely young, fairly glamorous (in a Tank Girl kind of way) and wearing very little clothing on the whole. Clearly not something every woman can do, or wants to do, or feels comfortable doing.

Furthermore, blogs such as musingsandmoans and tothecurb have reflected on the racial elements of words such as ‘slut’. Sexually loaded words such as ‘slut’ become even more problematic when applied to communities who have suffered extreme, racially-based sexual objectification and attack. At a recent (and very successful) meeting to discuss the politics of SlutWalk, I felt that we came up against a bit of a brick wall when it came to addressing these problems. No one really wanted to defend SlutWalk as not racially problematic.

Well, they were right. Because SlutWalk is racially problematic. Unfortunately, so is feminism, the feminist left, and society in general. I’m not necessarily saying ‘racist’. I feel I have yet to understand the complex hierarchisation and racist underpinnings of society that means there are certain spheres where black people are simply not adequately represented. No one I work with politically is racist in any normally accepted sense of the word. But most of them are white, educated and middle-class. And at that meeting we were faced with the problem that is often present when it comes to inclusivity. Do we, as mostly white, middle-class women, attempt to fix this problem by openly inviting women of other 'races' to join us? Or do we hope that they will decide to do so of their own accord, leave the door open in case they turn up, and thus avoid playing God with our white privilege?

Neither solution is perfect, and really, for SlutWalk, neither is very necessary. The women at the meeting were not the organisers, and have little control over who comes to the event. If you agree with SlutWalk, you should go, and if you don’t, then don’t. Rape is a universal problem and that’s that. Black Women Agianst Rape have just released a statement on why they will be attending:
SlutWalk is a much needed occasion to break down divisions and strengthen everyone’s right to protection and justice, no matter who we are, where we were raped or who raped us...We want to make visible the women of colour everywhere who are fighting for justice after reporting attacks by men in positions of authority. Like the placards at the Paris SlutWalk march referring to the Black refugee housekeeper who has accused the ex-head of the IMF of attempted rape: ‘We are all chamber maids’.
Hopefully there will be a good mix of different people there. Possibly there won’t. As the London event seems to have been organised by a loose collection of young women on Facebook, it’s pretty impossible (if not inappropriate) to challenge them directly, and I feel sure the Canada lot are getting pretty fed up of answering to challenges from around the world.

But more generally, this is a big question for left-wing feminists. Most politically engaged women have gendered experiences of rejection or silencing within mixed-gender political circles. These range from direct violence and overt sexism to more esoteric experience of male-dominated culture, non-acceptance, stereotyping and challenges along gendered lines. Not to mention a lack of crèches. As a Marxist feminist, I reject all gendered attacks, both the visible and the invisible. Nonetheless, many are hard to describe and even harder to combat.

When it comes to feminism and 'race', it is necessary to take the same things into account. 91% of the UK is of white British origin. In London this drops to less than 70% (Wikipedia, bien sur). I have no experience of seeing 30% non-white people at any political event in London, yet this should be a long-tern goal. We must create a space where women of all backgrounds, identities, sexualities and ages are able to speak freely. If this is possible, it will probably challenge us in ways that we don’t want to be challenged. Yet it must be attempted. Nonetheless, we have to accept that different women organise in different ways, and may not ‘need’ us to ‘save’ them. Thus alliances with other organisations, such as black women’s groups, may be a better way to move forward than cross-examining ourselves and extending gracious invitations. It’s a long road and there are no easy answers.

There is a racist structure within our society. In general in the UK, it’s pretty connected to the class system, but in no way interchangeable with it. And while we live in a racist system, we are going to be affected by it. This means, to some extent, that everyone is racist. As we know, until everyone is free, no one is free. For SlutWalk, we should think about 'race', but then we should go and march on the streets because demonstrations are a far more open and accepting tactic than closed meetings or private lists. For life, and the political struggle ahead, we do need to think - and talk - about this more.

1 comment:

Frances Grahl said...

More interesting thoughts on Slutwalk here: