[Content note: rape culture, sexual(ized) assault and violence and language, victim blaming, racism]
Ever since a police officer told a group of of students in 2011 to not “dress like sl*ts” so they wouldn’t get sexually assaulted, women* in Toronto, Canada, started out a quickly spreading action movement against this culture of sl*t shaming and victim blaming by initiating the so-called “sl*t walks” in protest. In an effort to reclaim the word sl*t and (at least partially) regain access to the discourse about women*’s sexuality and rights to bodily integrity, demonstrations titled “sl*twalks” took place in 75 cities worldwide at the end of 2011. In Berlin, germany, the first walk took place in August last year with about 3,500 participants; another sl*t walk marched just last week.
The underlying reasons for a protest movement like the “sl*twalks,” Feminism ™ agrees on that, are tremendously important: the fight against rape culture, sl*t shaming, victim blaming, sexual(ized) violence and (street) harassment, objectification, trivialization and the common disregard for women* who are being thought of less than a human being in (public) space. Sl*twalks are a non-centralized, diverse action movement that seems to profit and suffer from the same strategies and inherent difficulties that the (non?)political concept of “openness” brings with it – a chance for people who are not politically organized to participate anyway, but the inevitable perpetuation of systematic social discrimination when one does not explicitly reflects and/or strongly advocates and acts against it (cf. the remarkably similar – no, that’s not remarkable, that’s irony - problems of the Occupy Wall Street movement). Importantly: having an open movement like sl*twalks that invites as many women* (and men*) as possible to participate, it is not only about preventing discrimination, and, in certain regards when establishing this “open” concept, discrimination is basically part of the deal; the reaction to incidents or even whole structures of discrimination becomes vital, and here is where many sl*twalks fall short.
There has been anti-racist criticism of sl*twalks – and not just once, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. There has been anti-classist, anti-heterosexist, anti-ableist, anti-cis-sexist, … criticism of sl*twalks – and not just once, here and here and here and here and here and here. And these links are just the result of a quick Google search, by the way – there’s a whole lot more.
A lot of anger and frustration has been expressed towards the sl*twalk alliance in Berlin – most recently articulated by Der Braune Mob, given the incident at the sl*twalk last week that featured a (white) woman* who thought it a good idea to literally paint a niqab on her body. There are several things wrong with that (surprise!), but the most offensive ones may be that 1) (Every form of) “Blackface”*** (cf. comment section) is a really bad idea, 2) thinking that you as a white and probably german woman* can speak for women* who wear niqabs is a really bad idea, 3) even though cultural relativism usually shows a lack of solidarity, using politicized religious symbols as symbols of negated women’s* rights in countries that are not the country you happen to be a citizen of turns the whole idea of sl*twalks upside down: namely the fact that sexism is a worldwide systematic structure of oppression, and that’s why the protests are happening all over the world. Solidarity usually is best expressed postcolonially, when actually inviting and asking people who suffer from it in different forms than you to speak up rather than to impersonate and speak for them in an almost parodic manner; especially when it plays into an anti-Muslim, right-wing discourse as it does in a country as germany that is always happy to point the finger, and where conservatives politicians suddenly realize their deep-seated anti-sexism when it comes to women* wearing headscarves – Thilo Sarrazin might enjoy a sl*twalk like that one.
As stated before, in a movement like sl*twalk, you cannot avoid people who act and speak in discriminatory ways – it becomes about your reaction to incidents like that one. Unfortunately, Sl*twalk Berlin isn’t up to the task, quite to the contrary – and it is precisely the reaction of represenatives of sl*twalk that annoy me the most, not even the stuff that happens “casually” on the side. What has started out as heated online debates was (again: surprise!) exemplified “in real life” yesterday at a panel discussion at the 5 year anniversary of “Mädchenmannschaft,” where the intended discussion about feminist (internet) activism quickly deteriorated into white whining that is is “SO HARD” to include people who don’t share your privileges by representatives of the Berlin sl*twalk alliance.
At first, I actually felt for their representative on the panel, because (and that was a delightful surprise, for a change) she seemed to have the whole room (including representatives of Mädchenmannschaft, Bühnenwatch and HollaBack! Berlin) against her, given what had only happened a week before and again that afternoon, when sl*twalk Berlin decided to publish the photo of said painted niqab woman* and repeat the rather exhausting racist justifications they had brought forward before. The panelist said she had only been a member for five weeks. The mere fact that the sl*twalk alliance in Berlin would send forth someone who has been involved for this small amount of time to face one of the most basic and major discussions in a room of feminist activists who have adamantly opposed the alliance’s actions speaks volumes to me. My empathy quickly vanished, however, when she and, more strongly, the four or five other sl*twalk organizers who sat in the audience and decided on speaking up, did exactly that: speak. Because if there ever was an example of making things worse by talking, this was it.
Exemplifying greatly as to why there is not a single woman* of color in their organizing team, the five white women* representing the sl*twalk’s organizational team were determined to make every person of color and anti-racist ally cry: “BINGO!” with every sentence – too many to repeat all of them, but here are a few pointers for you to know what I’m talking about: It was said that sl*twalk Berlin wasn’t faced with constructive criticism, but with a lot of evil bashing. I beg to differ, see the links above. Moreover, if you happen to be faced with a lot of anti-racist “evil bashing” by other feminists who just won’t stop, you might want to overthink your strategies.
In answer to a woman* of color’s criticism that “sl*t” was a term that carried an additional set of implications for women* of color and that, in her view, reclaiming the term in this manner was impossible, it was answered that Sl*twalk Berlin’s goal was “not to reclaim the term anymore.” So what the fuck is your actual goal, then? If you’ve given up on reclaiming the term, then still calling yourself sl*twalk makes no sense at all anymore, and your sole purpose is to still exclude feminists who won’t or can’t march against rape culture under that banner. The whole idea behind sl*twalks was to find an entry point to the mainstream debates about women*’s sexuality and to change the conversation by occupying this term and trying to turn it around (which, and I would agree, is a highly complicated endeavour). If you don’t even want to do that anymore, what exactly is the point of calling yourself sl*ts, then, and why is it unthinkable to rename the walk to be more inclusive if it’s not about reclaiming that term? Showing “worldwide” solidarity with other sl*twalks can’t be it, since they have NOT given up on reclaiming the term. Is it simple media recognition? This isn’t an explanation, this makes things even worse. There’s a whole lot of expressions to choose from out there. In Hamburg, the same, highly important goals of countering rape culture are now pursued under the name “enter the gap,” for example. If you don’t like that one, there are tested phrases within feminist movements, e.g. “No means No,” “Yes Means Yes,” “Not An Invitation,” “It’s My Body,” “Reclaim X/Y/Z,” … Or you could come up with something yourself.
It was said that thinking of all the other forms of systematic discrimination and being inclusive was “totally” hard, in an actually exasperated voice of a person looking for consolation and cookies. Sorry, I’m all out of fucks to give for white whining. It was said that the only panelist of color seems to claim to be “the voice of PoCs,” and why did PoCs even think they’re “a collective” anyway. No one said that, not the panelist, nor PoCs – but it sure is telling that this is your perception. PoC is a term born out of the commonality of discriminatory experiences due to racism for a certain group of people within a given society – PoCs aren’t a homogenous collective, and no one says so. If a group of PoC, however, all claim that you are behaving in a racist manner, the wrong answer is to question their knowledge or perception or analysis by trying to undermine their lived experiences and political positioning, and think you as a white person know better than they do what racism actually is and what your imaginary PoC friends think (and this “friend” of color some white people use as their get-out-of-jail-freecard every single time isn’t proof of your self-professed anti-racism, everybody knows that.) It was said – apparently, to counter the racism reproach – that there had been “sl*twalks in the Congo too” (!!1!). That’s great! What exactly does that have to do with the anti-racist critique of Sl*twalk Berlin? Why would you refer to an African country when trying to tell PoCs that sl*twalks in Europe or the US supposedly aren’t racist? Wait, let me guess…
It was at this point that I (and others) left the room, and “Mädchenmannschaft” broke up the discussion to put an end to this racist crap – much to the dismay of the sl*twalk representatives who quickly left the anniversary party without another word (except consoling ones to each other – the display of white privilege sure is exhausting). The plan was for Noah Sow to perform that evening as the headliner of the event, but clearly, neither Noah nor anyone else of the people I talked to were in the partying mood after this, so Noah donated her stage time for an impromptu panel for PoC participants to vent and reflect these events (thanks for that again!).
Most importantly, to me, Noah pointed out that this isn’t an abstract discussion of racism and white privilege and bad excuses – this is real life for PoCs, and has very specific consequences for women* of color. She further said that it is a testimony to the pervasiveness of racism that there still is no such thing as a safe space, even at events that explicitly position themselves as anti-racist, and that much more has to be actively done to ensure a safe space for PoC by implementing the knowledge of how to create safe spaces for (white) women*, for example – how can it be that this is so hard to transfer to other social groups who face discrimination?
Personally, this incident was on the lower end of my personal annoyance scale – perhaps because I mostly felt the behavior of the sl*twalk group was cringe-worthy and at times preposterous-funny, and I was actually pleasantly surprised that someone besides PoC countered them during the debate and told them to shut up at some point. The problem, however, is that this “point” lies too far ahead – there’s a whole lot to be said before many (white) people realize where this is heading. This is closely related to the tone “argument” and the “you’re oversensitive:” I can’t predict the future, but I still know where the hell this is going when people start with the remarks the sl*twalk alliance has started with. It is always only the tip of the iceberg. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is totally justified and important to react strongly and quickly to “incidents” like the niqab one. But one of the reasons this is necessary is not only the racist bullshit that is paraded in said incident, but the much bigger racist bullshit that lies beneath. The sl*twalk alliance has brilliantly exemplified that yesterday by digging their own hole deeper and deeper and not realizing that, sometimes, you literally should Stop Talking. Pointing me to the “Congo” when trying to show how really non-racist you are is… well… yeah. Let’s call it: not effective; rather a prime example of cognitive dissonance.
And as PoC left the room, some people said that “They [the sl*twalk representatives] should go!” and that “The wrong people have to leave the room!” I appreciate that – to me, it’s a surprising sign of progress when people realize these things. It would be even greater if the envelope wasn’t pushed so far as to necessitate ostentatious exits by either PoC or the poster men*_women* of white privilege.
I realize that the “Congo” remark and related ones might seem small to some people – but they’re not. They’re in line with someone in the audience actually asking what “PoC” means. They are in line with sl*twalk representatives talking about allegedly “accepting” criticism, but not being able to stop themselves from going down the “What’s the big deal? Suck it up for The Greater Good ™!” line. The problem is: solidarity only ever goes one way here. It are only ever feminists of color, LGBTQ feminists, working-class feminists, non-ablebodied feminists, … who are asked to “suck it up” for Feminism ™ – repeatedly, constantly, aggressively. And yet, somehow, if you criticize this, you’re the “splitter,” the non-solidary whiner, the nit-picker, the party pooper, the person who just can’t let it go. That’s true, I can’t let it go – because you just won’t let go of actively perpetuating privileges.
This is also a debate and a necessary reflection that Mädchenmannschaft won’t let go. After being subjected to valid criticism that the group wasn’t able to provide the safe space it intended, I am sure there will be a discussion about this. I would be glad to hear your take on the situation (if you were there or weren’t) and possible suggestions as to how to react and handle this. These are basically just some of my ungathered thoughts to begin a discussion. Again: if you don’t want to write in English, you are most welcome to write in german.
[Update]: After re-reading, I think I should at least mention that up until that point, I had an interesting and informative and good time at Mädchenmannschaft’s anniversary party – incidents like this one (rightly and unavoidably so) phase out positive experiences, but I feel it is important to state a positive memory in its own right, especially when I personally know how much effort and work some people have put into creating this party. Also, Sharon Dodua Otoo’s reading was awesome. Clearly, that doesn’t take away the necessity to discuss the events and potential consequences.
[Update 2]: This needs clarification: three of the five participants of the spontaneous WoC panel are (to varying degrees) part of the “Mädchenmannschaft” author group, including myself since the beginning of September.
[Update 3]: Thanks to the efforts of many people, “You Walk Alone” has been translated into german here at antiblog.
[Update 4]: Mädchenmannschaft has published a statement and apology here.
[Update 5]: The three WoC at Mädchenmannschaft – Nadia, Sabine and I – have written a collaborative post (in german) over at Nadia’s blog: “Schulterklopfen für die Opfer”.
[Update 6, January 2013]: The riddle has officially been solved, by the way: as people who witnessed the “Niqab” performance at Berlin’s sl*twalk have said before, this performance was staged by women active in “Femen.” Two of these women are white, German, non-Muslim university students; one of the women is from Albania, whose religion has not been disclosed but who has been a member of and active in the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) for two years (cf. EMMA, January/February 2013). Femen’s latest performance included painting the Auschwitz slogan “Arbeit macht frei” on a wall in Hamburg’s red light district when protesting against sex work… Enough said (exept for: HOLY. SHIT. Are you serious? “Hey, we’re racists already – why not combine that with anti-Semitism and make this really German?!”).