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Preacher's Daughter: A Word About Slutwalk, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Who Gets to Reclaim Racist Words and Traditions

Full disclosure: I have had misgivings about Slutwalk from day one. "Slut" has never been a term used against me. Though the idea of reclaiming the word seems to resonate with many young, white heterosexual women, it is not clear to me how it's something that can unify all women. It felt alienating and exclusionary from the start.

Last week, one Kelly Peterlinz was photographed at Slutwalk NYC holding a sign made by Erin Clark reading, "Woman is the n****r of the world," the title of a song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Organizers asked Peterlinz to remove the sign, but the photos had already been taken. Thus began another debate about the word itself, in which Slutwalk NYC organizers, along with Peterlinz and Clark, did the rounds, offering up torturous pleas that their hearts were in the right place. And anyway, Peterlinz and Clark maintained, women are. That word. White women even. They are sorry if anyone was offended, but stand by their point about Class Woman.

Then, when Sydette Harry offered a trenchant and important critique of Slutwalk, Jake Areyeh Marcus of Slutwalk Philadelphia showed up to shame the Mean, Evil Women of Color who spoke out—and blame them for the emotional stress suffered by one of her fellow organizers. Yes, really. 

For a word that isn't about us, we white people sure know how to keep ourselves at the center of the discussion, amirite?

All of this gnashing of teeth about whether or not white women get to claim the word, "n****r," as ours. Isn't that what this is? That is, a slightly more sophisticated take on the old question, "Why don't we get to say it if they get to say it?" Why do we feel entitled to dictate the terms of these debates? Do we, the beneficiaries of slavery, think—in spite of everything—that we own these racist words too?

Yesterday, Harry wrote a follow-up to her open letter. Noting that organizers with Slutwalk had not responded to her, she incisively wrote, "My liberation is not glamorous enough, it seems, to be considered essential. However, it is intrinsic to yours. As long as there is a N****R of the world to be compared to, the treatment of that same will be, sadly, the measure of oppression."

This dynamic—in which white people dictate the terms of the discussion about racism to black people—is not unfamiliar. Come on, we'll say, don't you realize that we're all on the same side? Don't you know how it hurts my feelings to be called a racist? So, in 2011, whites are still wrongly asking: To whom does racist history belong?

Maybe you've watched a similar dynamic swirl around an old-time band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Perhaps you heard Melissa Block wonder on NPR whether or not it's okay for the Carolina Chocolate Drops to reclaim so-called "minstrel music," never mind the actual origins of the banjo they play. If so, you know that classically trained singer, Rhiannon Giddens, actually had to say, "Here's the deal. We play fiddles and banjos and we're black."

It's a question that is never asked of the many white bluegrass and old-time musicians in North America. Nor was it asked of Feminist-Approved singer Michelle Shocked back when she did an entire album based on minstrel song covers in the early nineties.

We interrogate black people about the reclamation of language and tradition, but not ourselves. And we certainly think we get to reclaim racist history for our own liberation, as Michelle Shocked did and as protesters at Slutwalk have done.

Here is what Giddens has to say about reclamation in a powerful spoken word poem from the Chocolate Drops' 2008 album, Heritage:

In my dream, history falls in on itself, and in my dream, there is no blackface, no misappropriation, no misdirection, no diasporic disconnect from the great hammering of our great-grandfathers' fingers. Instead, banjo sounds frequent the airwaves - like the most insidious hip-hop beat - spreading as dangerously as any soul clap, are sampled over and over until they become part until they become part until they become part of race memory... And in my dream—with our own black hands—we play, we pluck, we embrace what has always been ours to begin with.

I'm not saying that white people can't do country, but I am asking: Which looks more like it glorifies the Old South, and which just looks like joy?

This song by Old Crow Medicine Show

Or this?

I have not explicitly discussed spirituality in this post, though I hope the reasons that it fits in this series are implicit. These are questions that we ask of religion just as we ask them of culture: What exactly is my tradition? Can my tradition be reclaimed in a way that is liberatory rather than oppressive? And who do I need to be listening to to keep me from just stomping all over traditions and past injustices in ways that hurt people?

"I Know I've Been Changed"

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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Michelle Shocked

As a point of information, Michelle Shocked did take on a lot of "dialogue" about racism and minstrelsy when she did Arkansas Traveler. In fact, her intention in making the album in the first place was to draw attention to the appropriation of traditionally African-American music by white people - what she calls "Eurocentric High Culture's sordid little love affair with blackface minstrelsy" - and she fought tooth and nail with her record company about trying to keep her message.

She says in the album notes: "My early intention was to present this record with a cover photo of myself wearing blackface. Aside from providing controversy for hatemongers or offending the delicate sensibilities of the politically correct, my sincere intention was that it would provide a genuine focus on the real "roots" of many of the tunes included: blackface minstrelsy. It's my contention that a blackface tradition is alive and well hidden behind a modern mask. I believe that "blacking up" should be done correctly; as an exploration for the source of that hollow ring we mistakenly believe was immaculately conceived in Las Vegas, and in a context of true respect for the cultures we ape." In other words, she wanted to appear on her album in blackface, not to claim victimhood, but to admit and state that most pop singers appropriate without knowing or acknowledging their debt, which was the underlying theme of the whole album. I think she wanted to use her relatively high-profile position as an artist to open a serious conversation about cultural appropriation, and she definitely was "questioned" about those choices, so much so that it impelled her to leave the mainstream record label system despite popularity and success so that she could do more artistically honest and challenging work without having to deal with record company pressure.

You may agree or disagree with her choice of statement, but I don't think it was motivated by trying to justify herself or control the dialogue, and I think it's unfair to say that she wasn't questioned or pressed about doing it.

Wow... I do not think that

Wow... I do not think that really helps Michelle Shocked's case. My feeling is that this is very much like what happened with Slutwalk. A white woman using racist tropes for shock value.

I had hoped to make this

I had hoped to make this clear: she was very much NOT trying to use racist tropes just for shock value. She was trying to do it to make a point and raise a conversation, or at least awareness, about appropriation. She was trying to say "this exists, and I do it, most popular musicians do it, just as surely as if we were actually wearing blackface and all it implied. It's a problem that the real roots of American popular music have been lost and forgotten and whitewashed out of existence, and that musicians don't pay proper respect and acknowledgement to the people they stole from." She wanted to out herself, basically, about something most musicians don't even think about. It may have been shocking, but it wasn't simply for the shock value.

Artists do this kind of thing all the time; the question, I think, is what they mean when they choose to use a shocking image, whether they're just using it for the attention or whether they are trying to make a more complex point and stimulate thought. Part of the problem she had is that her label was more afraid of the shock value than the thought and potential dialogue behind it, and yes, it's a choice that would have been misinterpreted by some people. However, I appreciate when artists try to be brave about this stuff and confront our culture in ways that may be uncomfortable, if they do it thoughtfully.

I don't believe that only the members of a group can speak about the problems of that group, if they do it respectfully and also listen to the conversation from members of the group under discussion. I believe in male feminists, straight allies, and so on, and I think they're important. Malcolm X himself said, in his autobiography, that the responsibility of privileged people is not to shut up and deny/waste their privilege, but to take the voices of people without privilege into the places where they're prevented from going. As I said above, I believe MS was doing something like that, using her high visibility to speak out about racism and appropriation.

Gender and Race

The debate about who is most picked on between gender and ethnicity continues. I tell you the subordination of women and the subordination of the "other" happened concurrently probably with the onset of the idea of "empire" ... like with the Sumerians... and have been trapped in a double-bind since. Any liberation movements must then extricate themselves from this positive feedback loop.

Check

Stoler, Ann L. "Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th Century Colonical Cultures." American Ethnologist. 16. no. 4 (1989): 634-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/645114 (accessed 29 May 2011).

and

Anzuldua, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinster/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Wow, I really appreciate this

Wow, I really appreciate this post. I am also white, I have also had misgivings about slutwalk, so that informs my opinion and position of course, but thank you!

But you just said...

So you, as a white woman, are offended on behalf of black women? How gracious of you! Is that better than trying (perhaps hamfistedly) to find common ground with other oppressed groups? There are women of color who write for Bitch. Why aren't they weighing in? It sounds an awful lot like you made up your mind to be against this movement because you didn't like _the name_.

At the end of the day, someone referenced a song they thought relevant. It seems pretty evident that it was intended to be inclusive, not racist. Racial issues like this (mistakes, not overt offenses) should be discussed in a context that breeds understanding, not one that pits feminist against feminist.

I don't know why women of

I don't know why women of color haven't written about this here. I'm a guest blogger. I don't know any of the the other people who write here except for Kelsey, my editor. We don't consult with each other about who will write what. I certainly don't think I should be the last word on this here. Of course not.

And I'm afraid you read this wrong: I'm not offended on behalf of Black women. I am outraged with the many women who have expressed outrage about this. I linked a few of them in the post. I have to leave now, but I am happy to provide more links when I get home. My thinking about this was shaped by them.

And look: I'm a 31 year old white woman, and I'm too old and too queer for Slutwalk, myself. I was offended by the organization's pretense of speaking for all women from the beginning.

Finally, I don't buy into the argument that it's wrong for feminists to argue with each other. Sorry, Anonymous, whoever you are.

 

Just weighing in here...

...to back up Kristin in what she's already said. Her feelings about Slutwalk are informed by the writings of women of color (to whom she linked in the above post) but she is addressing this issue as a white woman, not "on behalf" of anyone.

Yes, we have women of color who write for Bitch, but that doesn't mean that Kristin can't address this issue from her perspective—she's not trying to speak for women of color, she's speaking only for herself. Disagreeing with her is fine, but I for one have a hard time thinking of a "racial issue" like calling a feminist of color a "n****r" as a mere "mistake." It strikes me as very much an "overt offense."

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Hi Kelsey, Thank you and

Hi Kelsey,

Thank you and some of your fellow white female friends - for being able to do something unique: the ability to "step into the shoes of another person" - and to empathise. Often times when the topic of race crops up, some of the comments white people make, clearly show that they have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA of the mental scars most black people carry around from the past and into today.

Regarding the use of the "N" word, for me as a black man, there is no more offensive word that can be uttered/used by a white person (if even said in jest). It has very deep emotional resonance to me, and I will be severely provoked to take action. I never use that word myself, and as a professional person, none of my black friends/associates use it either.

When I come across white people justifying their use of that word, my blood literally "boils" - and it puts me into a state of "Well, if you can't feel my pain, I sure as hell can't feel yours", and for a short period, (I regret to say), if a white person was to be (literally) in dying need of help - I would be stone cold and have no emotion, and totally ignore them. That's a dreadful state to be in (at the end of the day, we are all human) and I hate to feel no empathy for a fellow human being - but when (some) white people show no empathy or understanding of what we have been through - and continue to go through (to a much less extent now - thank God!), my "defence mechanism" "kicks in" as I try to deal with such displays of aloofness, arrogance and completely "rationaI" logic being displayed by the commenter. The way I deal with it is to completely "blank them out" [pun unintended] and characterize them as cold beings not worthy of empathising with, since they show no empathy themselves.

On this very comment board (I think), a few people have tried justifying the use of the'N' word (or played it down) . Given the sordid history and connotations of the word, and the role white people had to play in the stigma of that word, this crass insensitivity and arrogance in its most repugnant form. To use a metaphor - it's a bit like someone who's never been a boxing fight before, telling you (the receiver of blows) to "soldier on" and take the hard punches, because they don't really hurt.

On the other hand, when I read statements such as yours, it reminds me that (obviously) not every white person is blissfully aware of (or maybe uncaring of) the past, and not all white people think its quite acceptable to use the 'N' word and/or play down some of the remaining issues that may arise for non-whites living in a Eurocentric society.

Knowing that there are people like you around soothes my soul, and calms me down - so I quickly quieten down from my agitated, red mist "state" I described earlier. For that, I would like to thank you for being a considerate person who can imagine the shoe being on the other foot.

People like you restore my faith in humans. Keep spreading your message.

two more cents

It seems pretty evident that it was intended to be inclusive, not racist. Racial issues like this (mistakes, not overt offenses) should be discussed in a context that breeds understanding, not one that pits feminist against feminist.

First of all, I think "racIST ssues" would be a better descriptor of what happened, but these "issues" can be mistakes and offenses simultaneously. Unfortunately, the sign's intent was extremely misguided (as was John and Yoko's way back when), and, intention aside, that word HURTS WOMEN. You have to, HAVE TO, take into account the consequences more than the intent. I appreciate Kristin tying this issue to music and appropriation, I think it's definitely one way of fostering more understanding. I also believe that feminists challenging other feminists is necessary--not something we should be avoiding.

____________
Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

Honestly

My intuition tells me that women [even white women] have a "right" to say this thing that was said, and that people of color have just as much of a "right" to be offended by it.
But then my brain says this: Ask a black woman. She would know better than anyone if this was right or not. Are women the most widely oppressed group? I think most would say so. But yeah, n***** is the last word you want to try to claim the right to define, especially as a white person.. Yes, it's a powerful thing that John and Yoko said, and we all get it, and honestly it probably couldn't be said in another way, but that still doesn't make it right to be said. It would be so, so, so much more powerful if said by a black woman too. But I wouldn't be surprised if she wouldn't put it that way. Really, race and sex are probably different. But ask her. There is no way she can be wrong.

Thank you for your

Thank you for your understanding of why the 'N' word is a complete no-no. Especially when used by white people (purely because of history and the origins of the term).

Incidentally, I stumbled onto this website after following some links on "The Help". I have found this blog quite interesting!. I wouldn't actually go as far as calling myself a feminist (because it would be disingenuous of me to presume to know the issues facing women today), so all I can do is listen really, and maybe from time to time offer a guys point of view and check with you to see what you think - this is really the approach that white people should be taking about the whole racism issue, instead of (some white people) telling black what they should and should not be offended by etc.

I know that women are oppressed in most of the world - even more so in developing countries - and I (always being one to side with the underdog) have often wondered what (as a man), I can help with ..

Anyway I digress, this was just a quick message that it is good to know that there are white people out there who can reason (but equally importantly), empathise with issues that may not directly affect them - (such as use of deeply offensive racist epithets in this case).

As a young black female, I

As a young black female, I think the use of the n word outside of the black community should be stopped. These older white women don't have to deal with he shit I have to to get a job or even get into college. They don't have statistics piled up before them like I do. (not saying that women don't have challenges for set before them). If they don't have to deal with the heavy burdens of history, why can the claim it? Because they are rich, powerful, and white. They make the rules and we just have to follow.

I think it's do also to the image of black women.Black women are always seen as angry and stupid. Too loud to hear themselves, they don't know anything but shaking their head and snapping their fingers. Some of that is true. There is a nice sized portion of the Women of color who act like that. But those women aren't role models for me or should they be for anyone else. Because of these images no one wants to listen to us as equals. We should make the terms of names that have effected us and our ancestors. It's time to give some of the power and control to those who are oppress.
I'm not saying that the n word should be used by anyone(even thou I use it regularly). Black people need to sit down and consider what we want to do with it. Is it a reinvention of a word used for hate or a curse from the past?

I like this article and I love it that they aren't just crazy people out there.From what I was taught growing up and see today, too many white people turn their eyes to things like this. Racism doesn't happen in their world but it's a very real thing in mine. At least someone sees something.