John Lennon, Rick Perry and words that are not ours.

Here’s an odd thing. This week has seen a huge dust-up across the board concerning the fact that for many years, Governor/Presidential hopeful Rick Perry and his family leased a hunting camp named, improbably (or so I thought), “Niggerhead.” I have weighed in on the dust-up, here, there and everywhere; I talked to my son about it; I set my DVR to watch one of my favorite commenters on the American scene talk about it.

And I have just discovered — and I mean just discovered, like half an hour ago — that it never once crossed my mind to be horrified that my hero John Lennon employed the n-word as a rhetorical device in one of his better known songs.

“Woman is the nigger of the world,” he sang, “Yes she is… think about it.”

Well, as a young feminist, I did think about it — or, at least, I thought about the woman part. It never once, until this very evening, crossed my mind to think about the nigger part.

The reason this came up is because I learned (as so often, via Twitter) that there was an uproar at today’s New York City SlutWalk (to learn what in hell that is, click here) concerning a young white woman holding up this sign:

The minute I saw the picture in the context of the Twitter conversation, I also saw the problem of the song, the problem the appropriation of that word by a white man, and the problem of this young woman appropriating it more. But over at Racialious, I was frankly taken aback by this:

Now, my question is why did it take a Black woman organizer to ask her to take it down. What about ALL of the White women captured in this photograph. They didn’t find this sign offensive?

Taken aback because I could have very easily been one of the white women standing there, doing nothing. Even in the midst of the Week of Niggerhead, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have crossed my mind — in no small part because it never did before. Not until other people brought it up on Twitter.

Apparently, when confronted about the sign, the women involved doubled down and defended themselves/Lennon. I’m pretty sure that if I had been confronted about a failure to deal with the offending sign myself, I would have been horrified, apologized, and done whatever I could from that point forward. I’m trying very hard to just shut up and listen to people, and this seems like a really good case in which to do that. But someone would have had to confront me.

The greatest irony, to my mind, is that “SlutWalk” is, among other things, about reclaiming a word. Women are called sluts? We’re told that our slutty, whorish behavior is the reason that so many of us are raped? Well then, we will claw that word back from you and demand the right to live our lives in safety — because it’s not our clothes, and it’s not our sexual appetites, and it’s not anything about us that leads to rape.

Every woman has the right to do whatever she wants with “slut,” because all of us have been harmed by it. It’s our word, with our history embedded in the ugly sound it makes coming out of judgmental mouths — it’s our fears on dark streets, and our efforts to escape hands that know no boundaries, and our need to protect ourselves from the family we should be able to most rely on. It’s our word, and we will do with it what we want.

But “nigger” is not. It belongs to some of us, but it does not belong to me. It has 250 years of the whip in it, and the slaughter of children, and the destruction of families, and the constant assault on an entire people’s very  humanity. For a white woman to put that word to her own uses at a protest meant to reclaim a different word — well, now I see the really awful irony in that.

I don’t have a grand conclusion to draw, really. But there is this: There is less light between me and Rick Perry than I thought, and less than I would want. I think the best way to gain more light would be to sit down and listen some more.

16 Comments

  1. This is a grand conclusion.

    There was a lot to like about Lennon. But like everyone, sometimes he was tone deaf.

    Thank you; I agree 100%.

    • Well, and I think he was evolving. He came from a very real contempt for women, and here he was singing

      We make her paint her face and dance
      If she won’t be a slave, we say that she don’t love us
      If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man
      While putting her down, we pretend that she’s above us

      And this was a time in history when a lot of groovy white folks sort of thought that appropriating other people’s stories was a form of respect…. He was trying to shock the conscience, and I think he probably thought he was doing a good thing by using “nigger” as his weapon.

      I think he would have kept evolving — maybe had evolved, by the time of his death — enough to see the absolute wrongness in the lyric. But alas, we’ll never know. And we’re stuck with the song.

  2. As you put it, some words are not ours. Even though anyone who knew Lennon personally or know of his legacy know full well that he was no bigot. But the choice of wording was a poor one even in the context of the song. As I’d be more than positive that the young lady holding the sign and the rest of those standing around her aren’t racists in the slightest, but failed to realize the depraved weight that comes with the use of that word. As a Jew married to a Black woman, and thus have Black children I know all too well the damage that can come by the use of that word by the wrong people in any context.

    • KeithRichards

       /  November 15, 2011

      People need to stop putting Mr Lennon up on some pedestal. All those UK dudes were very comfortable referring to black as “Spades” back then. Some of them are on tape using the term when referring to the buzz caused by Jimi Hendrix’s arrival in England.

      Not a bigot…ok. Racially insensitive and tone deaf….sure, I know well meaning white people who fit this description all the time.

      • And that’s really the thing isn’t it. We all have a God-given right to be tone deaf, congenitally stupid, or just plain ignorant — but the minute people or circumstances make our ignorance plain (and we have a real obligation, I believe, to be on a constant hunt for our own ignorance), then we have the God-given duty to get the fuck over ourselves. I don’t think Lennon was a bigot. I think he was tone-deaf, and I really do believe he would have learned a thing or two about that song had been allowed to live a few more years. But we can’t know that — we can only know that he wrote a horribly stupid and insensitive thing, chalk it up to the fact that he, like all humans, had the capacity to be an idiot, and not repeat it..

  3. BJonthegrid

     /  October 7, 2011

    Emily, thank you for the reflection. Sadly this is nothing new. Original suffragettes used the Black Male getting the right to risk his life to vote as their reasoning for the white woman’s vote. Obviously, white woman should have gotten the right to vote before any minority male or female.

    Woman Rights groups have always piggy backed on any Civil Rights gains by minorities, yet when we hear about diversity and affirmative action, the white population mostly thinks of Blacks (not Asians or Hispanics) who are getting something they have not earned. Three years ago during the Democratic Primary Tina Fey said “Bitch is the New Black”. And now this photo.

    I’m a Black female, I have to deal with the female crap no matter what community I am in. Black men are no more enlightened than white men, actually I think they maybe worse. I consider myself a feminist like I consider myself a Christian; “I believe” but I don’t want to join any group because I have serious problems with those running those organizations.

    Woman’s Rights groups have been around since the 70’s and they are still prevalently white upper middle class pity parties. They fret over the number of woman CEOs, but they do almost nothing for most working woman, especially those who work low wage jobs. They justify their lack of diversity, yet use real minority issues as in the fashion of this picture.

    Black Woman are still Sojourner Truths still asking “Am I not a woman?”

    • Thank you so much for this. I think that feminism is the arena in which I am most called on to remember that one’s imagination must be sociological. Because I have never known any white feminists who behaved in this way, and I have never worried more (for instance) about female CEOs than about the female working class, etc, it can be easy for me to just not know what the hell feminists of color are talking about. But as my experience with one sign and one song showed last night, if I don’t know what they’re talking about, that’s probably a sign that I need to find out.

  4. dmf

     /  October 7, 2011

    for friday and for poetry where we belong to the words and not they to us:

    Romanesque Arches
    Inside the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.
    vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
    A few candle flames flickered.
    An angel with no face embraced me
    and whispered through my whole body:
    “Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
    Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
    You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
    Blind with tears
    I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
    together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,
    and inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.
    – Tomas Tranströmer

  5. For balance, the Nobel Peace prize goes to three women:
    “The 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award was split three ways between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee from the same African country and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — the first Arab woman to win the prize.”

    (source: http://www.pressherald.com/news/Nobel-Peace-Prize-goes-to-womens-rights-activists.html)

  6. stephen matlock

     /  October 9, 2011

    “I think the best way to gain more light would be to sit down and listen some more.”

    For me – this is so true that I don’t know how to explain it. But here’s a start for me:

    In my attempts to re-evaluate what I think and believe and value, I’ve re-examined many of my views, and have made the mental translation of “I used to believe X. Now I think the reasons for that belief were grounded in wrong starting points. So I will believe X * (-1)”; that is, simply the opposite of X.

    But that is not at all how it works. It’s not just taking cherished viewpoints and entrenched prejudices and believing the opposite. It’s going to the starting point, finding what the real moral values are, and then proceeding from there, not to an anti-stopping point, but to unknown stopping points.

    TNC’s blog yesterday about “‘Woman’ As Political Fiction” is what finally crystallized this for me. That I’m wrong-footed from the get-go.

    I think you know I’ve been attempting to re-think things. I’ve done some good stuff for me. But you and TNC on the same day make me realize more of how much more deeply I need to go to get to the right starting point.

    I think it best for me to just sit down and listen more. Lord knows I do enough talking.

  7. baiskeli

     /  October 12, 2011

    Thank you for writing this.

  8. m o o n marked

     /  October 19, 2011

    Each time you’ve posted a link to this comment over at TNC, I’ve wanted to ask you to listen (read) some of the writing on this over at the crunk feminist collective

    “Every woman has the right to do whatever she wants with “slut,” because all of us have been harmed by it. It’s our word, with our history embedded in the ugly sound it makes coming out of judgmental mouths — it’s our fears on dark streets, and our efforts to escape hands that know no boundaries, and our need to protect ourselves from the family we should be able to most rely on. It’s our word, and we will do with it what we want.”

    Slut is not a word that is deployed evenly among women–not as a specific word and not as a status. It is not “ours.” For certain women of color we are always already hypersexual and this way of being in the world renders useless the reclamation of the word “slut.” For the young women of color hanging out on a street corner in NYC who routinely get pulled in on charges of solicitation; for the sex workers of color in New Orleans who are disproportionately convicted of being sexual offenders when they are arrested for prostitution; for me, who has been told, no matter what I wear as a professional and from when I entered the workforce at 17 and as I sit here at 50, that I somehow seem always already sexual and both male and female staff assume that I am “willing.”

    There’s not so much choice for some us, is there?

    And this is not to say that reclaiming the word slut might not be useful for some women. I can stand and even march in solidarity with those for whom this is true–and even know that I may have to bear the unintended consequences of that solidarity.

    http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/i-saw-the-sign-but-did-we-really-need-a-sign-slutwalk-and-racism/

    • I’m not in the right headspace right now to reply to this, but I promise you – I will!

      • m o o n marked

         /  October 19, 2011

        I look forward to your thoughts.

        • Ok, here’s what I’m thinking here:

          When I say “It’s our word and we will do with it what we want,” I mean that literally. We each get to make our choices about it, because “slut” hurts all of us. Not in the same way, and not equally, because individual experiences and communal experiences vary widely, but it really does belong to all of us. The N word does not.

          Personally, I have no real attachment to the word “slut,” and I don’t honestly imagine it can be successfully “reclaimed.” I can’t imagine myself using it, outside of something like participating in a SlutWalk march, but then I’d just be throwing myself in with an existing movement, not choosing the word “slut,” per se. But my point was that women get to make that call for themselves, across the spectrum. If I happened to be advocating alongside someone for whom the word presented real difficulties (you, for instance, or, I don’t know, someone who found the word counter-productive) I would have no trouble excising it from my working vocabulary.

  9. m o o n marked

     /  October 22, 2011

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for sending your thoughts on.

    Privilege makes it harder to listen clearly and closely–it takes many attempts to hear things (just like when listening to unfamiliar music it takes multiple listens before one can sort out the what we’re hearing without mapping it to more familiar music and understanding the more nuanced differences and liking/not liking them AFTER understanding them). So I took some time to think this through–not neearly enough– and I will KEEP thinking about your response.

    I’m not sure that I agree with your critique of the sign holder that is centered on who/which community “owns” slurs. In part this is because I don’t think there is equivalence between nigger and slut–the gendered and racialized usage of the terms would have to be eliminated in order to make that so. But I am also ambivalent of this as a strategy because it does the same thing that the women holding the sign did in the first place–it centers the discussion on the legitimacy of universal womanhood rather than always looking for the specificity of our experiences to make sense of and inform our actions.

    So I remain curious as to what you mean when you say it’s “our word” and who “we” encompasses in your response. I’m not convinced that being called slut hurts “all of us” and adding on that it hurts “us” in different ways and unequally doesn’t soften the argument that the deployment and responses to the word slut is a shared, and therefore, universal experience. In fact, I clearly disagree.

    In my earlier comment I mentioned that some of us don’t need to be called a slut to be reminded that we could be appropriately dressed and ladylike; while privileged women swing between virgin/whore, women of African descent (and to a great extent other women of color and many men of color) are always already understood as whore, oversexed, sexually deviant, etc. There’s a reason they say you can’t rape a black woman: because we are always already willing and wanting to be sexual. And by they I mean the guys who rape, the police who do the questioning, and the friends who don’t even bother to ask what you were wearing because your SKIN is at fault no matter what you wear. So while the word slut to such a woman might be a reminder of that status as being seen as primarily a sexual being, it is so completely different than the key experience of folks who battle with virgin/whore as to be useless as a category of comparison. There is no equivalence here.

    When SlutWalk organizers continue to state that the experience of being called a slut is a universal experience, it highlights how those women make THEIR experiences the center and as all else is understood through this distorted frame, we are unable to get to a deeper understanding and analysis that might help us more strategically battle and shift rape culture.

    [Analogic: I love bread! Sorry that it affects you, but I’ll just keep serving it, because everyone loves bread and sometimes, I’ll even use hidden bread crumbs and not tell you, even though I know it affects you–and you might have to go to the emergency room. Stop asking me if there’s gluten in the food. I’m your friend, right? And you DO love bread, too, you just have a severe allergic reaction to it. Oh, sorry, I forgot AGAIN–because everyone loves bread! —from a true story of feminist solidarity]

    The other part of your comment that I’ve thought about is the idea that we can each decide to do with the word what we want; I’m interested how we create collective movements for change if at the same time we accept that while whole cohorts have a different response to the word slut, we assume and expect those that disagree with the dominant analysis to be acting as individuals rather than with concerted voices. It’s another way to keep the spotlight on the center (in this case, of a particular type of women with a certain type of privilege). As a friend said, “A problem with initiatives where one’s work is all about everyone defining for themselves what’s best is that, as feminist organizer Jo Freeman wrote, the only ones who ever actually benefit are the connected, the privileged, and the cunning. History bears out that, in a white supremacist society, those individuals are most assuredly white, and, in a women’s grouping, such are generally white women.”

    Did you have a chance to read the set of articles I linked to? The first one really discusses this in detail; when you said you were interested in listening, I thought that you might find useful the work of these articles, especially in the comments section. Among other things, crunktastic talks about decentering as a strategy for coalition building:

    “We have come to a point in feminist movement-building where we need to acknowledge that differing histories necessitate differing strategies. This is why I’m somewhat ambivalent about accusing my white sistren of being racist. If your history is one of having your sexuality regulated by the use of the term “slut” for disciplinary purposes, then SlutWalk is an effective answer.

    [T]his would force acknowledgement that the experience of womanhood being defended here–that of white women– is not universal, but is under attack and worthy of being defended, all the same. Perhaps, also, if white women could recognize SlutWalk as being rooted in white female experience, it would provide an opportunity for them to participate in coalition and solidarity with similar movements that are inclusive and reflective of the experiences of women of color.”

    I would be interested in your response to the crunk feminists. It really is good stuff. I’m actually not so much in agreement about he deployment of nigger that crunktastic advocates but I appreciate parts of her stance especially as she does not make neither black nor woman a universal, essentialist stance.And I don’t expect to hear from you in a day or two days or even a week–listening takes time and internalization of meaning. I’ll see you over at TNC.

    peace.

    http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/slutwalks-v-ho-strolls/