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.

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